By John Steinbreder, Global Golf Post/Biz
Grow the game.
Those words have been a mantra for much of golf during the past few decades, as well as a goal for people and institutions throughout the sport. The idea, of course, is to induce more individuals to tee it up, whether as rank beginners or returnees to a game they gave up long ago. And the push to do that has acquired an added sense of urgency post-COVID, as golf looks to get as many of the estimated 6.2 million newbies who flocked to the sport during the pandemic to keep playing now that mask mandates and lockdowns are mostly things of the past.
The big question, of course, is: how best to make that happen?
One of the more interesting and effective approaches is being taken by the Southern California Golf Association, which is the largest regional golf organization in the country. It comes in the form of an affiliate golf program that encourages people to organize clubs that do not have courses of their own but nonetheless play matches and stage events at facilities throughout the area. And the initiative is proving to be an effective way to fuel growth, especially in that enviable demographic of 20-to-45-year-olds – and in ways that SCGA officials believe is sustainable.
There is the Tropicana Golf Club and Barber Shop, and Babes Golf, which is devoted to making the game fun for women. Another group is the Westside Golf Collective, and 38-year-old founder Johny Pearson says it takes part of its name from a term that is popular in the cannabis industry because “we are members of equal standing in the same collective. No one is above anyone else.”
Another notable association is the Kahel Golf Club, which is based in Orange County and has a decidedly Filipino bent to it. Those connections no doubt explain the name, for “kahel” means orange in Filipino. And the 90-odd members describe themselves as being “Filipinos in OC.”
Evan Belfi, the SCGA’s director of membership development, is pleased with what the affiliate program is producing.
“The clubs are creating bridges that connect new golfers with experienced ones and bring more people into the game,” he said. “Club leaders often create their own golf ecosystem and run things in a way that reflects the vibe of their particular community as it gives members the chance to make new golf friends, learn the rules of the game, enjoy friendly competition and improve their games.”
When you do all that, Belfi said, you are much more likely to get people to stay in the game long-term. “And when clubs build and then market their brands as an outgrowth of those communities, that makes the bond between them all and the sense of belonging even stronger,” he added.
“It’s an incubator for golfer development, and a way we can turn casual players into avid ones,” said Belfi, whose organization is available to help golfers start affiliate clubs.
As for the growth of that program, he describes it as “explosive.”
“We now have more than 800 affiliate clubs, which represents a 25 percent increase over the past two years,” Belfi said. “And together, they have roughly 42,000 members, which is more than 20 percent of our total SCGA membership.”
As a rule, members of the affiliate clubs tend to be younger. They are active on social media, which is where games and events are most often organized, and entrepreneurial, with many developing their own brands and selling merchandise that feature logos they have created. Some clubs have even become influencers, striking deals with golf facilities to bring tournaments to their courses and also with equipment makers to play their clubs and balls – and touting in each case their experiences on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Jimmy Ruiz established the Tropicana Golf Club and Barber Shop in June 2020. Today, it boasts roughly 500 members, each of whom pays monthly dues of $13.99, and operates year-round, staging 13 events each month. Those competitions, which are paid for by participants on an à la carte basis, include a Monday night skins game under the lights at an 18-hole, par-3 course; a Tuesday evening gathering at a Toptracer facility; a Friday morning skins game at a local course; and finally, a Sunday morning round at a different layout each month.
“We also have mixers, dinners and nights out for club members, and birthday parties, too,” said Ruiz, 39. “And we have a year-round, match-play skins game. We are on Facebook all the time, and that is how everybody hooks up for their golf games.”
Ruiz said the golf club captures the same vibe as his community-based barber shop.
“Tropicana started as a barber shop in 2018, in Glendora, which is east of L.A. in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains,” he said. “I am not a barber. But I opened Tropicana because I did not like the place where I was getting my hair cut and wanted to do it right. No TVs. No loud music. Just a place where people from the community can get together and talk, and maybe have a beer. Today, we have three barbers and a full bar as well as a putting green. And you can get hot-towel shaves as well as haircuts.
“The golf club came out of that a couple of years later. It, too, is all about community as well as good times and good people. You join Tropicana as an individual, and the first time you play in an event, you meet three other guys, then three more the next time. Those acquaintances become friendships, and you build those relationships from there, having beers after golf and going out to dinner. The next thing you know, you are going to each other’s weddings.”
For Alex Andersen, the 34-year-old creator of Babes Golf, she wanted the club to be all about encouraging women to tee it up – and to feel comfortable around the game.
“I started playing golf six years ago when the person I was dating introduced me to the game,” she said. “But when we broke up, I realized suddenly that I did not have any friends who golfed. So I started organizing meet-ups for women at local ranges and then clinics and tournaments.”
Andersen went deeper after she was laid off from a marketing job during COVID-19 in 2020.
“I wanted to do this full-time,” she said. “So I reached out to the SCGA about starting an affiliate golf club. They appreciated anyone who wanted to bring more women into the game and helped me get started.”
“Now, I have three chapters of Babes Golf, two in Southern California and one in Arizona,” said Andersen, who carries a handicap index of 12.6. “All told, we have about 200 members, and we probably connect three or four times a month, whether for actual games of golf, range meet-ups or socials. All our events are all-women, though we do stage one co-ed tournament a year.
“I love doing this. I love connecting women and encouraging them to do things they never thought they would be able to do as they also make friends and get to spend time outdoors.”
As for the club’s appellation, Andersen says she uses the word “babe” to describe a person “who has positive intent and goes out of her way to lift people up as she focuses personal energy on what is good in the world.”
“Babes are women who support each other and make everyone feel welcome,” she added. “They also love golf and want to do what they can to help grow the game, especially among women.”
Like Andersen and Ruiz, Pearson’s club was born during the first months of COVID.
“We have 175 members now, and they come from all over Los Angeles,” he said. “We do weekly skins games and also organize golf trips and poker nights. As is the case with most affiliate clubs, we are not tied to one specific course or club. We use Slack a lot to communicate and have different chat rooms for tournaments and also just to set up games with other members on weekends or weekdays or see if someone needs a single to fill a foursome.”
As is the case with so many of these affiliate clubs, the Westside Golf Collective is prospering.
“Golfers like that sense of belonging to a community that we provide,” Pearson said. “We also give them places to play and people to play with.”
Clubs like these are also giving golf a great new growth engine.