Let’s imagine we are gathering at an end-of-year Christmas party in 2025. We’re are all on our iPhone 15s, discussing whether Greg Norman is actually the fittest 70-year-old on the planet, or why the other Cameron Smith still hasn’t announced his retirement from rugby league.

The conversation then shifts back to 2020… that horrible pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks. What will we be saying? Well, there are two options…

1) “Wasn’t 2020 an amazing year? I wish we could get back to seeing growth like that again.”

Or 2) “2020… who would have thought that would mark the start of a golden era for golf. My business has seen double, triple increases year over year since then and I think 2025 is going to be the best year yet.”

For the past two decades the golf industry has had to be incredibly resourceful to squeeze every bit of juice out of the revenue it has generated just to make as much as the year before.  

COVID-19 disrupted the status quo.

Horrific, in terms of loss of life and devastating for so many, it was awakening on many fronts. Last April and May looked grim for golf with facility closures. We just celebrated watching the Masters in November. At every corner, we were all challenged with adapting to the ‘new normal’. Despite all this, most agree that the one welcome change has been the mass scale of people picking up golf clubs and seeking refuge in our sport. COVID-19 gave the game of golf a shot in the arm and a chance to change the financial trajectory of the entire industry. COVID, of course, will eventually fade into history. Golf tournaments will return all around the world. Bars, concert venues, movie theatres and festivals will all make their return. And we’ll be back to square one – competing for people’s time. 

Social distancing mandates have driven people to golf, but without them, they will likely be lured away unless we compel them to stay. Throughout history, every time there has been a market or social disruption of this magnitude, there have been ‘winners and losers’ on the back side. We could superficially look at 2020 as a banner year for golf and want to relax, believing we have established a ‘new normal’. Yes, we saw significant increases in rounds played; golf equipment sales; and training tool sales. However great the boom, the underlying structural issues for golf remain. Unless we retain these fledgling golfers, we are going to find ourselves in 2025 talking about the same things we were discussing in 2000.

So how do we avoid a Groundhog Day scenario? Is it another initiative designed to keep up the momentum? Or does it require a deeper, more challenging change of mindset, which requires us to depart from the traditional subjective analysis of the health of our game and instead the adoption of a more data-driven approach confirmed by new metrics?

Ben Sharpe

Giving the people what they want

I consider myself lucky. I’ve worked in golf for more than 20 years and I’ve been a part of a number of innovations that, at first, were silly ideas but became amazing moments in time of movements that are still growing today:

• Performance golf apparel – in 2000 the must-have shirt was double mercerised cotton, synthetics were looked down on. Now they are a staple in every golfer’s wardrobe.

• White driver – why not? The test reaction was amazing and so were the sales.

• Topgolf attracting a new audience to our game – at a time when we were asking golfers to play more often, Topgolf asked non-golfers to play, introducing the game to millions.

• Toptracer broadcast changing the way people watch golf on TV – the first and 10-yard line for golf. Can you imagine a broadcast without shot-tracing technology? Trust me on this, our team gets an earful through social media instantly when an amazing shot isn’t traced.

• Toptracer Range – turning a previously downtrodden activity to one of the most exciting business opportunities in our industry. This, for me, remains the most exciting opportunity for all of us today. Together, if we embrace this technology, we can all win together. If I had a dollar from every one of our 350 range owners (12 in Australia and New Zealand)  who doubted the affect Toptracer would have on their business and have seen new and more golfers practice more often post install, I’d have $350!

Many of these innovations survived and even thrived during economic downturns, but they all had one thing in common. The ideas came from asking the consumer what they wanted, even if it conflicted with what we believed or assumed shouldn’t be challenged. We tested the concept and, based on what people told us, we acted.

The real opportunity: Non-traditional thinking validated by insights 

We are all too familiar with the obstacles in golf and, for now, they still remain.

Lack of time, “golf is hard” and digital alternatives among other cheaper activities make the point of entry difficult. But there have been some great initiatives to grow participation and, encouragingly, off-course options are growing. Entertainment options are growing too, activities like Topgolf, putt-putt and golf-specific video games and simulators. 

The keepers of the game have implemented various initiatives to grow the game and they’ve been largely successful. In America, for example, we are attracting two million new golfers to our sport each year. But I would argue that the bigger problem is getting them to stay. The data speaks for itself; golf suffers from the leaky-bucket syndrome. While two million are entering, we are losing two million golfers per year. As a result, the size of the player community has not changed in five years. We need to really define what ‘growing the game’ means.

It has to be the number of people we attract and retain. So, while many great initiatives have done their job in attraction, we are not listening to our customers and offering them what they want.

Golf hasn’t changed in scale. It’s the same product, same experience, targeting the same person. Making matters worse is we are very opinion-orientated in this industry. We must move from what “I think” to what “I know”. 

Technology can help you make objective decisions based on what we know. We have more data than ever before. We can map consumer journeys now, to give them what they want, as opposed to what we think they want.

Most people who work in the golf industry do it because they love the game. They operate their facility with an admirable passion. For the vast majority of them, if they were really in it for the money, they’d have picked another profession long ago.  

For just a moment, remove the passion, and think about the perspective as a business owner, a capitalist who is applying the principles of supply and demand and hoping to expand your enterprise to unimagined heights. 

