What Golf Can Learn From Online Dating

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A new app tries to eliminate the randomness of being grouped with strangers by making matches in advance based on age, skill level and other factors

By Brian Costa, May 13, 2016 7:26 p.m. ET

Imagine for a moment that a restaurant is trying to convince you to make a reservation for lunch. You’ll be in a lovely and relaxing setting, they tell you. You’ll meet regulars who can’t get enough of the place. But unless you bring three other people, there will be a twist.

You will most likely have to share a table with one or more total strangers. They may be compatible with you or they may be a complete mismatch. If they have more experience eating at restaurants, you may get humiliated. They may take five minutes to order or they may take five hours. Hey, you’ll find out when you get there!

This has long been one of golf’s weaker selling points: the randomness of the foursome. And it’s what makes a nascent mobile app potentially transformative.

GolfMatch, which has attracted around 30,000 members in a little more than a year, is introducing a concept that has long fueled the growth of online dating: It’s better to find suitable companions in advance than roll the dice with blind dates.

The app suggests playing partners based on criteria ranging from average score and age to what style of golf you prefer and even what type of industry you work in. If, for instance, you are in your 40s, shoot in the 80s and like to play for cash, you can find similar golfers to play with. If you’re a 20-something novice who would be put off by someone who hits every fairway and acts like it’s Sunday at the Masters, you can avoid that person.

Tee times can also be booked through the online booking service GolfNow, which is akin to Match.com partnering with OpenTable to combine finding a date with finding a dinner reservation.

“We don’t market ourselves as an online dating app, but the concept is the same,” said GolfMatch founder and chief executive Peter Kratsios. “It is a platonic golf connection.”

So far, the app has appealed more to people looking to play public courses than to members of private clubs, who account for just 10% of GolfMatch’s members. But it addresses an issue that is universal.

For most beginners, the only thing more embarrassing than shanking one shot after another is doing so in the company of someone who makes a hard game look easy. Likewise, novices can be a drag on serious golfers, who feel like they are taking their Ferrari out for a spin—only to get stuck behind an elderly couple in the right lane.

Kratsios, 27 years old and an avid golfer, said the idea for the app stemmed from a conversation he had in 2013 with two of his high school friends from Long Island. They were the epitome of the kinds of people the golf industry is trying to attract more of: millennials who aren’t yet hooked but are interested enough to try it.

“They asked me to find them guys our age who wanted to have a couple beers on the course and enjoy a round with beginners,” Kratsios said. “I’m like, ‘Guys, that’s not how it works. You have to go to the course and see who you get paired with.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, that’s stupid.’”

His friends ended up not playing, but Kratsios developed the first version of GolfMatch the following year. Within months, the company ran out of money, the chief technology officer left and the product was “terrible,” Kratsios said. But the concept remained promising. On a single night in December 2014, Kratsios said he raised half a million dollars from angel investors, which funded the relaunch of the app in April 2015.

The group of investors later grew to include Gary Hendrickson, the CEO of Valspar Corp. , and Bob McCarthy, the former chief operations officer of Marriott International Inc.

Now, GolfMatch has members in all 50 states and Canada. About 80% of them are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 75% are men. A forum in which members share photos and experiences from courses has a decidedly younger, informal feel, to the chagrin of some traditionalists.

Recently, a Tallahassee, Fla., man posted a lengthy rant bemoaning the sight of other members posting “endless selfies” from courses, men wearing jeans and women playing in yoga pants. “We are losing our traditions in America,” he wrote.

Within the app, members can join groups that allow them to cluster by skill level, gender, location and interests. The group names range from the specific (“Central New Jersey Golfers”) to the broad (“I Want to Be Rich”). But in golf, as in dating, not everyone is so particular about who they play with.

Steve Goodman, a 45-year-old freelance television director who lives in Manhattan, said he often uses GolfMatch to find people to play with on weekdays, when most people are at work. “I’m kind of just looking for anyone,” he said.

Write to Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com

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