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The Power Game

A new twist on an ancient game that is taking flight across the Atlantic could be a solution to some of the game’s barriers to entry

By: George Peper

My next door neighbor Gordon is a proud if somewhat outspoken Scotsman who, after a pint or three, is fond of reminding me of all the wonderful things that have been invented by his countrymen—from the microwave to marmalade, sulfuric acid to sociology, tubular steel to television, and penicillin to Peter Pan, not to mention whisky and golf.

Invariably I sit quietly until his list gets a bit thin—somewhere between the adhesive postage stamp and Dolly the cloned sheep—at which point I remind him that it was the Yanks who turned most of those inventions into financial success while the Scots stood by and gaped. That usually closes the conversation.

Recently, however, just as Gordon was revving up, he was challenged from another corner, by an Englishman. It seems those chaps from the south have been compiling a pretty fair list of their own, including the steam, combustion and jet engines, the submarine, the tank, the planet Uranus, the World Wide Web, polyester and linoleum, the law of gravity and the theory of evolution plus some really practical stuff: the rubber band, the lawn mower, the sandwich, the tin can, the light bulb, the corkscrew, the mouse trap, the seat belt, the toothbrush, and (not surprisingly) the steel-ribbed umbrella—to say nothing of rugby, toilet paper and Viagra!

And now a couple of Englishmen have really put it to the Scots—they have reinvented golf.  

Well, sort of. What former British Amateur champion and Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy and David Piggins have come up with is not so much a replacement for the royal and ancient game as a worthy facsimile.

Called Power Play Golf, it’s a game of nine holes, played with the same implements and under the same rules as golf, using the Stableford scoring system (four points for eagle, three for birdie, two for par, one for bogey) with half of one’s 18-hole handicap applied.

But there is one major twist: Each green has two hole locations—an easy one, marked by a white flag, and a difficult one, denoted by a black flag. On each tee competitors must choose which to shoot for. Those who go for the tougher pin—known as a Power Play—double their points if they make net birdie or better (six points for a birdie, eight for eagle, and in the unlikely event of a double eagle, 10 points).

Each player is entitled to three Power Plays among the first eight holes. On the 9th tee a player has the option of taking a bonus Power Play, but this tactic carries some risk: A score of net bogey or worse results in a deduction of two points. The highest nine-hole score wins.

The game can be contested at match play as well. The only wrinkle is that if both players’ scores on a given hole are the same but one took a Power Play, that player wins the hole.

Launched a year ago, Power Play has begun to catch on in Great Britain and Ireland, where more than 200 courses are staging events—a few of them actually are sticking two flags in their greens permanently. This year the game has begun to expand to Europe, South Africa and Japan. There is even a world ranking of Power Play golfers. (As of July, the Tiger Woods of Power Play was Ian Kemp, an 11-handicap from England.)

In the U.S., initial efforts have been aimed at an alliance with the First Tee program. That seems like a sound idea. For whether we like it or not, American golf in the 21st century remains an elitist game. The divide is no longer based on race or gender, but on wherewithal: time and money. Increasingly, those who have both play the game, while those who don’t, can’t. 

As a result, although the U.S. population has increased by 20 percent since 1990, golf participation numbers have not budged significantly in 20 years. In fact, they’re a bit down currently and with the economy struggling surely will sink lower. Moreover, baby boomers—the enormous generation of people born between 1946 and 1964—are aging into their 60s while at the same time the U.S. birthrate is at an all-time low. Know what that suggests? Golf is in danger of becoming once again what it was a century ago—an old man’s game.

Power Play may not be the answer, but it surely addresses the problems. It takes less time and costs less money than 18-hole golf. That should appeal to young adults and working parents, especially wives, who tend to try the game briefly before walking away from it. More importantly, Power Play is not Golf Lite: It adds some risk-and-reward, brio and bravado, and in-your-face fun—the kind of thing that appeals to kids. 

If the game’s leaders are wise, they’ll give Power Play a look and—as with those Scottish inventions—find a way to make it a success.

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