Ken Reynolds says he’s the last person who thought he’d still be in the golf simulator business. Reynolds, a regional manager for aboutGolf, one of the leading makers of indoor golf simulators for home or business, purchased an indoor golf facility in upstate New York in 2004 and has watched the industry grow thanks to improvements in technology.
“Indoor golf has become the wintertime country club,” Reynolds said. “For our private homeowners, they used to be a ‘man-cave’ feature in the basement next to the pool table and the bar. Now, it is moving upstairs into the living room as a multi-media platform where you can stream in movies and gaming.”
Golf simulators have come a long way. For starters, users can play hundreds of world-class courses – from Pebble Beach to St Andrews — and also receive meaningful feedback and swing data. New realistic graphics have improved to the point that arcade-style games are helping to break down many of the barriers to the sport.
Indoor golf on simulators can be quicker, less intimidating for newcomers, and embraces the desire of some to stay connected to the world at large while doing so. The NGF estimates that there are roughly 4 million golf simulator participants in the U.S., about half of whom have never played on a golf course.
Support from the likes of Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, who endorse simulators from Full Swing Golf, will only heighten awareness and acceptance.
With the growth and technological advances within the market, screen and simulator golf are notable components of the industry’s increasing off-course participation numbers. Including off-course participation numbers for the first time in its 2017 participation report, the NGF noted there were about 20 million people who engaged in a non-traditional form of golf – simulators, driving ranges or facilities like Topgolf – and 8.2 million of those didn’t play on a course.
“The fact is whenever we see an individual getting a golf club in their hands and hitting a golf shot, that’s a good thing,” said TaylorMade CEO David Abeles.
Some speculate that participation in off-course activities might negatively impact golfers’ consumption of the traditional game. But studies suggest quite the opposite to be true. Based on research by the NGF on behalf of the World Golf Foundation in 2015, participation in off-course golf activities (such as simulator golf) was found to increase golfers’ engagement with the traditional game, including the frequency that they play. The most evident of these relationships is simulator golf, where many turn to refine their game and then take it to the traditional course.
The NGF study found that 39 percent of simulator golf participants indicated that they play more traditional golf (compared to only 3 percent who play less) as a result of simulator usage.
Perhaps the best example of off-course participation leading to more traditional rounds is in South Korea, where a younger demographic is responsible for the growth in the country’s golf population and the primary reason is their exposure to simulators.
Founded in 2000, GOLFZON commands the largest market share in the global golf simulator market with products being exported to more than 40 countries. Golf-crazed South Korea is home to 4.7 million golfers, according to Korea Golf Association. Yet with only 444 golf facilities, according to the NGF’s international course database, screen golf, as the locals affectionately call it, has become something of a national pastime with 130,000 people a day taking to its virtual fairways. Playing digital versions of real courses has become the post-work gathering spot of choice, an alternative to karaoke and other leisure-time pursuits long associated with South Korea’s drinking-oriented, get together culture.
Among the owners of GOLFZON cafes is two-time major winner So Yeon Ryu, whose three locations are managed by her father and aunt.
GOLFZON’s success has piqued the interest of the golf industry at large. Based on a research study conducted in 2015, GOLFZON found that 80 percent of new golfers in South Korea use simulation as their introduction to the game before transitioning to traditional golf. Beginning in 2016, GOLFZON has focused its expansion in the United States, and it has grand ambitions.
“By 2020, GOLFZON would like to be the No. 1 golf simulator brand in the United States,” said Tommy Lim, CEO of GOLFZON America.
Chris Jones, CEO of virtual golf maker TruGolf, Inc. says it may be challenging for GOLFZON to replicate its success in the U.S. because the South Korean market presented unique circumstances. GOLFZON’s success likely will depend on whether it can reinvent its winning formula for an American audience that prefers a more social, sports bar setting. Lim has evaluated the best approach to penetrate the American market, and it may borrow a page out of the Topgolf playbook.
“While GOLFZON cafes sometimes sell fried chicken and pizza and beers, it is a secondary business. We believe in the U.S. that food and beverage can be pivotal,” Lim said. “That’s a big change for us.”
Golf simulators already are impacting numerous golf-related businesses. Count PGA TOUR Superstore among the golf retailers who have been quick to see the value in having golf simulators in its stores. CEO Dick Sullivan said the off-course retailer conducted 50,000 lessons and fit more than 100,000 customers inside its stores using the latest in golf simulator technology.
“You don’t see Amazon giving lessons or putting grips on,” he said. “We’re unique that way. We don’t just sell product, we provide a different level of service.
“And we’ve now tested [simulator] leagues inside of our stores. We tested in Minnesota, with and without beverages. Consumers said, ‘We’d rather not have adult beverages; we’d rather bring in our kids and play against each other.’ So, starting a few months ago, we now conduct leagues all across America and customers play against each other which is really fun.”
NGF research revealed that nearly half of all golf simulator participants (45%) are non-golfers, which suggests this is fertile ground for industry growth. As a new generation of lower-cost simulator devices become available and combine with the advancements in the capabilities in Cloud technology, virtual golf could become a growing component of golf’s future.
“I think we will see an increase of 20 percent to 30 percent per year of golf simulator users for the next five years,” said TruGolf’s Jones, whose company designs, manufactures and sells portable, free-standing and built-in golf simulators as well as accompanying software.
“What will drive that is the realization that simulator golf is a gateway to playing golf in its traditional form, or another way to enjoy using your clubs and experiencing golf,” he adds. “We’re a niche within a niche. You’ve got golf, then you’ve got indoor golf and then you have simulators. The big question is can we create an industry that carries enough weight that people from the outside realize there are two distinct ways to play golf?
Adam has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World, Morning Read, LINKS and The New York Times. The New York native is also the author of Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force.