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September 2018

Grip on Virtual Reality


Simulators generating real-life revenues

By Trent Bouts

It’s hard to ignore the irony of something called a simulator being the basis of a new reality. Yet, in golf, that’s increasingly the case. Simulators, high-tech tools that merge real swings at real balls with faux fairways and greens, are a growing presence. From traditional clubs to strip malls, golfers — whose abilities run the gamut — are paying good money to stand in one spot and whale away at all hours.

Some see simulators as a salve, if not quite a cure, to many of the game’s ills. They can be a less intimidating introduction than conventional courses where seasoned golfers loom back on the tee. Players get to dictate how long they’ll play and they won’t lose a dozen balls — they won’t even lose one. Then there’s the comfort and camaraderie. Food, beverages and bathrooms are generally just a chip shot away, and playing partners, should there be any, are closer still — the entire time.

Compared to the full game, simulator golf is often cheaper, quicker, more comfortable and more social, certainly, than a foursome in carts on opposite sides of a fairway. Because they blend the physical with the virtual, simulators also present a potential translation service for an industry grappling to engage millennials. They offer the game in a language more familiar to that generation.

Consider Foresight Sports, heavy into simulators and launch monitors, now marketing software for everything from Roulette Golf to Zombie Golf, where you can: “Fight the undead horde with your club of choice and build your accuracy skills at the same time.” Hunting virtual zombies with a pitching wedge may not excite many 61-year-olds. But for 16-year-olds, adding clubs and physical activity to their passion for gaming seems a feasible step to bringing them closer to the conventional game.

In South Korea, which spawned one of the market leaders in GOLFZON, the company says 80 percent of those who start the game on simulators “have converted into green grass golfers.” That is why GOLFZON has also added conventional courses to its portfolio. Yet, here in the U.S., National Golf Foundation research suggests the journey from screen to green might yet be a bridge too far. While the number of people playing what the NGF calls “off-course forms of golf” – 8.3 million of them – grew seven percent in 2017, the number of those playing the traditional game remains static.

Still, the fact remains, simulators – which can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands – are occupying a larger slice of the landscape and traditional golf is exploring that territory. Venerable private facilities such as Valhalla Golf Club, a major championship host, now have them and so do major players like ClubCorp. Earlier this year, the company signed a deal with Full Swing, another leading supplier, to use their simulators in six select facilities as the basis for piloting what ClubCorp brands as Golf Lounges.

The lounges “will be used for golf lessons from our pros, growing the game with beginners, engaging social golfers, and providing a winter golf option in our seasonal markets,” says ClubCorp senior vice-president of club operations, Chuck Feddersen. “We are confident that our pilot will be the beginning of a larger strategy to provide this type of an amenity at many of our clubs.”

Feddersen makes no projections on participation rates or whether Club Lounges will affect the number of conventional rounds played.

“Our ideal outcome from this initiative is driving member value by providing fun, engagement and retention,” he says. “The Golf Lounges are designed for both the social and hard-core golfer. We expect to drive usage during the day from our members focused on improving their game or playing golf in the off-season. The Golf Lounges are more of a social hub in the evenings, with members, their friends and their families...engaging…for fun and entertainment in addition to dining.”

ClubCorp also plans to use the simulators as a platform for league play and other competition golf for members of all ages. The pilot stems from positive results ClubCorp drew from simulator use at a club in Texas where there were “tremendous lessons learned.”
“We see this as additive and don’t anticipate anything but a positive impact,” Feddersen says.

That has certainly been the experience at Blackledge Country Club, a public facility outside Hartford, Connecticut, where simulators might just as easily be called stimulators. Blackledge introduced three of the machines five years ago to entirely positive effect. Director of operations Kevin Higgins says the club is now open all year where previously it closed down for the worst weather months. “They’ve paid for themselves many times over,” he says.

Not only do the simulators generate a profit, they have allowed the club to retain kitchen and service staff. Instead of layoffs late fall and then having to find “a whole new crew” in the spring, the restaurant and hospitality department now rolls on year-round. That continuity saves significant time and effort recruiting and training and helps maintain service standards.

“It’s a huge thing,” Higgins says.

Higgins estimates the simulators are occupied between 60 and 70 percent of their 80 hours of opening time across seven days a week from November through March. Then they are “packed away” for the main golf season. Much of that business is league play, which Higgins says attracts a lot of “your diehards who just can’t get enough of the game. They come from far and wide which means more people are seeing the facility, getting to know the staff and feeling comfortable here. We have picked up some good golf customers out of it.”

In Hoboken, New Jersey, the former home of a metal manufacturing company is being converted into a leisure center that will feature six golf simulators alongside ping-pong and pool tables. This summer, NBA golden (state) boy Steph Curry joined Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Jason Day when he agreed to install one in his home as part of an endorsement deal with Full Swing. Next year, a new cruise line, Blue World, promises “the ultimate” cruise experience for golfers with golf-only sailings centered around on-board simulators and participation from swing coach Hank Haney.

Topgolf, another of the “off course” formats, which uses real clubs and micro-chipped balls to track and score shots played onto an outdoor target range, is also moving into the simulator market. Topgolf Swing Suites effectively take the existing Topgolf model but uses a simulator screen instead of the outdoor range. The company has six operations up and running across the country with another 11 “coming soon.”

Independent operators also are growing in number. In Richmond, Virginia, developers are investing close to $1 million renovating a former bus depot into a golf training venue with simulators at its heart. Opposed to the Topgolf entertainment approach, The Edge Golf Academy will focus mainly on teaching with certified instructors, something principal Scott Coleman hopes will resonate with both existing and prospective golfers. In a busy conventional golf market, Coleman anticipates the focus on teaching will also appeal to PGA professionals whose time and attention is otherwise often drawn in many different directions at a club operation.

All of the above is just the tip of the iceberg in the eyes of Michael Breed, best known as Golf Channel’s high-energy instruction guru. Breed, who uses and endorses aboutGolf products, predicts that simulators will “explode” over the next five years, transforming how the game is consumed and how traditional facilities present their product. Simulators, he says, could affect the game – not to mention other aspects of life – in degrees paralleling how cell phones changed communication.

Breed says simulators will become as ubiquitous at golf facilities as courses themselves. Just as significantly, perhaps even more so, simulators will become a major component in school athletic programs, he adds. That could put golf on a level with the other major sports, such as basketball and baseball, which traditionally have been more accessible in schools. Simulators also offer an attractive entry point for junior participation at golf clubs and courses that traditionally struggle to accommodate youngsters, and beginners.

“If you look at a golf course as a golf course you can only think of it in terms of golf. But if you think of it as a park, then you start to see it as a place for walking, yoga, cycling,” he says. “People won’t be just playing golf on simulators at clubs. They’ll be pitching baseballs or watching movies or watching the Super Bowl. There will be all sorts of leagues and contests, so many things that clubs will use them for.”

As a result, Breed anticipates a time when the comfort, convenience, cost- and time-effectiveness of an indoor simulator round will see existing golfers play fewer of their rounds outdoors. The “really fascinating question” will be whether simulators bring enough new players to the game to make up that gap, or even generate an increase in conventional play.

A clue might come in the experience of Kevin Higgins at Blackledge. Until recently, Blackledge had the only simulators in the area. Then a new, stand-alone simulator facility, Oakwood Virtual Golf, opened about 10 miles down the road and Higgins believes it is doing well. The key point is that he has seen no decline in his own business. “I think the more exposure and availability there is, the more people who are going to participate,” he says.

Traditional golf’s challenge is to capitalize on that opportunity.  

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


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