“I’m sorry madam, there’s currently a 30-minute wait for a bay, but if you would like to have some lunch with the family and maybe check out one of our three mini golf courses with your kids, you’ll find yourself hitting balls before you know it.”
The kids didn’t seem too perturbed, mum shrugged and smiled, dad took the chance to order a beer and off they went – happy to hang out for the afternoon.
I saw this conversation recently and smiled for a couple of reasons – firstly because I genuinely love seeing people excited about golf and secondly because it was at Topgolf in Dallas, and Topgolf is coming to Australia this year.
My smile broadened when I saw the number of people at the venue, which was packed on a Saturday afternoon. Around the venue, in bays, bars, shops and on mini golf courses, everyone was clearly having an awesome time, but in very different ways.
There was a guy having a lesson, with his coach examining and analysing his swing in real time on his iPad.
The start of a buck’s party.
A couple of mates having a beer, a burger and a bit of friendly competition while talking about why she hadn’t texted him back.
A family with two kids I would place between 6-10, although their full basketball kits made it difficult to be sure.
Another family. Kids a bit older and more into their golf. They’d even brought their own clubs, which is far from necessary at Topgolf.
People in gym gear and people in jeans.
Plenty of tattoos.
Couples on dates.
An overbearing dad ruining his young daughter’s experience by giving terrible advice in a condescending tone (parents, who’d have ‘em!).
Groups of girls laughing, drinking wine and celebrating in style when hitting a target.
People of all ages and a great cross-section of society.
Staff everywhere, poised to serve, smile, cross-sell and up-sell.
You become a member before you hit your first ball or score your first points by landing a shot in one of the coloured target areas.
It all needs to be seen to be believed and you can’t help but feel optimistic about golf’s role in the new entertainment world.
At Golf Australia, we spend a lot of time working on initiatives to grow the game, and my Topgolf experience reinforced the importance of the final word in this oft-used phrase.
Games are fun. Everyone likes games. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good at a game, you can still play. Games can be competitive if you want them to be, but what they’re best at is connecting people.
And, for me, that’s the challenge for our sport if we want to attract new people – we simply must find ways to enhance the fun.
The recent AusPlay survey data from the Australian Sports Commission reinforced this. Our club members might want competition, but those interested in playing golf are switched off by it.
The good news is that when Topgolf begins its Australian adventure in Queensland, it will put golf clubs in the hands of thousands of people who have never previously played golf. In the USA and the UK, it’s already doing so, while simultaneously changing consumers’ perceptions of golf. What’s more, it’s reinforcing a core truth of our great game – people love hitting golf balls at targets and holing putts!
The question is how we persuade some of them to play at Australia's wonderful range of public and private clubs and facilities – to grow our participation base and change its demographics for the better.
The answer lies in clubs' and facilities’ ability to think differently and innovatively; to present themselves as consumer entertainment precincts, within which golf is their core product; to close the gap between experiences like Topgolf and the traditional golf club model.
Clearly there are some clubs in Australia with robust business models that don’t need to change. For the rest, I am convinced that those who are able to put customer experience first are the ones that will thrive and lead us into the future.