By George Moore
SafeTees Pouch, Inc.
(Last in a Series)
Traditional green-grass golf is at a fork in the road.
It can cling to old ways and watch its popularity continue to drop. Or it can embrace new ways in the hope that the game rebounds and grows.
The major stakeholders in the golf industry are partly to blame for golf’s troubles, and the pain is compounded by the growing popularity of “golf entertainment” at venues such as Topgolf and Drive Shack.
Topgolf, in case you don’t know, is a place where patrons can hit golf balls at targets. But that’s almost incidental. More to the point, Topgolf is “your premier entertainment destination. And by entertainment destination, we’re talking about a place where you can come for birthday parties, bachelor or bachelorette parties, corporate events, date nights, or just a night out with friends, and everyone will have a great time.”
Topgolf and Friends
Some of the biggest stakeholders in the golf industry have taken a liking to golf entertainment.
- Callaway Golf has opened its checkbook repeatedly for Topgolf. As of January 2018, Callaway’s investment in Topgolf totaled $70.5 million.
- The PGA has at least two “strategic alliances” with Topgolf. One promotes job openings for golf industry professionals at Topgolf venues nationwide.
- The National Golf Foundation now considers golf entertainment to be a form of the game of golf. Thus, when calculating number of golf participants nationwide, the NGF came up with 33.5 million in 2018. The number for green-grass golf is about 24 million.
(When the NGF was asked about identifying golf entertainment as a form of golf, they cited basketball and the game of “Horse.” Playing “Horse” in the driveway, they say, “would still be considered participation in basketball.” That, of course, neatly skirts the point that “Horse” is nothing like 5-on-5 basketball, just as golf entertainment is nothing like green-grass golf.)
The Experts Say …
Golf entertainment is moving forward with the force of a 200-ton locomotive, and the people who track trends differ on its impact on green-grass golf.
Henry DeLozier, a principal at Global Golf Advisors, says he’s “bullish on the notion of golf entertainment.”
When asked about the impact of golf entertainment over the next 20 years, he said, “I expect that golf entertainment venues will generate and attract new golfers who migrate to green-grass golf courses while receiving some golfers who either want more golf or are aging out of existing golf facilities.”
DeLozier, a past president of the board of directors, National Golf Course Owners Association, said he has visited a number of Topgolf facilities (“too many to recall”), and “I have found them to be energetic, well-used and engaging for the patrons that I observed.”
He added, “Anecdotally, I observed some Topgolf participants talking about playing on a golf course now that they were getting oriented to golf.”
He says, “I view golf entertainment as an expansion of golf’s reach.”
Jim Koppenhaver, publisher of The Pellucid Perspective and president and founder of The Pellucid Corp., an industry research firm, is not as bullish, and in the July issue of The Pellucid Perspective, he takes stock of where golf stands vis a vis golf entertainment.
- Golf entertainment increases awareness of golf in general, and “that’s never bad thing.”
- The heightened awareness “likely generates more spectator interest (fans) than sport interest (players.)”
- Golf entertainment (Koppenhaver calls it “golfertainment”) venues such as Topgolf and Drive Shack “have no interest (economic or emotional) in suggesting that their visitors take up the sport of golf,” especially in light of the fact that they’re trying to build visitor loyalty in the golfertainment crowd.
- “In this current reality, golfertainment is likely more cannibalizing than contributing to growth in the sport of golf.” Some golfers, Koppenhaver says, are substituting Topgolf/Drive Shack visits for green grass rounds, and golfertainment isn’t creating enough new golfers or high enough frequencies to offset the drain.
Pat Jones, editor-at-large for Golf Course Industry, holds similar views, and he’s skeptical of the claim that Topgolf is an on-ramp for green-grass golf.
“Can anyone show me a study of how many Americans started playing real golf because they went to Topgolf first? In fact, just show me one … Well? We’re waaaiting.”
Jones also takes issue with the NGF lumping golf entertainment into GOLF, and he says, “Fundamentally, Topgolf is not golf. It’s an entertainment venue that’s more akin to a video game arcade than (and I’m just going to say it) REAL GOLF.
For Jones, “My version of golf still takes place on a large, gorgeous, unregulated playing field made of real grass. It involves exercise and fresh air. You can keep score or not. There are no bells ringing or electronic buzzers going off because someone hit a great fake electronic shot. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful and it is fun as hell even when you stink at it.”
Yes, Golf Is Hard, But …
Stuart Lindsay at Edgehill Golf Advisors and contributing editor for The Pellucid Perspective does a feet-on-the-ground analysis of where golf is and how it may survive in the age of golf entertainment.
He revisits the usual suspected barriers to golf – money, time and difficulty – and says the first two are “BS.” The $100,000-a-year income bracket is growing, and work schedules are more flexible than ever.
He sees greater validity to the third barrier to golf – difficulty. If you’re not good at golf, you’re not going to play as often, and Lindsay has some ideas.
How about free golf for people who sign up for golf clinics? Or how about free clinics for people who want to play the game?
Lindsay notes that the PGA of America has long suggested that its members “walk the range” giving playing tips as a way to develop a relationship with players that could lead to full lessons.
“Our challenge is how to get the people we attract easier access to good instruction,” Lindsay says.
Golf Problems, People Problems
Over the past several weeks, we’ve looked at our favorite game and fretted over the drop in rounds played and the closing of golf courses.
When you really think about it, the problems with golf, at their core, are the people problems of too much money, too much greed and too little thought.
An example: Golf has its First Tee program, which is intended to woo children and save golf. But the program charges kids (their parents) $50 or so for an introduction to the game. WHY?
And now along comes “golf entertainment,” which has recognized an opportunity and seized it.
Henry DeLozier, Jim Koppenhaver, Pat Jones and Stuart Lindsay all have a handle on reality, and it will take the combined efforts of a lot of smart and well-intentioned people such as them to save and grow the game in today’s culture.
Let’s hope it’s not too late.
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LET US HEAR FROM YOU: Nobody has all the answers. If you have a question or comment regarding anything golf-related, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Comment.” Our goal is to encourage a conversation about the world’s greatest game.