Parlaying Passion Into a Golf Career
(Joe Assell is the co-founder and CEO of GOLFTEC, the world’s leader in golf lessons and instruction. Assell is this month’s industry contributor for The Q, sharing insights on how build a successful golf business and how entrepreneurs can turn their passion into a career in the industry.)
GOLFTEC was founded in 1995, but my first foray into the industry stretches back to childhood.
When I was 12 years old, a wonderful man named Leon McNair gave me a job helping in the pro shop at Fox Bend Golf Course in Oswego, Illinois. McNair was the club’s PGA Professional and beyond being my boss, he was my coach and mentor. Even though I was captivated by golf from an early age, I could never have guessed how profoundly the game would shape my life and career.
This business is filled with some of the smartest, kindest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met. It’s no surprise that most of us found our way into the industry because of our love for the game. However, simply loving golf isn’t enough to be successful here. My advice to any entrepreneur looking to parlay their passion into a career is they need a high level of grit and perseverance, along with good mentors to help guide and make introductions. Along my journey I’ve been helped by countless others, like McNair, who saw potential in what I was trying to accomplish and gave me a chance to prove how impactful GOLFTEC could be.
The origins of our company are humble. As with most things, GOLFTEC began as a simple concept. I was interning at Cherry Hills Country Club as part of the Mississippi State PGM Program and began hearing about early experiments using computers (a relatively new luxury) to help analyze a golfer’s swing. The technology was extremely rudimentary by today’s standards, but cutting-edge for the pre-internet 90s.
Myself and soon-to-be co-founders, Clayton Cole and Mike Clinton, recognized there was an opportunity to do something unique with this burgeoning approach and took a leap by opening the first GOLFTEC, originally known as Driving Obsession, in Denver. Another followed shortly after in Chicago and I allowed myself to daydream about someday opening as many as 10 GOLFTEC locations across the Midwest. Today, we operate more than 200 centers worldwide, teach more than one million lessons annually, are the largest employer of PGA Professionals and recently became the leader in premium club-fitting.
Even though I may have misread the tea leaves, I can promise it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The biggest hurdles we faced in the early days were the number of doubters, both within the industry and among the public, as well as a need for capital to help fuel growth. While listening to critics can be helpful, an entrepreneur must have full confidence that what they’re doing brings value to the market. For us, we knew a 21st century approach to golf that focused on facts, data and research as the basis for all teaching and club fitting methodology, combined with the best coaches and tech in the world, was a recipe for success.
Our doubters were slowly proven wrong, as more and more of our students (the true test of success) began dropping strokes like crazy and telling their friends. Word spread quickly and before long we had centers in markets outside our narrow regional focus, including Dallas, Atlanta and beyond. With this validation we were able to work with incredible investment partners to strategize global scalability and we’ve never looked back.
Another word of advice for those seeking to build something for themselves in golf. Don’t pay too much mind to what outside, and often misinformed, voices are saying about our industry or its future. Golf is growing and thriving. In America, it is an $84 billion-dollar business, up 22% over the past five years. During that same period, rounds of golf have been relatively steady and we’re seeing new records for participation among beginners, juniors and female golfers.
GOLFTEC is a testament to this growth and positive momentum, as 2018 has been one of the most successful years in our history. We’ve taught more lessons and given more club fitting consultations than ever before. Both domestic and international growth is at an all-time high and we’re extremely bullish on the future.
The latent demand the sport continues to generate is impressive. With the rise of off-course experiences like Topgolf, there is an influx of potential golfers, mostly young, who are interested in moving from the driving range to the course. Similarly, on Tour we’re witnessing a new crop of young superstars like Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Ariya Jutanugarn and Lexi Thompson, who are capturing the public’s attention. Not to mention, Tiger Woods is back, if you hadn’t heard.
As entrepreneurs and stewards of the game, it is our job to welcome these new players and continue to remove barriers, so they’ll become lifelong advocates. In the end, consumers make buying decisions based on the value an organization provides. Businesses then evolve to meet those demands. Create value, create demand and we’ll continue to grow this business and game.
Lastly, what has continued to drive my philosophy and approach to business is the simple understanding that golf should be fun. The entire GOLFTEC model is based on making people better so they can enjoy the game more with friends and family and spread its virtues to others. I would love to see course operators become more aggressive in dropping tradition and focus on making the experience non-intimidating and enjoyable for all.
Yours in Golf,
Co-Founder and CEO
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