At 16 special golf events across the country in 2018, the participants won’t start their days on the first tee, or any tee for that matter.
They’ll start at a bar.
The events are part of Swannies Golf Apparel’s new Party Scramble series, which are out to prove that golf tournaments don’t have to be 144-golfer shotguns with a prize table and a barbecue. They are just one example of golf companies attracting a new audience to the sport in engaging and non-traditional forms.
Swannies co-founder Adam Iversen said he’s “honored” to be associated with what some consider is a “grow-the-game initiative,” adding that the NGF’s report on Millennial golfers helped the 3-year-old company identify its target market. Iversen believes Swannies has a duty as a brand to embrace the sport’s “lurkers” (those who identify as interested in golf, but haven’t yet gone to a course).
Attending a Swannies event means attendees are in for a day of “respectful rowdiness” according to Iversen. Its first event in 2017 – after a friends and family pilot in 2016 was well received – sold out a full 144-person field, and they were able to bring the concept to 16 different cities across the U.S. this year.
Iversen says the events attract a healthy combination of people to — first and foremost — have fun with friends. After meeting at a local watering hole, participants are taken to and from the course by bus. Music is played from the clubhouse and is encouraged to be playing from participants’ bags.
“It takes away the intimidation factor of being on a golf course, especially when you’re at an event surrounded by ‘golfy’ golfers,” he says. “We’re trying to create an opportunity where there is no intimidation.”
Participants play nine holes, but every three holes they also partake in a party game like beer pong or cornhole. (There was even a slip-and-slide at one location) After the first event of 2018, which took place in late March, some participants expressed disappointment that the next event in their area was next year and not next month. Winning teams get a Swannies Champions t-shirt and a “shout out” on all of the companies’ social media channels.
Much has been made of the need for golf to appeal to a younger demographic in order to boost its participation base. For many golf courses and companies, this may mean taking a different approach than in the past.
NGF research finds that the behavior of Millennial golfers differs significantly relative to older golfers. In addition to being more likely to drink alcohol on the course, they’re almost 15% less likely to follow the rules closely, maintain an official handicap and keep score regularly.
Swannies is a company that is used to doing things a little differently. It is a clothing company, first-and-foremost, that got its start via a Kickstarter campaign for its golf sandal – the prototype of which was a soft-spike ECCO outsole super-glued to an Air Jordan flip-flop.
The crowdfunding campaign raised enough money for the co-founders to manufacture the sandal, and now Swannies makes polo shirts, hats, sweaters, and more.
Iversen didn’t have a business background,– he grew up caddying at the revered Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota but played golf at the “$5 muni across the street” – and said it took a bit of time to recognize who their target market truly was, and what they were looking for in golf.
“It was a bit of an evolution when we went and defined our target market versus when we just looked at our peer group and said, ‘Hey that guy… he’s the one who likes our stuff,’” says Iversen.
But it’s not just parties that can attract the millennial demographic to the sport – some are simply interested in the great outdoors.
Luke Davis, the founder of Lie + Loft – a golf art and accessory company – took a cycling trip last year with a friend from Portland, Oregon, to Pebble Beach, California. The duo shared in their love of golf by cycling on the Pacific coastline and camping along the way. They played 17 courses or so, including one that was built in a golf fanatic’s backyard.
Davis says it was inspiring to see how many people truly cared about what they were doing.
“There was this sense of passion around the game of golf that is very evident at the different golf course properties and seeing people along the way who would stop in their cars and ask what we were doing,” he says.
The journey was the impetus for Lie + Loft to create its own golf-and-camping event this year called ‘Home on the Range.’ It will take place May 11-13 at Tobacco Road in North Carolina, where participants will camp on the course’s driving range for two nights between rounds. The walking-only event has almost 40 people confirmed (mostly in their 20’s but with some older adults going as well), both men and women.
“It’s experiencing the golf course in a whole new way,” says Davis.
“With Tobacco Road, in particular, it’s out there. You feel like you’re in a different world or detached from everything and that’s what camping is all about.”
On the opposite end of Lie + Loft’s outdoors’ event is Topgolf, the ultra-connected driving range that’s popped up across the U.S. in droves over the past 24 months or so. Each of Topgolf’s facilities – which are a hybrid of driving range, sports bar, and nightclub – are earning nearly $20 million in yearly revenue — and cater to an audience that includes many non-golfers.
Topgolf says 60 percent of its audience is Millennials, and the company is seeking to grow golf through entertainment. Topgolf hosts events ranging from small birthday parties and corporate parties, to national programs like its new trick-shot competition called Shotmakers.
“It’s really about having people be engaged with the product,” says Topgolf International President Troy Warfield. “It’s clearly appealing to Millennials and the one thing Millennials love doing is sharing experiences.”
So whether this demographic is hoping to share their experience on Snapchat, throw back a few beers and play music on the course, or get disconnected from all of that and just enjoy the outdoors, there is a growing recognition that golf events don’t have to follow the same age-old formula.
There is interest in the alternative.
“Our idea evolved from us seeing the game from both ends and taking a hard look at why the game got, admittedly, less appealing to us and our peers,” says Iversen. “We tried to address that through first the apparel and now the events. We’ll see what’s next.”
Adam is a Canadian-based golf journalist who has written for a multitude of outlets including PGATOUR.com, the Canadian Press, Globe & Mail, Sportsnet.ca, SCOREGolf Magazine, Golf Canada Magazine and the Golf Channel. A golf analyst for CTV News and CBC News, he’s also director of communications for the Golf Journalists Association of Canada.