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September 2018

For the Love of the Game

love.jpg‭

GOLFZON’s founder turned his desire to learn into next-generation enterprise

By Trent Bouts

Kim Young-chan played golf for the first time at the age of 44. He’d seen colleagues use the game as a platform for bonding and strengthening business relationships with clients. It seemed like a good idea, but …

 “I just couldn’t hit the ball and I didn’t even remember how I had played throughout the course,” he says. As common as that experience is among novice golfers, Kim’s reaction was entirely uncommon. Instead of stalking off in frustration, he developed a product and built a company to help newcomers learn the game.

A little more than a quarter-century later, that company, GOLFZON, is a billion-dollar enterprise in South Korea with its golf simulators in more than 40 countries. The company says, worldwide, 130,000 people play a GOLFZON simulator every day.

In 2017, Golf Inc. magazine tapped Kim as one of the 10 leading innovators in the game. He’s played about 50 of the world’s top 100 courses, including Pine Valley and Cypress Point, and talked shop with leading industry figures from LPGA Tour commissioner Michael Whan to USGA past-president and current Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley and instructor David Leadbetter. He’s also a golf course rater for Golf Digest.

The swings and misses of his first round clearly spawned a big hit. Kim remembers asking around after his initial outing and learning that “others had the same experience when they went out to the golf course for the first time.”

“Then I almost instantly sensed that it could be a great business opportunity and went all in,” he says.

Kim grew up in a small town, a self-described “ordinary country boy.” His family didn’t have the resources for anyone to play golf. But Kim didn’t lack for ambition.

“Back then, Korea was still underdeveloped, and it was my dream to take part in Korea’s industrial development by contributing to the development of technology on a global level as an engineer,” he says.

In college, he majored in mechanical engineering then joined Samsung Electronics. There, he climbed to a divisional director’s position with a focus on the internet, communication and technology. Over “numerous” projects, he created a systematic development process that became the framework for building his simulator business. That experience helped, but like many entrepreneurs, Kim still had to draw heavily on his own conviction — and pocket.

“There was no single company in Korea that manufactured hardware and software for golf simulators back then. So, we had to develop everything from scratch on our own,” he says. “Because people were unfamiliar with the idea, it wasn’t as easy to find investors as it is today. Therefore, we had to develop and market ourselves with our own capital, without much external investment.”

While Kim’s initial objective was to create a platform for people to gain familiarity with the game, he knew that simply learning wouldn’t be enough.

“I don’t play computer games, but I know the importance that the ‘fun’ computer games provide,” he says. “Any game that is not fun won’t attract users. We always strive to reflect the fun elements in both hardware and software development.”

It took four and a half years before GOLFZON launched its first simulator in 2002 — a detailed process that included the development of the company’s own simulator technology such as precise sensors and graphics. As much conviction as he had in his idea, Kim never imagined the subsequent rate or scale of growth. Today, his company also owns seven green grass golf courses, a reflection of his confidence in the future of the traditional game and belief that simulators can help it grow.

“Simulators serve as a catalyst to bring new players to the game and to green grass golf courses,” Kim says. “That is why GOLFZON is in the golf course business as well.”

While generating golfers is good for business, Kim also invests in generating good golfers. He donates $1.5 million annually to his own Yuwon Golf Foundation that helps juniors with lessons and passage to tournament golf.

Kim’s simulators also are fulfilling his dream of contributing to “Korea’s industrial development.” With about 170 players a year benefitting directly from the foundation’s support, he’s also helping sustain his country’s relatively recent rise on the world golf stage.
A single-digit handicapper, Kim still hones his game with his simulators.

“I live very close to the GOLFZON Campus, which has many golf simulators installed,” he says.

“And I enjoy playing on the golf simulator during my downtime. I also provide feedback to our development team on areas for improvement.”
When not focused on the art of the game, Kim makes room for art of a different kind.

“I very much enjoy looking at artwork with craftsmanship,” he says. “I enjoy watching artwork of all craftsmen from those who adhere to traditional ways generation after generation to those who converge their philosophy with changing modernism.”  

----------------------

Inside the ’Zon

INDUSTRY ESTIMATES SHOW ABOUT 50 MILLION PEOPLE WORLDWIDE PLAY SOME FORM OF SIMULATOR GOLF AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR. AND GOLFZON, A BILLION DOLLAR ENTERPRISE, IS LEADING THE WAY FOR GROWTH IN THE SIMULATOR MARKET.

HERE’S HOW SOME OF THE NUMBERS STACK UP:

46 counties where GOLFZON can be found

5,500 GOLFZON sites worldwide

55 million GOLFZON rounds played in 2017

50% of GOLFZON employees are R&D engineers

6% of annual sales go back into R&D

250 patents held by GOLFZON, with 375 pending

2018 year GOLFZON was named best simulator/premium by Golf Digest for the second year in a row

12 countries included in the international GOLFZON tournament being played for the third year. Early rounds are played regionally on simulators, with the championship on turf in South Korea Oct. 19

$1 million prize money given
out during the international tournaments

Sources: GOLFZON website, media reports

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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