By Zack Hall
For The Bulletin
Golf will have to get inventive to attract new players to the game. At least, that is the consensus in the golf industry.
Spurred by slumping participation in recent years, golf courses across the country have been searching for fresh ideas — from FootGolf (a golf-soccer hybrid) to expanded hole sizes — in an effort to draw new players.
This year, though, Central Oregon may become known as the birthplace of a sport that could be as promising as any in luring new golfers: speedgolf played on GolfBoards.
Start with the premise of speedgolf, a niche game (with some Bend roots) that combines running and golf with the aim to shoot the lowest score possible in the shortest possible time. Then take a GolfBoard, a golf cart-skateboard hybrid, made by a Bend-based company, that allows golfers to zip around the course.
Finally, take two imaginative area golf clubs — Tetherow Golf Club in Bend and Aspen Lakes Golf Course in Sisters, two of the pioneers that have already adopted GolfBoards — to replace the running aspect of speedgolf with a joy ride on those GolfBoards.
Add it all together and you have a sport — call it speedgolfboarding — that is unique to the region. And one that particularly makes sense here in Central Oregon.
“It is an innovative approach,” says Rob Malone, director of golf at Aspen Lakes. “It is also keeping with the (active) culture of Central Oregon, with all the mountain biking, hiking, running, paddleboarding and kayaking.”
The sport effectively tees off later this month when Tetherow hosts the first-ever speedgolfboarding tournament.
On May 29, Tetherow will open its driving range (which converts to a par-3 course) for a demonstration event. Then on May 30, a maximum of 96 golfers will tee off in the GolfBoard Open, an 18-hole event with spots open to the public.
Champion surfer Laird Hamilton, a contributor to the design of GolfBoards, is expected to be on hand. And the event should have many of the trappings of a big-time tournament.
The winner will get his or her own GolfBoard.
“We are going to make it a really cool event,” says Chris van der Velde, the managing partner of Tetherow, who often welcomes outside-the-box golf ideas.
Both Aspen Lakes and Tetherow plan to host speedgolfboarding events during the golf season. Details had yet to be finalized for either course by deadline for this publication, but Tetherow plans to host a weekly league on Tuesday evenings and open the par-3 course to the sport one Monday each month. Aspen Lakes wants to set aside time in the evening or early mornings for speedgolfboarding and is also considering a more formal event.
Both courses see promise in the GolfBoards. For one, unlike golf carts, which generally are restricted to fairways and cart paths and are not allowed near the putting surface, the boards allow golfers to move directly to their ball and take players to the edge of the green.
The idea must be intriguing. GolfBoards have been among the most raved-about products the past two years at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida.
“It retains the general integrity of the game, while starting to eliminate the time constraints that stop a lot of people from playing regularly,” Malone says.
Van der Velde says that last year, rounds ticked up some 20 percent after Tetherow in August received its fleet of 30 GolfBoards, becoming the first golf club in the country to have a fleet.
“Bend is such an active community and our membership is so young and active,” van der Velde says. “I think we had four or five guys in their 70s that loved to ride them last year. It’s kind of fun. … It’s a really unique product.
“If you can introduce a product that makes it more fun for kids and you can play faster, it should increase your golf participation.”
Jeff Dowell, the president of GolfBoard Inc. who grew up in Bend, is hesitant to attribute all of Tetherow’s growth to his company’s product.
Still, there has been enough positive reaction in the past two years to believe that GolfBoards will increasingly be a fixture at golf courses here and elsewhere.
“I think we’re pretty darn confident that this is not a fad,” says Dowell. “This is a real thing and it has staying power. People want it.”
Seeing Aspen Lakes and Tetherow take the GolfBoards a step further by integrating GolfBoards into an actual game can only help, he adds.
In fact, he considers such on-course innovations “critical” to the future health of GolfBoards.
“I personally think it’s going to be wildly successful,” Dowell says. “We’ll see. If I knew that I could play 18 holes in an hour and 25 minutes in the evening I would play one day a week. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
The golf industry has specifically targeted three things that will improve the long-term health of the game: The sport must better appeal to a younger audience, it needs to become a more family-centric game, and it has to take less time to play.
The GolfBoard, van der Velde says, is one of the few innovations that can affect all three needs.
“You have to have creative ideas to make (golf) fly,” van der Velde says. “And I think this one of the fun ones.”