Golf 2.0

But, that’s all in the past, and we told you this story was about the future of golf.

Well, consider this: more than 51 percent of those 35,000 golfers per day — 7 million Topgolfers in all — had never before picked up a golf club. And, according to a 2018 report by the National Golf Foundation, 75 percent of those non-golfers said afterward that they were interested in playing traditional golf after visiting Topgolf.

In addition, 23 percent of golfers who have been playing fewer than three years stated that their initial golf experience came at a Topgolf facility, while 29 percent of veteran golfers said that visiting Topgolf inspired them to play more golf in the last year than they would have otherwise.

And, there’s evidence that impact is being felt. The same report canvassed traditional golf courses and clubs and determined that revenue had grown from $20.5 billion in 2000 — the year the Jolliffes opened their first driving range in Watford — to $34.4 billion in 2016, a nearly 60 percent increase. That’s what adding seven million golfers a year will do.

So, the question is, of course, how do they do it? After years of declining participation and revenue for the golf industry worldwide, how has Topgolf managed to get millions of people each year — it’s estimated that 15-18 million people will visit Topgolf in 2018, more than half of them millennials, and more than a third women — to make golf their leisure activity of choice?

Anderson says it started with what he calls the “unbundling” of golf.

“We’ve taken golf from a linear experience — for example, if you want to go play eighteen holes, you start at one, and go around until eighteen — and instead made it a parallel experience that you create yourself,” he says. “At Topgolf, you’re hitting balls, but you can decide to stop and take a selfie in the middle of it and post it to social media. You can watch a few minutes of the game on TV; you can get drinks or great food. You can be competitive with friends, or you can hang out and have a casual date, and be flirty. You really control the whole experience, and can take it any direction you like.”

Greg Silvers, the chief executive of EPR Properties, which has helped build Topgolf venues across the country, highlighted the challenges faced by traditional golf in a 2016 interview with The Financial Times: “There are three major inhibitors in golf: time commitment, skill and cost. Topgolf addresses all three. Topgolf has turned a golf activity into an entertainment activity.”

The technology, that was the Jolliffes. The vision to turn that technology into a full-service customer experience, that’s Grogan. But, that last part of Silvers’ quote above — the transition from Topgolf as an entertaining golf activity, to a golf-based social and entertainment activity? That’s all Anderson.

Anderson says he remembers when he and the other Topgolf executives began to realize how much more Topgolf could be than just a fun driving range.

“You never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, I went to Topgolf and hit balls by myself for an hour and had a glass of water.’ That wasn’t the Topgolf experience. Instead, people went with friends, buddies, workers, family, et cetera, and had a great time,” he recalls. “So, we coalesced around this mission of connecting people in meaningful ways, and then creating moments that matter for everyone. Really leaning in, that is, not just into our role as a service organization, or a hospitality organization, but as a creative organization that creates these moments for you.”

This, you see, is how they do it. This is the secret to crafting the “magic” that Anderson spoke of earlier, the magic that is growing the game at time when most industry observers say it should be declining instead. It’s not the games, the scoring targets, or all the advanced technology that keeps people coming back. It’s not the food (though, it’s an impressive slate), the drinks, or the hospitality of the servers. It’s not the Golf Channel shows, the simulators, the Toptracer branding or even the venues themselves. All of that is simply a means to an end.

It’s the moments — the individual moments that each guest creates from their own, unique Topgolf experience — that make a lasting impression. Guests don’t come back over and over again, pay $25-$45 an hour and wait as much as 90 minutes on a busy summer Saturday night because they just can’t wait to hit golf balls, or because they have to have more of those injectable donut holes. They come back because they want to feel something — that feeling they had when they shared a laugh with their friends, or were cheered on by co-workers as they took their first-ever swings, or shared a photo on Instagram of a date night out with a new love.

Think about why you love the game. It likely has nothing to do with your scores, or the physical act of swinging a golf club. It’s the moments — sharing a few hours with a great group of friends, soaking in the natural scenery of a beautiful Northwest golf course, the fleeting exhilaration you feel when you strike an iron pure, or drain a long putt.

When Anderson refers to “moments that matter,” it’s these kinds of moments that he’s talking about. And, as the data is already showing, it’s creating these kinds of moments — not just creating more golfers — that will ultimately save the game we love.

Anderson says that there are many ways the golf industry is already responding to its changing demographic, to an audience that is younger, more social, and consumes experiences in smaller bites. He cites the upcoming revisions to the Rules of Golf (see page 6) — designed to make golf faster, easier to understand and easier to play — along with apps that allow golfers to pay for as many holes as they intend to play (seven, 12, etc.) instead of being locked in to nine or 18, as ways in which the game is adapting to meet the needs of a 21st-century consumer.

“There’s always going to be green-grass golf, but Twitter has shown us that people like to consume things in little pieces,” he says. “And, while it may sound funny (to pay for just seven or 12 holes), that means that someone who might usually only play two 18-hole rounds a year, because they don’t have five- or six-hour chunks of time to spare, might instead go seven times and play 12 holes each time, for a total of 84 holes instead. And we, as golfers, don’t care if the person in front of us leaves after seven, or 12 holes. It just lets us play faster.

“I think golf will get much smarter, and we are,” he says. “We just need to allow people to consume the game in way that is more fun, and that fits their lifestyle.”

And Topgolf, he says, will play an important role in that transition.

“With 15 to 17 million visitors each year, we’re clearly becoming big part of helping build a complete golf ecosystem,” he says. “Since they are always hitting to a target, people are becoming better golfers, even if they are just hitting balls for fun. They’re getting more comfortable with the game, they’re creating communities of friends to enjoy it with — it all makes golf feel more accessible. And that’s very good for the game.”

That’s the macro-, global-level future; we also wanted to ask Anderson about the micro-, local future of golf generally, and Topgolf specifically. That is — with its top executive resting his head on the Eastside each night; a vibrant golf community; a strong economy; some of the world’s brightest minds in engineering, e-commerce and tech; and and an environment that seems perfectly suited for a covered driving range — how is it that the Seattle area doesn’t already have a Topgolf center?

“We’re very close,” Anderson says with a laugh, noting that he knew that question was coming. “I think we’ll have some exciting news soon.”

“And then, I won’t be able to fly under the radar anymore.”

Some pundits look towards the future of golf, and wonder what will happen when the Baby Boomers — who represent roughly a quarter of the current population, but more than 60 percent of total golfers — pass on. They’ve obviously never been to a Topgolf.

“I think that in 10 years’ time, we’ll be a global sports entertainment community,” Anderson says. “We should have well over 100 million people engaged with our community in various forms, which should help put tens of millions more golfers on green-grass courses. I would also expect us to have substantial charitable impacts, influencing young lives by teaching the values of the game, and through our partnerships with groups like The First Tee and the PGA TOUR.

“We’ve brought golfers and non-golfers together with this great game, and we’re teaching great lessons, and making a positive contribution,” he continues. “We are doing this all already, but we can do so much more. It’s going to be exciting to see.”

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