Golf-o-tainment and the Trip Upstream

 As seen in Golf Business September/October 2022 

By David Gould, Contributor, Golf Business:

It feels strange to say, but golf is everywhere you look these days. 

Thanks to Topgolf and Drive Shack and Popstroke and Puttery and X Golf and Toptracer Range, and indoor coaching centers like Golfinity or 5 Iron Golf, the game finally has a diverse and welcoming array of entry points.

People who have never swung a club now encounter a myriad of golf opportunities—technology-driven, but often involving beer and fries as further incentive to show up. Or maybe the hook is a menu of indoor games that mix golf with other challenges like darts or capture-the-flag. Then of course there are the performance stats, be it ball speed or clubface angle or carry distance, that spark in some folks an “I can do this” ambition.

If nothing else, “alternative golf” or “entertainment golf” has solved a demographic problem, reversing the golf-is-boring mindset of digital natives.  

“The expansion of golf tech and data, plus gamification, has broken through to a generation we thought we might never capture,” says Steve Harker, CEO of Touchstone Golf. “They’re ending up with clubs in their hands, taking a full swing and finding their way into the game.” 

Harker thinks it’s quite possible that the fun-and-games atmosphere found at alt-golf emporiums has influenced greengrass golf to move beyond its stickler mentality and go easy on the dos and don’ts.

With future waves of new tech emporiums on the way—powered in many cases by simulator magic—a question about behavior patterns and next steps in the journey keeps getting asked. Will a particular set of bread crumbs be most often followed by the non-golfer who wanders in, perhaps someday in the future to join a league and carry an official handicap? 

That answer is elusive, and some who work in entertainment-golf may not consider it important. But most industry people do. The National Golf Foundation, in collaboration with some of the prominent alt-golf entities, is studying it closely. For the NGF—which took heat years ago for including off-course play in its participation data—how these alternatives feed the greengrass version of the game is an intriguing and forward-looking question.

“Conversion from off-course to on-course play is a hot topic, as well it should be,” says Joe Beditz, the NGF’s president and CEO. “It’s something we’re learning more about, thanks to our team’s work and through the research efforts of companies in the space.” In some cases there is even a joint effort between NGF and client companies to gain quantitative knowledge of the movement patterns.

“This information will soon become much more known,” Beditz promises. “The entry points and how they do or don’t predict on-course participation are coming into view. A comprehensive study NGF is currently undertaking, with industry partners, will shed a lot of light on this.”

It’s all happening at a point in time when off-course club swinging is set to surpass the on-course equivalent. NGF statistics currently show 36 million golfers in the U.S., broken into three subsets roughly equal in size. There are 12 million who play only on golf courses, 12 million who only play off-course (including outdoor ranges) and 12 million, in the middle, who do both. “It will be this year or next, when off-course-only surpasses on-course-only,” Beditz predicts. 

What might help matters now is a map or a flow chart that locates the different participant types and explores what their entry—or re-entry—into golf is all about—also which twists and turns they take along the participation pathways. 

The search naturally begins with anecdotal evidence, which gives rise to educated speculation. For example, will the putting-based venues such as Pop-stroke and Puttery emerge as least intimidating and therefore easiest to enter? That said, might they be so fun-based that they don’t get the juices flowing and successfully graduate users to a full-swing alt-golf experience?

For the owners and operators of 18-hole golf courses, it’s a matter of checking to see whether the salmon swim upstream. Translation: John Doe is taking his licks in the simulator bay at a sports bar, then a week later he’s at Drive Shack or Topgolf; from there he heads to a Toptracer Range venue, then on to a regulation round playing the forward tees at a daily fee course. Why not?

Sound business planning in every corner of the industry depends on developing theories, testing them and acting decisively based on what the numbers reveal. By its nature, alt-golf technology gathers data prodigiously, although interpretation can be tricky. Think about the affluent golfer who plays private golf in a region with snowy winters. His club buys a simulator and this member drops by a few times a week during the off-season to play sim golf and order something to eat. Is he part of the addressable market for an entrepreneur who’s building an indoor golf pub halfway between the country club and the member’s own house? 

Quite possibly not, despite appearances. It could well be that interest in sim golf on this consumer’s part confines itself to the experience of playing his own club’s course on the simulator at that very club. “That’s pretty common with private clubs that buy our product,” says Eric Sury, a marketing manager with aboutGolf. “The menu of all the famous courses is part of the package they buy, but the first thing they ask is,
‘How can we get our own course on there?’” These golfers represent a marginal piece of the indoor golf market—if their own private clubs sold off their simulators, they may very well quit playing sim golf entirely.

The term “entertainment golf” is highly useful, but not to the point where we fail to see distinctions within it. Between those whose field is indoor alt-golf and those on the outdoor (or semi-outdoor) side of alt-golf, some rivalry can be detected. According to Sury, the two experiences are more different than you might think. 

“You can’t play an actual golf hole at Topgolf or Drive Shack, much less an iconic hole at a place like St. Andrews or Pebble Beach. You’re not chipping and you’re not putting,” he says. “You’ve basically got a full-swing, target-hitting challenge, and that’s it.” Ah, but in a sim bay, some would counter-argue, golfers have dealt with a chipping and putting simulation not on par with the full-swing experience. Underlying these casual debates is the question of which experience carries the salmon upstream more effectively.

Options for enjoying time on an aboutGolf simulator include a darts-style game, a beer pong game and various other amusements, Sury is pleased to point out. To those who would call this a trivialization of golf, he would say it’s a natural stop on the way to outdoor golf on a regulation course where the game is Skins, Wolf, a scramble or straight nassau. 

