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October 2017

Golf Goes to Town

Golf competes not just against other sports, but against all leisure activities. This point gets made often, and it reminds us that the game’s physically remote location can help push it down the list of enjoyable things to do—out of sight, out of mind.

But that’s changing. The popularity of simulators and shot-monitoring data, along with disruption in the world of retail generally, are opening a path for golf to achieve storefront status and get itself embedded in peoples’ everyday traffic patterns.

Golftek started the trend—it now has 180-plus studios in high-visibility locations. The Main Street clubfitter Club Champion is up to 20 locations nationwide, and growing. Walking from the dry cleaner to the post office, you don’t pass the entrance to an 18-hole course, but you may stroll right by these two ball-hitting opportunities.

Topgolf is a bit different, but it helps create a sense that golf is popping up all over. In a dozen-plus American markets, instructors with big reputations are moving indoors to control their spaces, using tech to teach. “I’ve had my own indoor space in Dallas for 10 years,” says star instructor Jeff Isler, “ and I would never go back outdoors.”

Ironworks Golf Lab is a satellite of the 110-year-old Beloit Club, in Beloit, Wisconsin. The club has been owned for two-plus years by a unit of Hendricks Commercial Properties. HCP was started 40 years ago by Diane Hendricks, reportedly the wealthiest self-made woman in the world and a staunch supporter of Rust Belt urban renewal. Lots of new buildings and businesses in downtown Beloit are Hendricks-funded, and Ironworks Golf Lab—with its high-tech hitting bays, simulator booths and modest bar-and-grill—is a strategic tool to add fun to the mix.

“When members are downtown, this is a place for them to bring clients and guests,” says Mike Tabbert, one of the pros splitting time between the suburban club and the 8,000-square-foot downtown learning-and-leisure center. “We’re building our walk-in business, along with group events like birthdays and bachelor parties, and that should be a good feeder program for signing up new members.”

The storefront facility Ironworks inhabits is more than 8,000 square feet in area, and it’s expressly designed to bring intense training for hardcore players into direct contact with the 12 year olds at a birthday party who start with arcade games then wander into a golf bay. “These are kids who never had their hands on a club but now they do, so it’s a start,” says Tabbert.

Another way for golf to get high visibility is by joining the tide of unusual tenants at the hundreds of so-called “dead” malls. Entrepreneurs have acquired these properties at distressed prices and repurposed them as medical centers, churches, community colleges and office spaces. If the re-envisioning of retail space continues adding new uses, sports like golf are almost certain to be part of the changeover.

An expedited way for storefronts and deceased malls to get their golf installations is for entrepreneurs to pre-sell space and time to area golf clubs, which would then not have to bother building their own facility like Ironworks. They could simply buy a regular weekly time at the golf emporium and have open-house events where guests could meet, greet and engage in a sim-golf tournament. It’s far less commitment for the potential member and a stepping stone to property visits.

—David Gould

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