The Posts

Think Transformation

Posted By on Nov 13, 2018

The 2018 Golf Business TechCon recently wrapped up, and naturally my mind is on the future of the industry. At the event, we had an evening of fun at Las Vegas Topgolf. It was a typical Thursday night, and the place was jam-packed. NGCOA member Debbie Jeffries, owner of RiverRidge Golf Complex in Eugene, Oregon, shared an interesting observation with me about the patrons at Topgolf. She noticed all the “golfers” playing in the bays were deeply engaged in the metrics and data being captured, such as swing speed, ball flight, distance to the targets, etc.; while the “non-golfers” couldn’t care less about that info, and were just having fun swinging hard at an inanimate object. But, both crowds were imbibing, eating and spending money just the same.

At the Las Vegas Topgolf with Mike Zisman, CEO of Golf Genius Software.

Pivoting back to our conference, we had many technology companies in attendance, offering their expertise and services with the aim of helping course owners solve problems and unlock opportunities. In most cases, their solutions promise to improve operations in many ways, small and large. But “large” is a relative concept when thinking about change and improvement. To one operator, a large improvement could simply be having easier software to work with. To another, large could mean unlocking $80,000 in net income through dynamic pricing technology.

But, when I think “large,” I’m thinking transformative. I think most small businesses would appreciate finding new net income in the margins and tweaking of operations and strategy — $10K here or $5K there. But what would it take for the $1.2M revenue facility to realize $1.8M? Or the $2.5M facility to realize $3.4M? We are an industry that’s just hanging on to 23M customers and one that is continually beat up by weather, all the while Topgolf reigns as the darling of the golf industry. Let’s connect the dots, folks!

Some may call me obsessed with the concept, but I believe the key to transformation will be to create the golf course that is open for business under the sun or the moon, and when the weather is fantastic or terrible. I believe the golf course of the future will be indoor and outdoor, if only we can find ways to embrace virtual reality and gamification of golf, which includes simulators (like GOLFZON) and other high-tech concepts (like NextLinks and Toptracer Range). A business case has to be made more clearly for the value of installing multiple simulators at a typical golf course and the ongoing costs must be presented in a way to lower the risks borne by a typical course. The business plan for revenue must be simple to apply. We must find a way to make this ubiquitous among the existing 14,000+ golf facilities around the United States. If we don’t, mark my words, we will see it pop up in retail and other non-golf locations all across the nation. If that happens, we will have lost the opportunity to be the center of gravity for this transformation. And no, we shouldn’t wait around to see how many “Topgolfers” will migrate to the green grass.

In 2001, with the introduction of the iPod and iTunes, I’m sure many people looked at Steve Jobs and thought, “What the hell are you doing getting into the music business?” But had Apple not sought transformation, they might have disappeared into oblivion long ago. I like the looks of the golf course of the future.

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THIS is what golf is about for me. Playing and smiling with my son. Away from his iPad. Teaching him about etiquette and respect.

The Charleston Post & Courier recently ran an article about issues in the golf industry, and the role NGCOA plays in telling the story of golf, especially to our friends in Washington. Shortly after the article appeared online, someone Tweeted a reply that golf should do a better job telling our story. I couldn’t disagree. But then again, who is “golf” in this context?

When speaking to the press or those outside of golf about the issues we face in the industry and the opportunities we have to grow the sport, I often use this same comparison. When describing the range of experiences we have in golf, I like to say how golf is like dining out at restaurants. If someone asked you, “Tell me about eating out? What’s it like?” It would be hard to pigeonhole the dining out experience with one, quick description. Likely, you would reply with something like, “Well, what are you in the mood for? What do you want?”

You can really get just about anything at a restaurant. Do you want a casual, greasy spoon or a white-glove, fine-dining experience? Fast food or attentive service? Family-style and boisterous or intimate and quiet? As you can see, the “image” of dining out is polychromatic, and that is a very good thing if you want to appeal to all types of people with the widest range of budgets.