Could a “transition”-oriented game be developed and added to the aboutGolf menu, one that was all about teaching basic golf safety and on-course etiquette to users who are skittish about playing traditional golf? To Sury’s knowledge it isn’t something the company has ever worked on, but he sees no reason why such an item couldn’t be added, so as to ease alt-golfers onto the grass fairways. 

You might imagine that golf course architecture occupies an industry niche at a distant remove from alternative-golf in its many digital forms. That’s not the case, if the architect in question is Agustin Pizá. The San Diego-based Pizá is so committed to the benefits of virtual reality as a golf experience that he has been convincing all new clients to include a VR program in the business plan for their incipient course projects. 

“It’s an added cost, but the return is undeniable,” says Pizá. “Picture a prospective charter member receiving their introductory mailing with VR goggles included. They put on the goggles and they immediately see a complete, vivid true-to-life presentation of the course, even though it hasn’t begun construction yet.”

Pizá is connected to the indoor entertainment golf sector via NextLinks, an ambitious alt-golf concept based on standalone indoor arenas that attempt to deliver something akin to a golf theme park. His contribution has helped design a simulation bay in which the golfer, once nearing the green, turns 180 degrees and plays the little shots on a separate play space equipped with a new technology all its own. Asked whether this gives sim golf a decisive advantage over what Topgolf or Drive Shack offers, Pizá doesn’t take the bait. He likens the world of alt-golf and greengrass golf to a major highway that continually gets lanes added to it. “We all run parallel, and we’ll all prosper together,” he says optimistically.

The motivation that spawned the Pizá collaboration with NextLinks also spurred sim giant GolfZon to push the technology envelope. The company’s founder and CEO, Tommy Limm, would hold up Golfzon’s chipping and putting solution with anything out there, whether built or in development, noting that Golfzon’s version involves no modifications or add-ons to the standard hitting bay. 

Golfzon also hosts two professional virtual golf tournaments (GTOUR and WGTOUR) with a total prize purse of more than $2.7 million.

To validate Limm’s claims, you need only look at the two professional tournaments online, with their combined purse of $2.7 million. These are totally sim-world events and require the competitors to post entry fees. “At their level, the difference in scoring usually comes down to performance from within 30 or 40 yards of the hole,” Limm asserts. “If Golfzon technology wasn’t true to greengrass course conditions, the pros wouldn’t pay to compete in these virtual tournaments.”

The more software that gets developed, the more alluring alt-golf becomes. Then there’s the 400-year-old idea that golf’s heart-
trending, strategically mystifying outdoor landscapes create their own obsessions for a paying customer. Few organizations within golf would have more reason for curiosity on this topic than DriveShack, which includes the American Golf management firm as well as the flagstick-only, fun-and-beverages concept known as Puttery. The natural question for this organization is all about crossover: What does the movement look like from Puttery visits to DriveShack patronage to a tee time at championship courses within the American Golf-managed portfolio?

Topgolf is in a similar position, owned now by a legacy enterprise—Callaway Golf—whose fate is inextricably tied to old-school, 125-acre fields of play. Shaun Hansen, regional sales director of Toptracer Range, is a Brit who shows his traditional-golf DNA with every utterance and ties those sentiments directly to the Callaway mindset. He is pleased to put his company’s big-picture game-growing efforts at or near the top of the pile.

“If someone in the off-course golf sector wants to say Topgolf is entertainment, more than a strict version of the sport, and that simulation is closer to the real thing, that’s their prerogative,” says Hansen. “We feel our organization covers it all. We bring people in, and then, internally, we have a ‘bays to fairways’ imperative. Toptracer Range itself, along with things like our new partnership with Foresight—which is an obvious leader in the science of golf performance—is a clear sign of that.”

As Hansen describes it, Toptracer Range is a platform that engages people as they get more serious about the game. It’s also a business builder. “Toptracer Range has proven its ability to provide outdoor-golf practice facilities with a 25 percent lift in their revenues, for 90-plus percent of those who invest in what we provide,” he contends. “That’s due to the product itself, along with the technical and business support we provide, and all the more so because people coming to the practice range want to learn to hit golf shots, not just hit balls.” 

The migration rate from Topgolf-only participation to golf on a traditional course is about 20 percent, according to his company’s research. Along the way, at least some of these developing golfers will practice using Toptracer Range. Is there concern that getting onto a greengrass course, or getting hooked on Toptracer Range sessions, will cause people to turn their backs on Topgolf? Hansen says there isn’t. And logically, with Callaway Golf as the parent, a more-the-merrier attitude would make sense. In Callaway ball sales alone, the move by that 20 percent to a golf course is clearly positive for the organization as a whole.

“Losing Topgolfers to Toptracer or to on-course play isn’t a concern,” Hansen asserts, citing a new partnership with Troon that’s all about accelerating crossover to regulation golf. “It’s all good for business and it’s all good for the growth of the game.”

Back at NGF headquarters, the fast pace of alt-golf development has changed the statistical paradigm. Years ago the NGF identified a “leaky bucket” phenomenon, showing how much trial the sport enjoyed but, on the down side, how often those who tried old-fashioned golf walked away in frustration. Now the bucket and the leakage image might not apply. A non-golfer can jump in, swing a club at a ball and do it in environs that make things fun enough to keep them in, stage by stage, over a long haul.

“We’ve studied latent demand for a long time,” says the NGF’s Beditz. “That was people on the outside who wanted in, and there has been a pretty massive number of those wannabes.” Oddly enough, the size of that population may shrink in the future, he theorizes, because of all the entry points. “If that’s our problem, that the number of people on the sidelines has gone down, thanks to all the ways you can now take up golf,” Beditz says, “it will be ironic, but at the same time it will be a great step forward for our game and our industry.”

This article was featured in the September/October edition of Golf Business magazine.