Though her father has been a club professional on the First Coast for more than 25 years, Shannon Lynch had no desire to play golf.
“Soccer and dance was all she was interested in,” Mike Lynch said of his 23-year-old daughter. “Golf was never something she wanted to do. She didn’t even want to go to a putting green.”
One trip to the Jacksonville Topgolf changed that.
After hitting balls to the large, brightly-lit circular targets, with rock music as the soundtrack and eating sports-bar food between shots, Shannon Lynch was hooked.
“All of a sudden, golf is a pretty cool sport to her,” Mike Lynch said. “She’s going to a driving range and wants to play at a real golf course. And all it took was playing in a casual, relaxed, no-stress environment.”
Though Topgolf’s Jacksonville location has been open for only nine months, Lynch and others in the golf industry on the First Coast say that the glitzy, sensory-overload atmosphere at the massive facility (65,000 square feet) located near the Town Center is contributing to an increase of new golfers in the area.
At the facility itself, business if booming, especially on weekend nights when 102 hitting bays on three levels are full, with wait times of more than an hour.
Surveys from the other 31 Topgolf sites throughout the country indicate that 25 percent of people who have their first golf experience at Topgolf will play at a more traditional venue in the future, such as an 18-hole course or practice range. Since two-thirds of its customers have never played golf before visiting a Topgolf, the numbers game indicates a potential boost for an industry that has lost around 2 million players since peaking at more than 26 million golfers nationwide in 2005.
And millennials, the demographic group almost all businesses are courting, make up the majority of Topgolf customers. The company estimates 53 percent of its customers are between 18 and 34 years old, eclipsing every other age group combined.
Women are another group the golf industry desperately wants to attract. According to the National Golf Foundation, 23 percent of all golfers are women. Topgolf says 32 percent of its customers are women.
Evidence trickling in
“Every little bit will help,” said Bill Hughes, general manager of the TPC Sawgrass. “Is there significant growth in the game because a Topgolf was built in Jacksonville? Not yet. But we are hearing of a trickle-down effect and any number of new players is good.”
Here’s what others involved in golf on the First Coast are reporting about Topgolf’s impact:
• Phil Lanza of Masterfit Golf said more than 20 customers who have purchased a set of golf clubs since Christmas told him they played for the first time at Topgolf and estimates three times that number who have hit balls at his southside practice facility on U.S. 1 said they began at Topgolf.
• The First Tee of North Florida took around six dozen junior golfers to Topgolf last March for a free day of golf and members of the organization continue to participate in Topgolf clinics and camps. Topgolf offers free play to non-profit youth organizations Mondays through Thursdays.
• Boots Farley, director of instruction at the University of North Florida’s Hayt Center, estimates that 80 percent of his students in a 15-week “Get Golf Ready” program have either gotten their start in golf or patronized Topgolf.
It’s the start-up process that appeals to patrons of Topgolf. They don’t need their own clubs, memorize a rulebook, be concerned with a dress code, or losing a bunch of balls in the high grass.
“Anyone who puts a club in someone’s hand, golf is winning,” Farley said. “Topgolf is augmenting the efforts we’re making to grow the game.”
Industry leaders optimistic
Steve Mona, the chief executive officer for the St. Augustine-based World Golf Foundation, said golf doesn’t always have to be about 18 holes with flag and a cup.
“We view Topgolf as a legitimate entry point into the traditional game,” Mona said. “We don’t have the conversion rate but the 25 percent number is not unsurprising to me. The number of those people who actually take their game to a golf course can’t be totally validated from a strictly rigorous process yet, but I would buy into it. We find it very encouraging. Topgolf is getting people interested in the game and there’s no doubt that many of them are matriculating to the green-grass experience.”
Dave Reese, executive director of Florida’s First Coast of Golf, which promotes golf-related travel to the area, called Topgolf “a win-win for everybody.”
“They’re still in their honeymoon period but there’s no doubt they’re busy, busy, busy,” Reese said. “It was an honor for Topgolf to move into Jacksonville because there still aren’t that many in the U.S., and it’s another reflection of this area as a golf hotbed. We want to work with them and we’re looking to develop a partnership.”
Reese said Topgolf is a natural for golf tourism. For example, if a group of golf buddies from out of town are rained out one afternoon, they can hit shots under cover at Topgolf.
“Even if they play during the day, I can see where they might want to go to Topgolf at night,” Reese said. “They’re going to want to have a meal and why not combine that with a golf experience?”
Topgolf doesn’t just turn customers loose in the hitting bays. Should they desire, there is a teaching staff available at every facility to provide individual or group instruction that mirror closely the PGA of America and LPGA models.
But they’re not competing with other PGA professionals at area clubs. The attitude is that there’s enough business to go around for everyone.
Wes Altice is the director of instruction at the Jacksonville Topgolf, after working at courses such as Ocean Hammock in Palm Coast, and MetroWest in Orlando. He is assisted by Mary Rodgers, a former Flagler College player.
“I really liked the concept,” Altice said. “The entertainment and the food part, plus a controlled environment are great ways to get new golfers to the game. Some people are intimidated by the traditional approach to golf – start out at a range or club, you’ve got a strict dress code, everyone has to talk quietly. Here they’re in their own bay, no one is trying to get them to move along, there’s music, food, you can wear sandals and not think you’re breaking any rules. People are coming to the game who, in a million years, would never think of trying it in the traditional environment.”
Altice said it isn’t long before many of them want to take lessons, and then take it to the next level.
While more than a third of Topgolf customers describe themselves as non-golfers, another third play eight or more rounds per year at a traditional golf course.
Hughes and Lynch said it’s up to golf clubs, especially on the public level, to accommodate new players who are coming to a traditional facility from a Topgolf experience.
“If Topgolf is sending players our way, we need to engage them and understand some of the reasons they were attracted to the game in that setting,” Hughes said.
Lynch said if that means some courses relaxing dress codes and allowing players to have small blue-tooth speakers in their carts to listen to much while they play, so be it.
“I think a lot of millennials want to play golf but they want to do it under certain conditions,” he said. “If they’d rather play at Jacksonville Beach [Municipal Course] and wear their hats on backwards than play at a high-end resort course and have to tuck their shirt in, we have to accept that. The important thing is they’re playing golf.”
Altice said golf needs to evolve beyond the 18-hole experience as the only accepted way to play the game.
“Change is inevitable if the sport wants to survive,” he said. “We can grow this game as big as we want it, but don’t put constraints on it — ‘don’t do this, you have to do that.’ There are too many rules when people just want to go out and hit a ball.”
You can read the original TU article here.