Now, if we look at the image of golf, many of the fence-sitters, latent-demanders and skeptics alike think of golf as relatively monochromatic. I won’t belabor the point, because all of us inside golf know about those perceptions, and we also know how polychromatic golf truly is, and how it’s getting more so by the season. We know the golf experience truly runs the gamut: from the casual, cheap-beer, no dress code, push-up-green operation (which is awesome, by the way) to the highest-end resorts and clubs, with the longest list of rules and restrictions (which are awesome, by the way), and everything in between. If you believe “playing golf” also incorporates what millions are doing at TopGolf and in simulator bays (and I do, by the way), then the color palate is getting even more diverse. [See the cover story on page 36 in the new issue of Golf Business magazine about the rise of simulators.]

We have serious work to do in golf to become better storytellers about what we have in our industry; that we are as egalitarian as dining out. That’s not the story many like to lead with, and we need to flip the script. People come to golf on so many different pathways — from being inspired by what they see on television to being introduced to the game through a family member or friend, and that’s great. But if we are going to curate the value proposition and message for the highest level of latent demand, the story has to be compelling, real and reflect the product we have today.

Most of us in the industry are decent at selling our golf courses, at offering lessons, at pushing discounted play, but not enough of us are adept at really selling what causes people to fall in love with our game. We can all be storytellers about golf and do more in that respect. This certainly has me thinking about NGCOA’s role in all this. Should we become the Storyteller in Chief, or can we make you the Storytellers in Chief?

What story are you telling about golf?

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Pinehurst Gives Permission

Posted By on Jul 10, 2018

For the second year in a row, I survived the “buddies golf trip” to the Pinehurst area of North Carolina with 11 other guys looking to have fun and spend money. What could go wrong?

I’m happy to report that nothing did. We had a wonderful time, and I am compelled to share two things from my experience. The 12 of us played three traditional rounds of golf at some of the wonderful public courses in the area. Then we squeezed in some late afternoon play at the new short course at Pinehurst Resort called “The Cradle.” Hopefully you’ve read about this new project at Pinehurst. (, April 2018) The day we played, the Wall Street Journal had an extensive piece on how the short-course experience may be a key to the golf trip of the future.

Yours truly, third from the left, with a bunch of good guys (with interesting fashion choices) at The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort.

The two takeaways both have to do with The Cradle, and both were validation of matters we’ve been talking about in golf for a long time now. One has to do with hospitality, and the other with the relaxation of the golfer experience.

When I look back on the four distinct golfing experiences we had, only one staff person created a memorable one. It was Ed, the starter at The Cradle. He was jovial, humorous and accommodating. The perfect blend of hospitality. Ed was the only one in three solid days who seemed to understand it was his job to facilitate good cheer – and he delivered. His masterful engagement of our group set the tone for the next couple of hours. It’s a lesson that good hospitality trumps just about any other element of the customer experience in golf – or anywhere else, for that matter. I encourage course operators to find the most laid back, jovial, fun-loving people you can, and put them on the front line of your operation.

The other takeaway was simply experiencing a fun, relaxed format of golf, provided by one of the most traditional golf destinations in the world. One could stand at the Pinehurst clubhouse, look in one direction to see lawn tennis being played, croquet in another direction and the short course in another. But at The Cradle, where the holes range from around 50 to 125 yards, you could also see a mobile bar set up by the third tee, and you could hear classic rock music amplified from the trees. Go put on your whites to play croquet, but come over here to let your hair down. We had so much fun in the two loops we made around The Cradle, I don’t have enough column inches here to go into great detail.

Why is takeaway number two so important? My hope is that the doubling-down on fun happening at Pinehurst gives permission (so to speak) to the rest of the golf industry to let your hair down, take risks and invest in the fun side of our game. Turn your driving range into an entertainment venue with some of the new technology available. Bring those simulators inside and get people swinging, eating, drinking and playing games. Offer more fun formats for your golf events.

