By David Gould, Contributor, Golf Business
The more people talk about golf’s current spike in participation, the more it pains them to recall the “Tiger boom” of the 1990s—the one that never got traction. “What’s the difference,” industry veteran Cathy Harbin recently asked, “between 1997, when we had a lot of people who entered the game and didn’t stay, and what is happening now, with all the stickiness we’re seeing?”
Harbin, a Texas course owner and incoming NGCOA president, posed that question on stage in July at the MCOR23 gathering in Monterey, Calif. Responding to it initially was fellow panel member David Pillsbury, CEO of the multi-course operating company Invited.
“It’s a structural change to the golf ecosystem,” was Pillsbury’s take. “What’s new is alternative golf access, where there’s virtually no friction” along the journey from initial interest to swinging a club and striking a shot. His statement brings to mind a comment by the former PGA Tour winner turned golf instructor David Ogrin. Addressing an educational gathering of golf professionals in Dallas in 2018, Ogrin spoke about his three-year stint as national director of instruction for Topgolf.
“Never once,” Ogrin said, “did I see a customer leaving Topgolf moaning about how poorly they played or even with a look of frustration on their face.”
The “structural change” this experience represents to Pillsbury is here to stay, as he so bluntly states: “Golf’s new, no-friction point of entry is fundamental, it’s systemic and it’s permanent.” Not only that, he and others believe, it can and does naturally extend to the game’s greengrass version.
That is partly thanks to simulators and other digital gadgets installed at courses, and partly due to an attitude shift toward the newbies of today – many of whom are “graduates” of Topgolf and/or the off-course simulator studios. They generally receive a warm welcome from staff members at the courses they decide to patronize.
That shift in new-customer treatment should never be underestimated, but since every industry relies on a combination of service and product, regulation golf facilities have to cover the product side, as well. To the new (and perhaps returning) population of club-swinging customers, “going greengrass” should feel, if possible, like moving from the shallow end of the swimming pool to the deep end. Your feet won’t touch bottom and people might be doing flips off the diving board — but otherwise the environment is similar.
And that means the product must have a high playability quotient. One factor that turned the Tiger boom into a bust was surely excessive difficulty from tee to green. Perhaps because of the PGA Tour’s influence, or the proliferation of greatest-courses rankings, golfers had come to associate high quality with high Slope ratings—thus the lengthening of holes, deepening of bunkers and over-contouring of the greens. All those courses designed simply to sell real estate didn’t help, either. But the pendulum did swing back — thankfully — to a scenario in which golf is still a hard game but the half-decent player needn’t worry about losing 10 balls every round.
That architectural pivot, and related concepts such as tee-it-forward, combined with the increasingly cordial treatment to reassure newer players. The importance of reducing intimidation and embarrassment — once a blind spot — came to be well understood. Program design also has helped build comfort. Instead of using new-player clinics to try to quickly transform the novice into a fee-paying regular, executives like Steve Mays, president of Founders Group in Myrtle Beach, have looked for shrewd ways “to postpone the beginner’s opportunity to go out and play an 18-hole round, given the embarrassment and frustration involved,” as Mays states it.
According to that thinking, you first get a new player into the basic start-up program, then graduate them to the next program, then move them along to the one after that. (Of course, your golf facility needs to have installed and staffed all that programming, which is more difficult than some might imagine.)
The most comprehensive version of this philosophy is Operation36, which goes beyond intimidation-prevention to a scenario of instant success, then further success, all based on how close to (or far from) the hole your newbie is positioned prior to playing their first stroke. Meanwhile, Op36 is a deeply researched, fine-tuned program with a vast trove of data backing up its architecture and its professional training. The company’s acquisition by Golf Genius has merged Op36 with one of the industry’s most digitally sophisticated enterprises. The natural result is a golfer who is “gamified” from the very beginning and, as they roll on, can plug their performance journey into on-range, on-course and in-the-sim experiences of all kinds.
The type of setting truly doesn’t matter for these players, who are tracked, logged and informed of their progress basically every step of the way.
Any greengrass course operator listening to the MCOR panel discussion would have been intrigued to hear Alex Goodman, a Toptracer executive, talk about alternative golf and traditional golf as comrades-in-arms. In the early days, Topgolf and the traditional courses “didn’t want anything to do with each other,” said Goodman, Toptracer’s senior director for the North America region,” whereas nowadays the two “couldn’t be any more intertwined.” He even speaks of avoiding the term “entertainment golf” because it “creates a perception [of] mostly non-golfers” taking part. That’s not, he stresses, what the Toptracer unit within Topgolf Callaway wants to do. Nor should they, one might argue, given the value of greengrass range installations to the Toptracer Range product line.
