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December 2020

Growing Golf in the Time of COVID-19

By Doug McPherson

The question is simple: How can golf build on the interest the pandemic delivered to the sport?

David Pillsbury believes the answer may be simpler than the question.
 
Pillsbury, CEO of Club Corp, which owns and operates more than 200 clubs, has seen 30 years of golf’s ebbs and flows. Back in our Oct. 2000 issue, he discussed growing the game amid the Tiger Woods craze. Today he believes golf can add many thousands of players with this basic move: forging more one-on-one relationships.

“Somebody at the club [or course] has to facilitate deeper engagement around improving an individual’s game,” Pillsbury says. “The social nature of golf is key: nine and wine, chip and sip, get people together, in groups, on the course. That creates stickiness, and it can be as simple as a club pro calling to offer a free assessment of a swing.”

He may have a point. Experts say human connection landed us on top of the food chain. Caveman asks his neighbor, “Wanna hunt and gather? Maybe skip rocks at the pond after?” It’s etched into our DNA – people want to be wanted.

Pillsbury points to a pilot program as proof the strategy works. A club using this proactive outreach –  call it ‘ping and swing’ – added 300 new golfers in one year and cut attrition by 50%. “With the plan, 58% of those called say ‘yes’ and members also start saying, ‘I’m meeting people, I’m enjoying a hard game, I’m getting help from a good golf pro.’”
Pillsbury says the idea is so simple, golf just overlooked it. He recalls asking a large gathering of club members at a focus group if they’d ever received a phone call inviting them to a club event. “No one raised their hand,” he says. “That’s because it never happens.”

But he cautions: “The plan isn’t easy. You need a system with training, feedback, grassroots work and a one-person-at-a-time mentality. That’s hard. Changing behavior is hard, but it works.”

He says the pandemic made the ground more fertile for the approach because it reminded folks of two items: the importance of human connection and that they have more time than they thought.

“Time used to be the big barrier in golf, but now people have discovered they have more time. Not necessarily four-plus hours twice a week, but at least some time to go hit some balls with friends. Both of these dynamics are huge opportunities for golf.”

Another opportunity: Topgolf’s customers.

“When Covid hit, Topgolf had to shut down and their customers thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe I should try the real thing.’ We know 52% of people who’ve played there have said they want to learn more. We need to reach out to them.”

And when golf does reach out to any new player, Pillsbury says it needs to clean up its welcome mat by not assuming everyone knows the lingo.

“We say, ‘meet me in the golf shop’ or ‘get a tee time.’ What’s a golf shop? What’s a tee time? We have this mentality that everyone should know this stuff but no one ever explains it. We need to educate them on the basics. The golf pros can be the key and they can be the biggest problem. They need to constantly demystify everything.”

Success, Pillsbury adds, rests with desire.

“There must be desire to create connections with new, former and current players. If we do that effectively, we’ll grow the game. Every club with 500 members has connections to 5,000 people in their community, so we can hit big numbers.”
Big numbers, one future golfer at a time.

 

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