From my experience working in some of the fastest growing golf businesses in the industry, I know that successful businesses, by definition, are built on strong revenues generated from consumer demand. Sustainable and scalable businesses are proficient in addressing various market segments and providing meaningful products or experiences for each of them. Toyota and Ford don’t just make one style of car – they build hybrids, SUVs, sportscars and minivans to meet the needs and passions of different consumer groups. That’s how they become multi-billion-dollar global brands.

In too many cases golf has been more like Ferrari. A company with a passionate following but largely exclusionary of the masses. The marketing of the sport has been too tight and too targeted. Our clubs feature fences to keep people out. How much more revenue could we generate if we found new ways for a different kind of golfer to enjoy the game on their terms? 

Keeping and growing an audience together 

At the 2019 PGA Show in Florida, I said Toptracer Range would increase footfall to facilities by 25 percent. Two years later, this number is one of the lowest-volume increases we are seeing.

If we can bring 30 percent more people to our facilities through this new technology, imagine how many doors that will open for other aspects of golf to grow.

Think about how you use your mobile device today versus how you thought about it 15 years ago. Remember, Facebook launched on February 4, 2004. The iPhone was introduced three years later. That mobile phone you use to make phone calls has rapidly evolved into the keeper of your entire world. Today, many Gen Zs will not make a single call in a day, but will check their phones hundreds of times a day and stare at their screens through Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, etc.  Interestingly, the second largest demographic on Facebook is the over-55s. 

The industry that was once monetised around making calls is now largely built on the metric of hours engaging with content on screens. This technology revolution isn’t hyperbolic. It’s happening. It’s happening today, and it’s happening constantly. Crucially, it’s happening in golf.

So, if you are running a business that needs to break out of the limiting number of rounds you can offer per day, what do you do? You invent golf’s version of Facebook and you keep golfers engaged in our sport, so it becomes part of them. Let’s make golf part of people lives by being there for them all the time and engaging them when they are away from the course.

Transactions on equipment, green fees and food and beverage are important; of course they are. But how about creating not one way to enjoy the game but multiple versions each targeted to the individual?  

In his book, Almost Is Not Good Enough, Andrew Jennings talks about, “The retail graveyard is full of once-great businesses who failed to remain relevant.” The key focus of the entire book is relevance and how to stay focused on the customer’s wants, needs, desires and aspirations.

We are forcing new golfers to conform to our version of the game, where instead, an opportunistic capitalist will enable their new-found consumers to explore the game and embrace their own expression of golf.

Jennings says, “Innovation is key. Show me a business innovating with excellence and I’ll show you a successful business.”

We are an industry blessed with many innovations. Yet the most important innovation is ahead of us. We need to heed that suggestion. We must shift our mindset. As golfers, we can embrace the traditions that make our game great. We don’t need oversized holes or clown mouths, but maybe that range, the most unappreciated plot of land on your property, is the key to unimagined opportunity.

Seeing is Believing 

We asked golfers what were the key factors that determine which driving range they choose to practise at. Of those familiar with Toptracer, price and distance were the lowest scored. Technology and professional golf instruction were the highest.

The more people know about shot tracing, the more important it becomes a significant driving range preference – displacing price and convenience along the way.

Golfers, like most consumers, want value. This doesn’t mean cheap… it means the golfers want the best for their money. Build it and they will come; we are seeing it in all corners of the world.

At Toptracer, for example, we believe we have an amazing product, and we all have very strong opinions based on our experiences. The future looks great when we listen to what golfers want. 

When tradition said go right, Topgolf went left and found huge demand in an untapped source. If we offer approachable entry points to the sport, that are not forced, our market of opportunity exponentially grows.

We have long understood that it only takes one good shot to make all the negative things about golf fade away. We need to capture that magic moment of euphoria and allow all golfers to share their moment of euphoria with their social network, again and again.

New games, new experiences, new friends are the ingredients for euphoria. Technology can help create these. With social networks allowing friends in England and Ettamogah to stay in touch constantly, wouldn’t it be great to allow them to enjoy virtual competition, while really playing the game. 

Imagine during the state of origin game (played on TVs live at the range), you have Coffs Harbour driving range taking on Brisbane Golf Central in real time and playing St Andrews. Shot for shot, a virtual golf tournament. The ultimate in building a new type of golf community. 

Well it’s here – Toptracer just conducted a nine-hole Pebble Beach challenge. Globally, about 9,000 participants played, taking 327,000 shots. The future is here now. 

One size does not fit all, and golf has many avenues in – and we need to rally technology around this outcome.  

The bottom line is that golf needs a reinvention and a refresh, but it all starts with the perspective of how to approach new avenues into this game. Don’t get complacent with the positive signs we’ve seen since 2020 and into 2021. If successful, we can really determine the path to traditional golf and create a flywheel to continue to feed golfers into the game. 

My final piece of advice: invest in technology, pay attention to the data, be commercially minded, be willing to try new things and – most importantly – be willing to fail, and try again.

If we can change our mindset, if we can embrace change and expand our view of what golf can be, then we can all look back on this time and celebrate it as the turning point. The enlightenment.

I will gladly bring the champagne!