You are a 12-year-old child of the 21st century. You’ve never known a life without Wi-Fi, let alone the 24/7 presence of the internet. The digital, on-demand world provides you with your social life and entertainment immediately and with minimal effort. Your primary source of amusement is video games that provide enveloping sensory experiences that flood the brain with powerful neurotransmitters.
Then, you are presented with the sport of golf. It is not virtual. It requires its players to get up and go to a golf course. Golf takes hours to play and offers potential for frustrations. It takes years and countless hours of work for a golfer to become competent, let alone excel. With an eight iron in your hand, those same neurotransmitters can be few and far between.
It’s little wonder golf has seen a significant decline in young players over the last 20 years. According to the National Golf Foundation, 2013 saw 400,000 fewer golfers coming to the game—with half of those staying away under the age of 30. Even though Covid-19 lockdowns and closings were a boon to a sport played in the open air, golf needs to find ways to engage young, digitally trained minds to survive.
has a plan. In 2016, the veteran junior golf coach and former professional player created DiscoverGolf—a youth-centric teaching program using principles of education, psychology, storytelling, and modern game design to teach golf skills without putting children through disciplined coaching or learning by rote.
“Kids just have more options today,” Franklin, 37, says. “Teaching with old methods is tone deaf, and we need to find a way to provide a spark for the game of golf and encourage emotional investment.”
DiscoverGolf’s new international HQ is Desert Mountain—the elite real estate community in the hill country of Scottsdale, Ariz. Amid the development’s seven golf courses (including six designed by
), the new Junior Sports Academy offers Franklin’s in-person lessons and hosts both online and in-person DiscoverGolf workshops for coaches from around the world.
“The real goal I have is to make golf education culturally relevant,” Franklin says. “It’s a coach by coach movement, and we currently have more than 180 DiscoverGolf facilities on five continents.”
The system uses fun, colorful games with names like King Putt, Fruit Pursuit, and Croctology that teach golf skills without pushing children straight onto courses. The games break down into age groups, including 4 to 7, 8-14 and “all ages.”
Franklin’s education at the University of Arizona introduced him to game design theories. After building those principles into the DiscoverGolf activities, it became clear its young students pick up more than just golf skills while they drive, chip, and putt.
“We live in a ‘gameful age’—a ludic age, using games to explore life,” Franklin says. “By using game design and storytelling, we can abstract the game of golf and teach life skills along the way.”
For example, DiscoverGolf Games explore such essential life and business principles as resource management, the handling of randomness, and the experience of fiero, a key game design concept. Franklin’s light, unthreatening games can introduce a young player to the sensations of risk and reward—gently teasing out risk aversion for a child once on the golf course.
“Fiero” is a buzzword for that unique feeling earned when we triumph over adversity. If a game fails to balance its challenges with the eventual fiero of victory, the experience might disappoint the player as too easy or offer so much frustration the player could quit. Golf leans into the frustration zone, so DiscoverGolf games keep it light.
“You risk exhausting a child if you push him or her into golf and teach via repetition,” Franklin adds. “That’s a mistake because you really don’t find repetition in golf. There’s constant randomness to manage. You have 14 clubs in the bag. You have the elements. You can hit any shot with any club at any time. A player never really does the same thing twice the exact same way on the golf course. We distill that experience down into our games.”
A given child matriculates through the DiscoverGolf games as the challenges become too easy, rather than hit age limits or forced graduation. The young player can head out to the driving range or the course to begin refining actual shot making skills with a foundation of abilities and philosophies refined by DiscoverGolf.
Introducing the system to the world took Franklin to 45 workshops around the world before setting up shop among the sun-drenched, million-dollar homes of Desert Mountain. As 2021 reopens the world, he’ll get back on the road to bring the system to new teaching spots, building on more than $175,000 in game sales through 2020.
While Franklin still enjoys teaching in the trenches at Desert Mountain, he knows there will come a time when he’ll need to step back into an executive role, allowing young instructors to work with the eager kids.
“There’s a time limit for that youthful exuberance of teaching children,” he says. “When that moment passes, you don’t want to be the 40-year-old guy trying to be cool for the kids. You can always be sure that those kids know when you’re no longer being genuine. There’s a saying in the game design world: ‘Never by cringy.’”