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May 2019

Turns Out Juniors Need an After Market

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College and High School Players Add to Courses’ Event Revenue

By David Gould

When tryouts for his high school golf team were over, Kris Hart was thrilled to be among the dozen who made the cut. Two decades later, the CEO of Nextgengolf runs a thriving business based in good part on the 20 or so boys who’d posted respectable scores but were out of luck.

“Our golf coach took 12 players because he could get three tee times max at the course where we practiced,” says Hart, who grew up in western Massachusetts. “The ones who didn’t make the team were left with no competitive outlet.”

Hart was good enough to play NCAA golf at Bryant College in Rhode Island, but once he earned his degree and entered the workforce, he again noticed how estranged he felt from organized competitive golf. Meanwhile, he had met many former high school golfers who weren’t able to make their college team, and found themselves “cut loose from the system.”

That perspective became the seed for Nextgengolf, which began as an affordable-golf membership program for Boston collegians called CollegeGolfPass. Having tapped a pool of demand for recreational play among that cohort, the startup merged in 2013 with something called the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA). In year one of the new operation, 100-plus new club golf programs were kick-started at universities and colleges nationwide.

The company truly found its calling when it branched into tournament competition — team-based and by all means fun-based — first through its City Tour division. These are one-day tournaments, played without handicaps, in either a scramble or better-ball format, or both. In 2018, Nextgengolf conducted the equivalent of one golf tournament every other day. At the top of its pyramid, so to speak, are national “major” championships. In the beginning, an 18-hole facility could host one, now it takes 54 holes of golf to handle the fields, which very often are oversubscribed.
And beyond the college market, there is the next group down in age. “Do you know that there are 220,000 kids in America who play on their high school golf team?” Hart asks. “In the next concentric circle beyond them are twice as many — serious golfers who couldn’t quite make the team. We’ve expanded our business to cater to that market, because nobody else talks to that golfer.”

In short order, the company has grown its National High School Invitational (June 26-28 this year) to 348 boys and girls representing 40 U.S. states.

Hundreds of course owners reading this are well aware of Nextgengolf, having opened their first tee to one of the hundreds of tournaments the company conducts every year.

“We’ve taken entry fees from close to 100,000 players, and done business with nearly 1,000 different public golf courses in 40 U.S. states,” says Hart. His company now has nine full-time employees and operates at a comfortable annual profit, posting year-on-year revenue growth throughout its existence. That success, and its unique grow-the-game impact, has led to coverage on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive and in The Wall Street Journal and Golf Digest, among other outlets.

“For some courses, we’ve become a staple on their schedule,” says Hart. “We can host in out-of-the-way places, which helps us and helps the course operators. As long as there’s a good supply of motel rooms in the surrounding area, we’re good to go.”
In West Lafayette, Indiana, the 36-hole Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex on the campus of Purdue University has been a highly suitable site for Nextgengolf tournaments. Likewise for the WinStar resort complex in Thackersville, Oklahoma. The bigger events involve two days of competitive rounds and practice days beforehand. “It’s the full boat of lodging, golf, food and beverage,” says Hart. “And it’s out-of-town people who can help spread the word about you when they go back home.”

The level of play is good to extremely good, and the etiquette factor is way up there. That’s a tribute to the thousands of golf professionals at untold number of golf camps and club junior programs that, for years, have been indoctrinating pre-teens and teens into a by-the-book version of the royal and ancient game. The result of that junior programming is a rather immense pool of Millennial (and now Centennial) people in need of a bridge between youth golf and the golf you play when you’re off to college — and later, grown up and carrying a briefcase to work.

“Our players come to your golf course and they know the drill,” says Hart, who had one of his NCCGA members walk on at the University of Michigan in his senior year and make the No. 3 spot on the varsity squad. “We figured we were taking a risk when we brought our national championship to Las Vegas, but over two days not one player missed a tee time. Our kids are well behaved. Playing tournament golf as a junior is supposed to instill all these values and encourage maturity — well, I can vouch for the fact that it really does those things.”

It’s often said that youth sports have become over-organized by adults, removing the need for kids to arrange their own play. No doubt that’s the case, but it does train them to respond to invitations and opportunities that come along at the right time, programmed in just the right way.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.

Editor’s note: The PGA of America announced April 2 it has acquired Nextgengolf, effective immediately. Terms of the deal were not released.

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