I’ve long said that I never tell a business owner what they must do. Those who prefer to deliver the formal experience can find success in that. But my hope is we will see a serious movement towards the loosening up and diversification of what it means to go out and play golf. Traditional golf and new formats are not mutually exclusive. We can have both, as evidenced by Pinehurst. Kudos to the Dedman family and to general manager, Tom Pashley.

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Pride of Ownership

Posted By on Jun 11, 2018

Last month, I made my annual pilgrimage to a member’s property to spend a full day shadowing an owner and witnessing the daily challenges of course operations. My objective is to gain greater understanding and sympathy for our rank-and-file member, and in turn, bring those insights back to the NGCOA office.

Upon my early-morning arrival at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Paris, Texas, I had a seriously scary feeling. I knew Cathy Harbin, owner and operator, had a morning outing scheduled, and the sky was looking ominous. It was a visceral reminder that if it rains, her business makes no money that day. It reminded me of the risks our members take as a weather-dependent business. It also made me think about the importance for courses to build revenue-generating events or programs that are immune to bad weather.

The “old farts” arrived nonetheless (an over-55, nine-hole scramble every Thursday), and it became apparent how much the customers adore and respect Cathy, who bought the course just over a year ago. Pine Ridge is a no-frills, push-up-green facility, and only public course in a 30-mile radius in rural Texas. Cathy remodeled the modest proshop and bar, is upgrading the food and beverage and slowly improving turf conditions. But most importantly, she’s breathing life into the business and creating relationships with the Paris community. I love that she’s created new competitive events, pitting car dealerships against each other, as well as banks and other local businesses.

We spent all afternoon with Cathy’s food rep, reviewing prices and options for breakfast sandwiches. You see, most of Cathy’s regulars swing by a local fast food joint for a biscuit sandwich before arriving at her course in the morning. No surprise, Cathy would rather they come straight to the course and have breakfast at Pine Ridge. The process of ordering new food items brought many questions into play, such as how much storage does Cathy have?  How quickly can something be prepared? How will she keep food warm? What is the right amount to order to avoid wasteful spending? How will she know which options are the ones her regulars would enjoy enough to change their morning routine? After we finished, we had to go pick up her beer order from the local package store (the only source she’s allowed to buy from) and get back to the course to see if the afternoon ladies’ group lesson would still be happening, considering the soggy condition of the course.

I’ve known Cathy for many years. She is a PGA and LPGA member, former general manager of the World Golf Village golf operations, program administrator at the World Golf Foundation and executive at ClubCorp. One is compelled to scratch one’s head to wonder why she’d leave behind her position in the leadership circles of golf to be a hands-on owner of such a small operation. But by the end of our visit together, it struck me. After taking a circuitous tour of the full acreage, we stopped and admired the hilly countryside. While Cathy has done great things wherever she’s been, ultimately it was for the benefit of someone else’s business. But this? This is different. This time, it’s hers. The pride felt by thousands of small business owners like Cathy is what partially fuels the good work of our industry. Whatever NGCOA can do to help owners like Cathy – either with ideas on how to bring in revenue or ways to ease the burdens – we want to do.

I’m grateful to Cathy. She’s an exemplary owner, and even better person.

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In last month’s column, I opined that one of golf’s “distance problems” is that many golfers are playing from tee boxes that are too difficult for them. Or maybe restated, if they played tees that offered, say, a 6,000-yard experience instead of a 6,600-yard experience, they might find it more enjoyable and the round a little speedier. And golf writer John Gaughan recently penned a wonderful piece about aging and moving up a set of tees, and the joys of discovering the golf course in a new way and the challenges it brings.

Source: Par Aide

I think there are two factors that cause golfers to pause at the idea of (gasp) moving from one set of colored tees to another: One is ego, and the other is having to consider an equalizer in addition to giving or receiving strokes. Let’s unpack this for a moment, and realize that you — the course operator — can help make this work.

