By Global Golf Post/Biz
Few golf-industry numbers in recent years have stunned observers quite as much as those from the National Golf Foundation indicating that more golfers in the United States are playing exclusively at off-course venues such as Topgolf and PopStroke (15.5 million in 2022) than those who tee it up only on actual courses (13.2 million).
In addition, figures for what the NGF describes as “total off-course engagement,” which also includes the 12.4 million in America who patronize both off- and on-course facilities, have “for the first time eclipsed those who play on the course.”
Just as surprising is the makeup of the people who are off-course only. According to the NGF, they are younger, with an average age of 31 versus 46 for on-course golfers, and also more diverse in terms of gender (40 percent female off-course only as opposed to 28 percent on-course) and ethnicity (40 percent non-white compared to 22 percent).
“This group is less bound by the traditional protocols of golf,” said Greg Bartoli, the former Wall Street executive who founded PopStroke. “They want to play the game but with music playing and with their own dress code. And they don’t want it to take as long as it does on a traditional course.”
Much of the growth in off-course golf can be attributed to the wild success of Topgolf, which boasted 85 venues globally at the end of 2022 and expects to keep adding 10 or 11 new facilities in the U.S. on an annual basis for the next several years. But it has been helped by the arrival of several entities to the space, from Puttery and X Golf to Dryvebox and Five Iron Golf. And the fact that players in this realm have surpassed those who are on-course exclusive is a big deal.
So is all the money pouring into that part of the game. TaylorMade Golf and Tiger Woods have joined Bartoli as co-owners of PopStroke, which provides upscale miniature golf at its outdoor venues as well as first-rate food and drink, while Rory McIlroy has backed a similar endeavor called Puttery with a reported investment of $10 million. Chicago-based Puttshack, which company officials describe as a “tech-infused mini-golf experience,” is said to have raised last year more than $210 million in growth capital. And through a partnership called EP Golf Ventures that it established with the private investment arm of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the PGA of America has put money into Dryvebox, which offers mobile simulators that can be trailed to and from events and outings.
Then, there is Callaway, which in 2021 not only closed an all-stock deal valued at more than $2.5 billion for the 86 percent of Topgolf it did not already own but also invested an additional $30 million in Five Iron Golf, which employs state-of-the-art golf simulators for everything from golf league play to individual instruction, practice and club fitting.
Even big-box retailers have become part of the trend, with PGA Tour Superstore beginning to create off-course experiences in its retail locations that include state-of-the-art hitting bays and high-top tables with barstools so golfers can get together to play, practice and just hang out.
Taken together, those developments demonstrate industry-wide optimism in the viability of off-course golf entertainment and also how it can benefit the on-course segment by introducing new people to the sport while also giving experienced golfers ways to enjoy the sport in their off-seasons or when they travel to urban areas.
“Decades ago, off-course golf pretty much consisted of driving ranges and miniature golf,” said Casey Alexander, managing director of equity research at Compass Point Research & Trading and a keen observer of the golf industry. “What we have now are much more sophisticated and entertaining ways for groups of people to get together around the game of golf, with music, food and drink and in ways that are less time consuming.
“Topgolf applied that approach to the old-school driving range concept, and then places like the Puttery did the same with miniature golf. The improved quality of golf-course simulators helped to grow the off-course segment, too, as did the use of technology such as Toptracer and TrackMan. Suddenly, the game was more fun, interesting and accessible to people who had previously shied away from it.”
Indeed, it was. Topgolf, for example, became a spot for date nights and birthday parties. Five Iron Golf developed into a venue for players who wanted to use their simulators to compete in national golf leagues or work on their games with PGA professionals. And PopStroke evolved into a place for families to get away for some fun as well as for corporations to entertain clients. Some places added games such as shuffleboard, pingpong, cornhole and foosball to keep customers entertained and installed plasma TVs throughout their facilities.
“It’s kind of crazy how much energy, money and momentum there is around these new golf concepts and the ways they are resonating with golfers and non-golfers alike,” said Chip Brewer, the president and CEO of Topgolf Callaway Brands.
And as different as the experiences that off-course facilities provide may be from traditional golf venues, these places nonetheless act as new entry points to the royal and ancient game.
“According to NGF data, 10 percent of all new golfers say they were introduced to the game by Topgolf,” Brewer said. “Golf is growing, and off-course golf is certainly a big part of that. And as it grows, it funnels more and more people into the game.
Alexander agrees. “You cannot put golf clubs in the hands of millions of people in a fun and entertaining format and not expect some of them to eventually say, ‘Hey, I want to give golf a try.’ This off-course element is an entirely new feeder system for the on-course version of the game, and a very effective one at that.”
Jared Solomon, the co-founder and CEO of Five Iron Golf, is among those in the business who is not enamored with the term “off-course golf,” even though he understands why so many describe it in that way.
“We consider ourselves a golf and entertainment company, and we think of what we and others in this space do as simply being golf,” he said. “And now, we have whole generations of people growing up with a completely different understanding of what golf is, with traditional golf being just one of the pieces that make up the game.”
What’s happening really is a big deal.