In fact, the progression from Topgolf evenings with family and friends to the green acres of a traditional golf facility, in the eyes of Topgolf-Callaway-Toptracer people, can very well begin and end with ball-hitting on the range and short-game areas. “They may never put a peg in the ground” of the actual course, Goodman says, “as long as they’re on that property and they’re active customers of the course operator.” Logic — and most likely data, as well — would indicate that making the “crossover” greatly increases a consumer’s likelihood of purchasing a Callaway club, an Odyssey putter or anything else in the company’s catalogue of hardgoods and softgoods. For the course owner, according to Goodman, it’s a simple matter of “time on-property” being a good thing. “They’re here and they’re spending money.”
In political circles, it’s often said that “every U.S. Senator looks in the mirror and sees a potential president.” Relating that to people who’ve never played nine or 18 but who enjoy alternative golf, can it be said that many (if not most) of them dream of being out there on the turfgrass, with the sun on their backs and the breeze in their faces?
In response to that question, two words come to mind: “Improvement” and “Aspiration.” From Goodman’s perspective, the data on the simulators or on a TrackMan or Toptracer screen will prompt an alternative-golf player to start wondering, how-good-could-I-be? And that’s one of the first arrows pointing them toward the deep end of the swimming pool. He maintains that “trying to hit the ball better” is a universal aspiration that stretches across every group and sub-group in golf. It meshes with the desire to be out in nature experiencing bunker sand, flying divots and perhaps the sight of a hawk or a heron in flight.
More than one of the panelists, based on their time spent in Asia, believes the U.S. will come to resemble South Korea, in the sense of having devoted alternative golfers who, in fact, do not cross over or else take many long years to do so. But that likely won’t be a bad thing, given that there is already a great number of Americans who hit balls at practice ranges and never play golf. The money these people spend still goes to support the industry. Brett Campbell, executive chairman of simulator manufacturer aboutGolf, thinks U.S. golfers of the future will, for the most part, “accept indoor golf as part of their journey,” but just that, one part. Again, the common thread is wanting to improve — it’s no less relevant to sim-swinging than it is to traditional golf.
Here’s something a golf course owner could logically and rightfully say to the designers, manufacturers and purveyors of digital golf: Build a piece of analytics — comprehensive, accurate and perhaps even based on artificial intelligence — that tells people what kind of outdoor performance their indoor patterns translate to, then have the software recommend a local course that particularly fits what the data reveal about their skills and tendencies.
It isn’t hard to picture this tool in action. Algorithms process all the swings and all the many traits such as face angle, path, low point, swing speed and so forth, to produce a basic calculation. Mixed in are characteristics like the practice games Golfer X dials up on their simulator, and how prudently (or imprudently) they select clubs and decide where to aim. Up to now, it’s certainly been true that Joe Off-Course Golfer could “play” a famous course and record a score, but that’s on flat ground with no wind or any of the other distractions encountered outdoors. Next-gen simulators are already building in features that emulate different surfaces including fairway, first cut, rough, bunkers and uneven lies, which will help with the transition from inside to outside.
The software program might even have a psychological component. It would, if reliable, cover all the ancillary characteristics most people would need to “cross over” confidently. These analytics would match a player with a course, all the way down to which set of tees would be most suitable.
Another service the digital-golf world could readily (and productively) provide to course operators is geo-based information about indoor clubfitting sessions with customers who play sim-golf but haven’t played outdoors. Let’s figure that, for now, this happens quite infrequently, but over time it would become more common. There’s almost zero chance that someone who gets professionally fit and buys even a partial set of clubs isn’t leaning toward regulation play.
One very likely accelerator of golf participation in the coming era is really an old accelerator made new. That is parents introducing their young kids to golf, and guiding them along as these sons and daughters become significantly engaged and significantly skilled. It’s always been a driver of participation, but kids have to stand still for long periods to learn a golf swing. Technology can persuade them to do so—in fact it’s been long lamented that digital tech subverts a child’s natural urge to be in motion. In this case, 6,000-yard walks along fairways will become a natural result of learning — via sims and software—a golf swing that yields low scores.
Indoor / alternative golf has become so dynamic and so diverse — and its buildout has been so robust — that golf industry people who are planning long-range can include its catalytic power in their future business models without hesitation. That’s what “fundamental, systemic and permanent,” to again quote Pillsbury, means to someone working on a pro forma spreadsheet. One wild card for people on the greengrass side involves availability and course inventory. It’s uncertain how that might increase, stay the same indefinitely or perhaps continue decreasing.
In the present environment, someone with capital to invest in construction of a new golf course would have to be highly tempted to invest it in alternative golf instead. Again, that condition could change as we roll through the 2020s into the 2030s. Indeed, if it were to, a likely contributing factor would be the golfer-creating machinery that is called — for now at least — “alternative golf.”