Nick Czerkies was basically raised in the golf business, the son of a course superintendent who went on to become a super himself at Walt Disney World in Orlando and head up other course maintenance teams at resorts in Florida.
A plus-2 handicap, the 36-year-old Czerkies took his two young sons out to tee it up on a recent Sunday morning, anxious to share his euphoria for the well-struck shot with his boys, ages 6 and 8.
The threesome didn’t hit a local golf course for their 10 a.m. weekend tee time, however – instead they visited the new Drive Shack golf-entertainment facility in Lake Nona, Florida. Czerkies had been an opening day guest last month as Drive Shack opened its very first location and has since made several return trips at the behest of his sons.
“I’ve been in the industry forever and was a little skeptical at first about this entertainment-golf thing,” says Czerkies, a former board member of the Central Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association who now owns and operates Black Knight Homeowner Services in the Orlando area. “Change is always scary, but now I’m really excited about what this could do for golf. My kids absolutely love it, that’s why I go back.”
Drive Shack is the newest addition to the off-course golf participation arena and has deep ties in the golf industry, with backing from TaylorMade and ownership of American Golf Corp., one of the nation’s top operators of public and private golf courses. Although it has different games and technology (Foresight launch monitors), Drive Shack in many ways has followed the blueprint of Topgolf, which has been the biggest driver of off-course participation and the fastest growing form of recreational golf engagement with its multi-level facilities, video and television screens, music and a variety of food and beverage options.
There were 21.2 million off-course golf participants in 2017, a 7% increase from the 19.8 million a year earlier who hit golf balls at Topgolf facilities, standalone ranges or in simulators. Of those, there were 8.3 million off-course only participants in 2017.
Czerkies’ boys joined that off-course only participant pool this year and he hopes the welcoming, engaging atmosphere will only help them transition to the ranks of committed golfers.
There are still many in the game of golf tired of hearing about off-course participation, believing it’s not “real golf” or that it represents a drain on the traditional game and will cannibalize golf course revenues. Yet NGF research shows that golfers say playing Topgolf in particular leads them to play more traditional golf. And more than half of non-golfers surveyed say that playing Topgolf has positively influenced in their interest in playing on-course golf.
“The more people that have a golf club in their hand and the more fun they have, green grass clearly becomes more accessible,” Topgolf Executive Chairman Erik Anderson said during a panel on off-course participation at the NGF Golf Business Symposium in Dallas. “We should be able to get people ready to enjoy all that golf has to offer at our facilities. That’s the No. 1 thing I think about how to work with our partners and the game – we can get people very ready to go to a green-grass course, and that’s what we’re really working on with our teaching and training.”
Off-course locations, whether it’s Topgolf, Drive Shack, simulators or ranges, can provide another on-ramp to golf and activate latent demand by offering a less intimidating form of a traditional game, one that incorporates technology, fun and social interaction.
Topgolf’s Anderson sees it as the chance to break down some of the barriers that hamper on-course growth, focusing on fun, accessibility and the challenge of competing for people’s free time in today’s “attention economy.” And the related statistics are encouraging.
Golf remains one of the most popular participation sports (played by 1-in-9 people in the U.S.) and the number of green-grass players remained stable at 23.8 million last year. Like many forms of entertainment, however, the traditional game continues to evolve given the demands of work and family, not to mention how people spend their discretionary income.
As Drive Shack moves into the rapidly-growing space, Topgolf continues its booming growth. The company now has more than 40 locations, has introduced Topgolf Swing Suites at stadiums, hotels and casinos, and is rolling out its Toptracer shot-tracking technology that brings the digital age and gamification to driving ranges around the country, creating a connected community.
“It’s absolutely crucial to any activity in the future – screens are inevitable,” Anderson says. “We see a great opportunity to essentially digitize the entire game of golf globally. Five years or seven years from now, I don’t think there will be a driving range in the world that won’t have Toptracer or some other technology.”
Another emerging option is digital driving ranges. Los Altos Golf and Country Club in California has plans to install 12 indoor simulators that its members can use day or night.
“They can put in those simulators for $1 million or they can buy the property next door for $400 million. The math works,” says Ryan Dotters, the Chief Executive Officer of Full Swing Golf simulators. “It engages their members during the day and they can practice or take lessons, and then at night they have somewhere to hold events.”
Dotters, whose company has partnerships with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth along with Topgolf, DICK’S Sporting Goods and Disney Cruise Line, said there are “huge opportunities” for golf simulator venues in major U.S. cities. There are 6,000 screen golf cafes in South Korea and, given the collision of technology and gaming, NGF research shows that indoor simulator use continues to gain traction in the U.S., with approximately 3.5 million users.
“It’s a big shift,” Dotters said at the NGF Symposium in Dallas. “You’re now seeing people in the space with the capital to do it. It used to be mom and pop backed. Now you’re seeing private equity money behind openings which was unheard of just two years ago.”
The growth in off-course participation isn’t limited to big businesses either.
During the week of the Masters Tournament, Mobile Golf Events set up shop in a tent just outside the Hooters Fan-Fest on Washington Road and welcomed around 1,200 people to take shots in a closest-to-the-pin competition for prizes.
It’s probably the most high profile of the 25 to 30 traveling golf events that Brett Gorney will run each year, from indoor team-building events for Coca-Cola and CVS where participants compete in team putting and chipping competitions to charity golf tournaments at which a portable net and Foresight launch monitor are set up for par-3 challenges.
“It’s really fun providing exposure to people who haven’t done it before,” says Gorney, who is also a PGA coach and marketing manager for Tour Striker. “In some cases, it’s where people will get their first lesson or instruction.
“At the end of the day,” adds Gorney, “things like this are about getting people to swing a golf club and have some fun doing it.”
Mike is a former senior golf business writer for Bloomberg News, where he focused on the most significant companies, organizations, people and trends in the industry. He still writes about the game as an Atlanta-based communications specialist.