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How Instagrammers are putting a smartphone spin on the game

Then in his late forties, Pashley was guiding Pinehurst through an interesting time, striving to position the resort for the future without forsaking its rich past. Though the grounds were living history — no golf property in this country is more deeply steeped in lore — Pinehurst could ill-afford to remain trapped in amber. Pashley did his best to keep up on Instagram, and “Sugarloaf Social Club” rang vaguely familiar.

Now, as a refresher, he clicked on the account. The low-key aesthetic was to his liking. So was the hashtag #playorperish, which Gilley and Lewis had adopted as a slogan, borrowing a phrase from the early 20th-century architect Robert Hunter. Pashley could relate. If you truly loved the game, swinging a club was central to survival. He agreed to get together for a beer.

“So we all sit down and just like that we’re talking about Donald Ross and the nuances of design and the simple but crucial importance of just helping people have fun on the golf course,” Pashley says. “It was clear to me right away—these were young guys, from a different generation, but their golf souls were as aged as mine.”

Pinehurst had recently cut the ribbon on The Cradle, a rollicking par-3 course, and was getting set to unveil its updated No. 4 Course, renovated by the architect Gil Hanse. Pashley had a passing thought: Maybe he should hire the Sugarloaf guys to help with some rebranding. What sealed the deal for him was the moment, some days later, when Pashley checked on Instagram. Sugarloaf’s feed contained a photo of The Cradle and this observation: “It is quite possible that the hippest destination in golf today is one that is 123 years old.”

“They’d absolutely nailed it,” Pashley says. “They’d captured exactly what we were trying to do.”

Signed on as consultants, Gilley and Lewis dug through the Pinehurst archives. Among the fun facts they unearthed was that way back when, each of Pinehurst’s courses had been associated with a specific color. Since orange was the color historically linked to the No. 4 Course, there was no doubt what the shade of the new logo should be. That was the big picture. On the granular level, rebranding applied to such nitty-gritties as redesigned scorecards, tee markers, yardage stakes and rakes (all catnip for Instagrammers). It also extended to limited-edition merchandise releases, a page taken from Sugarloaf’s own practice of small-batch sales of hats, belts and other gear. Though he can’t precisely quantify the impact, Pashley calls the Sugarloaf collaboration “a big success.”

It’s probably fair to say that no rebranding campaign was ever going to make or break a place like Pinehurst. The same is true of Augusta National, which this past spring enlisted Sugarloaf to consult on branding and digital content at The Masters (Augusta being Augusta, this is not something Gilley and Lewis are at liberty to discuss). But for many smaller players in the golf industry, modern messaging can be all the difference.

Consider, for instance, Sweetens Cove GC, a bootstrapping nine-hole layout in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Sugarloaf guys were among the early celebrants of this winning design, which opened on a shoestring in a lonely location. So was Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg, who hailed Sweetens for its user-friendly entertainment value. What began as viral buzz has since given rise to a bustling business—an underdog transformed into a golf-world darling. According to Rob Collins, Sweetens’ co-owner and designer, “Without social media, we wouldn’t exist.”

Another of Sweetens’ boosters is Zac Blair. Twice in the past year, Blair has gathered some 60 friends and acquaintances at Sweetens for an event he calls The Ringer, an informal golf outing aimed at raising money and awareness for the Buck Club, the Utah course that Blair is trying to build. In a video of the inaugural Ringer, posted last fall on No Laying Up, the event has the air of good hit-and-giggle fun, with—natch!—hickory sticks given out as prizes.

That it also has the whiff of “Don’t you wish you’d been invited?” points to another gripe about the “neo-renaissance”: In bucking some of golf’s insular conventions, its practitioners have created their own exclusive culture. Maybe if you’re hip enough, they’ll let you in the club.

At Sugarloaf, Gilley and Lewis are sensitive to this. They know that there’s no upside in making someone feel that unless they’ve got a bucket hat and leather carry bag, they’re not cool enough to occupy a tee box, much less appear on your Instagram account. Their approach to golf is willfully inclusive: Come as you are, as long as you’re attuned to where you’re going.

In that sense, Gilley says, golf courses are like restaurants. “You can have a muni that’s like a food truck where you can wear flip-flops and get the best taco you’ve ever had,” he says. “But also there’s the fancier, white-tablecloth experience, and maybe there you should tuck in your shirt.”

Bottom line, he adds: “I want people to experience golf however they want to.”

* * * * *

A lot of the golf that Gilley and Lewis say that they’ve enjoyed the most hasn’t taken place on courses found on highfalutin rankings lists. They reside on a roster of “Hidden Gems,” which is posted, with a map, on the Sugarloaf website. Included on that list is The Schoolhouse Nine, a par-three course in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that charges $15 dollars for all-day weekday play (the price jumps to $25 on weekends). Designed by Mike McCartin, who started as a shaper for architect Tom Doak, the course sits beside a pub and, of all things, a pinball arcade, and has a wooden box for honor-system payments. Its pedigree comes through in its clever angles and its artful contours, among other design-geek traits.

On a recent dewy morning, some 90-minutes south of Washington D.C., Gilley and Lewis, who live a couple of hours apart, with Schoolhouse between them, pulled into the Schoolhouse parking lot and strolled to the first tee. Gilley, who is 30, is broad-shouldered with brown hair and a beard. Lewis, who is 35, has black hair, cafe-poet glasses and a Corey Pavin build. Both wore jeans and T-shirts, well within the strictures of the Schoolhouse dress code.

With a few waggles as a warm-up, they were off. A golden retriever was lolling by the first hole. A foursome of women was putting out on nine. Gilley and Lewis say that the greatest satisfaction of their work is when the virtual gives rise to the real. Now and then, they’ll drop a note on Instagram—hey, we’re headed out to play; please join us if you can. They also organize periodic outings where they get to meet their followers in the flesh. A down-the-road ambition both men harbor is to pull a Zac Blair and build their own course. The Sugarloaf Mountain site strikes them as a possibility (that course went under in 2012, a delayed victim of the economic downturn), but the logistics would be tricky. And anyway, they say, for now they’re more than happy to champion courses that everyone can play.

Moving briskly, Gilley and Lewis breezed through their Schoolhouse round in less than 40 minutes: lag putts and laughs, followed by an early lunch and lagers.

That evening, from home, Gilley hopped on Instagram and composed a post.

“Today at Schoolhouse Nine,” he wrote, alongside a montage of photos, “there were more ladies than gents, more pups than lefties and about an equal ratio of pinball machines to golf holes. There were purposeful wildflowers, long eyelashes surrounding the bunkers and an overqualified super who loves this place so much he came out of retirement just to care for it.”

By morning, he had nearly 1,000 “likes.”

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