Ego. No one likes admitting or realizing they aren’t hitting the ball as far as they used to. But you can help ease the pain and encourage a more appropriate set of tee boxes by embracing the combination-tee movement. What was once a rare anomaly is now a bit more common — looking at the scorecard and seeing something like Blue/White or White/Yellow as one of the rows on the card. Going from Blue to Blue/White is an easier jump than straight to White. Just getting golfers out of their ingrained behaviors of playing the SAME tee box, no matter where they play or the distance of the course, is a great first step. And of course, having more than three or four sets of tees helps the cause even more. But if you don’t think you can afford to build or maintain more tee boxes yet, updating the scorecard is a great first step. Kudos to those who have been doing it!

Equalizer. You’ve been there. Standing on the first and everyone figures out who gets how many strokes from whom before play begins. In most cases, everyone is likely playing the same set of tees, so you’re only dealing with one variable – differences in typical score levels. If the group starts splitting up what tee boxes they are all playing, you’re introducing another variable. How does that impact the calculus of determining who gets how many strokes? The short-term head-scratching on that one will be temporary. Eventually, it will “all come out in the wash,” as my mother used to say. If you move up a set of tees and you start scoring better, then eventually the spread of strokes will get smaller naturally, and everyone can carry on as before.

Why is this important? I look no further than my own father. He played golf weekly for decades, and then (for a variety of reasons) nearly stopped playing altogether. Upon returning to the game, he decided to play one set of tee boxes closer than he had all his life. And, man is he happier and back to playing a few times per month.

Happier golfers mean a higher chance of returning to the course. Returning to the course means recurring revenue from a reliable customer base. And what business owner doesn’t love reliable, recurring revenue?

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The Distance Question

Posted By on Apr 11, 2018

The recently released USGA and R&A report on driving distance sure drew a lot of attention from all corners of the golf universe. The conversation seems to immediately go to the question — should we dial back the ball as a “fix” to hitting the ball too far?

In my opinion, that is the wrong question to be asking when it comes to most of the nation’s golf course operators who open their doors and turn on the lights every morning. For sure, the best golfers in the world hitting the ball incrementally longer as time goes by poses a challenge for the fields of play where hitting a 320-yard drive is an issue. But 99.9 percent of golfers are mere mortals.

I can tell you with certainty that USGA leadership wants to support the success of our game and business. While they are asked about the ball limitations all the time, I see them wanting to ask bigger questions about distance to golf’s stakeholders. The right questions to ask here are — As owners and operators of golf courses, how has distance affected our business operations? How might distance affect us in the future? And then to ask the fundamental question, what problem needs to be solved when it comes to the distance question, if any?

To me, this is a matter of “right sizing” golf, if indeed it’s needed, because it’s not necessarily needed everywhere. At the nation’s golf courses, we have a distance problem for sure. Most golfers are playing tees too far back for their own enjoyment, and for everyone else’s enjoyment (slow play is certainly influenced by people playing tees too challenging for their skill levels).

There has been a growing movement to build more sets of tees, and to implement programs that help golfers identify the best set of tees according to their swing speed or driving distance. Tee boxes should have nothing to do with gender or age, but how far you hit the ball off the tee, and how well you can put the ball in play to give you a shot of getting to the green “in regulation.” Just Google “ASGCA Longleaf” and you’ll find some great work being done by the owners of Longleaf Golf and Family Club in North Carolina and the American Society of Golf Course Architects to encourage better matching of player-to-tee box.

USGA leadership has publicly shared concerns about the expanded footprint of golf courses and its resulting impact on the game’s viability, and rightfully so. We understand that many have been built to accommodate both equipment that allows the ball to fly pretty far and wide, and to satisfy the desires of course architects, builders and owners to have courses with teeth (translation: over 7,200 yards from the tips, bunkers everywhere you look, etc.). We are all concerned with the costs involved in maintaining land and features that may be superfluous to the golfing experience. To that point, the USGA has introduced some interesting technology to help course operators identify the cost of maintaining areas of the course where players may rarely encounter.

I’m glad to share that NGCOA and USGA leadership are in constant communication with each other. Both organizations realize the symbiotic relationship between the game itself and the business of running the playing fields. NGCOA will continue to do our part to ensure the interests and perspectives of course owners and operators are included in any major questions impacting the golf ecosystem.

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