David Pillsbury has been busy since taking over as CEO of ClubCorp in June 2018. In November, the world’s biggest private club operator introduced ClubLife Management, a comprehensive management services division that focuses on resorts and premiere daily-fee courses in addition to private clubs. More recently, ClubCorp purchased a controlling interest in BigShots Golf, a golf and entertainment company that has standalone venues and indoor simulators.
Before joining ClubCorp, Pillsbury held CEO roles outside of golf in the healthcare and consumer products industries.
Prior to that, he held a variety of leadership roles within the golf industry, starting at American Golf Corporation before becoming General Manager of Nike Golf, where he was responsible for all U.S. operations, marketing and sales. Pillsbury was later President of PGA TOUR Tournament Business Affairs and President of PGA TOUR Championship Management.
Pillsbury recently took time to talk with the NGF about ClubCorp’s growth, non-traditional forms of golf and off-course participation, and the future of the golf industry.
You’ve been in the game of golf for a long time. Can you talk about the emergence of not only technology, but golf-entertainment when it comes to broadening the game and increasing exposure?
We’ve been experimenting with various executions of technology as it relates to gaming and indoor simulators. We’ve got nine locations with various executions, one which you may have read about: DriveZone, which is an 8-bay alternative golf entertainment facility at one of our country clubs. It’s actually on the driving range, with Toptracer technology now, which will all be converted to BigShots technology. Then we have multiple other indoor simulators at our clubs. The idea of tapping different executions was to understand the viability of alternative forms of entertainment within the club environment.
What was it about BigShots Golf that seemed a fit for ClubCorp to make this investment?
For golfers and non-golfers alike, they’re coming into entertainment and fun, with very little friction, and it’s enjoyable. We have a place to take these people. We want to get them into our funnel, obviously, but we want them in the golf funnel, ultimately. So, it’s very much part of our strategy to grow the top of the funnel. It’s why we’re focused on fitness, racket sports, aquatics and all these other lifestyle elements that create the opportunity to bring more people into an environment where we can introduce them to the game of golf and the concept of membership in a very low-friction, friendly, non-intimidating way. We’re excited about it as a business and as it relates to our overall strategy in making the top of the funnel bigger. We think this strategically and ultimately helps us as a lifestyle company.
Is this taking anything away from anything else ClubCorp does, whether it’s limiting the portfolio of clubs under management or the investment in individual facilities?
No, in fact we’ve been growing elsewhere as well. The recently-launched ClubLife management services really puts us in squarely in the middle of the management services space, which we’re very excited about. We think there’s a lot of opportunity and we really bring a full set of tools to the table for prospective clubs that are looking for alternatives for future growth. Some may be looking for capital, some may be looking for management only, others are looking for management and capital. Some might be looking to lease or to sell. We’re really able to offer a full breadth of solutions to clubs that are trying to figure out how to get themselves competitive for the next decade.
The NGF has conducted research indicating that these non-traditional forms don’t cannibalize green-grass golf. What are you seeing?
What they’re doing is they’re driving more and more interest. The PGA TOUR drives interest every weekend with a gigantic golf infomercial for four days on television. Topgolf is driving interest in huge numbers for golf. But the challenge from my perspective is that the golf industry, for the most part, hasn’t really done anything differently to convert interest to trials. That’s what we’re trying to change. We can’t change what everybody else is doing, but we can change what we’re doing. That’s what we’re focused on because we think there is a very unique, unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of surging interest in golf and converting that to trial. That’s really about changing behavior and how we matriculate members through our membership funnel.
It seems, like many other things, golf is ever-evolving. Was there a time where you were a little bit more traditional in terms of what constitutes “golf” and if so, what made you come around?
I built the Nike Golf Learning Centers back in 1999 and 2000, and we were serving cocktails and offering premium hitting space, and trying to do some really rudimentary gaming. We tracked instruction. We compensated the golf professionals based on the rounds that the students actually played because we were transitioning students from the tee line to the golf course. We were creating golfers, 300 to 400 golfers per year, per facility. I believe that for decades now that most of the problems in golf are self-inflicted. We don’t have a demand problem or an interest problem, we have a conversion problem. That’s a function of our inability as an industry to convert people who are interested in the game into becoming golfers. That’s because there’s so much friction in the process of conversion. So, what we’re after is taking that friction away, using all the contemporary tools to make golf more attractive, more fun, less intimidating, so we can migrate people down the funnel to ultimately become core, avid golfers. We believe, certainly within our ecosystem, you might start out as a fitness member, but if we’ve done our job, five or 10 years later you should be enjoying golf. That’s up to us. We have to manage that conversion from interest to trial. That’s where I think the industry has fallen short. In the last several years, the PGA of America is doing some very exciting work in terms of engagement and transition to becoming a golfer. In fact, the PGA of America is partnering with us on an eight-club pilot on cutting edge member-engagement strategies to do exactly this – create activity and drive conversion and create more core, avid golfers.
What is your big-picture view of the golf industry right now?
I’m very optimistic. I see a remarkable space. I also might define it a little differently than traditional people in the golf space. I see it as part of the bigger core of a lifestyle that people aspire to. They aspire to club life. We like to say every passion has a community. We have an opportunity to aggregate lots of communities within our clubs and an opportunity to introduce people to golf in a non-intimidating, low-friction environment. It’s a tremendous opportunity. I don’t think interest has ever been higher. There are a lot of young players on the PGA TOUR, the PGA of America is moving in an exciting direction, what Topgolf has done has introduced energy and shown that golf can be cool in an alternative environment. I don’t ever think we’ve had this much wind in our sails.