In golf's trenches, Topgolf is all the talk.
The Dallas-based company has been steadily increasing its nationwide footprint in the last couple of years, and they're expecting to grow even more in the next handful. They've drawn attention for their fun, somewhat anti-golf (in an anti-hero way of anti-) environment.
The hope -- and we're years away from having real measurable numbers -- is that Topgolf's ability to attract non-golfers or casual-at-best players to their facilities might convert a few of them into full-fledged golfers.
That prospect begs the question: Who's going to help all of those newbie golfers when they realize real golf is really hard?
Joe Assell hopes it's GolfTEC.
He's the CEO of the 20-year-old, Denver-based company experiencing its own meteoric expansion, now up to 200 locations with ambitions of building 20-30 more per year in the the next five years.
"Once people get the golf bug, get a little serious and want to learn to play, we fully expect [those new golfers] to find their way to GolfTEC," Assell said in a telephone interview.
He added, "And we'll be ready with open arms."
GolfTEC aims to make instruction and equipment fitting more accessible, offering players a plan to improve their games and do it with the right equipment in their hands. They're the triage for the new golfer, the lapsed golfer and the frustrated golfer. So, all of us.
"Our clients go out and beat on their buddies," Assell said, explaining word-of-mouth referrals are still their biggest driver of new customers. "Then they wind up coming to us to get even."
The company is going back and improving the practice experience, as well, adding launch monitors in all of their hitting bays, with staff there to help interpret the numbers and explain what they mean. There's room, Assell admits, to improve their clubfitting experience, and they're plotting out how to take their ideas to scale.
As the company has grown, GolfTEC has hired hundreds of PGA of America pros that Dick's Sporting Goods dropped when it decided to contract its in-store square footage dedicated to golf. GolfTEC is now the largest employer of PGA of America pros. Now in 82 Golfsmith stores, a direct competitor with Dick's, GolfTEC's symbiosis with retail is evident.
GolfTEC is also starting to find its way into more golf courses that have decided, for whatever reason, to outsource golf instruction. A handful of courses have hired GolfTEC to manage their academies.
Assell's company may be more golf-centric than Top Golf, but GolfTEC isn't eschewing the idea that golf can be quick, fun and convenient. Three GolfTEC locations are serving as Beta testers for golf simulators, giving customers the chance to play a round in less than two hours. With GolfTEC locations seeded closer to where people work, a nine-hole golf-slash-lunch break sounds pretty appealing.
"We fit into people's schedules," Assell said.
By all internal measures, Assell said, the GolfTEC model is working. This year will be their best ever. So, what's the secret sauce? Turns out, golf is a self-reinforcing game. The better people become at golf, the more likely they are to participate, meaning they spend on golf rounds, lessons, equipment and travel. Not that we're trying to promote an addiction, but helping folks improve at golf gets them hooked.
Maybe, then, the path to a sustainable bolstering of America's golf population is a one-two punch: getting potential golfers in the door with the likes of Top Golf, then offering a true hand-holding experience through to true enjoyment of the game.
"Combining great training with great tools and technology in the right locations, we're making a lot of people better golfers and having a lot of success," Assell said.
He added, "The whole industry needs to strive to get better and keep getting better at making better golfers, which pays dividends for everyone."