Off-course golf spearheads the way to transforming the game
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
There is barely a major sport on planet Earth that is not, in some way, wrestling with its own modernisation battle. But golf’s is different. Golf is unique in boasting amateur participation game that, by many metrics, dwarfs that of the professionals — resulting is an out of date sport colliding with the 21st century in a way that promises to reshape centuries-old norms of how it is played.
Spending north of four hours playing 18 holes simply doesn’t fit with the lifestyle of many everyday golfers, particularly city dwellers. So a number of alternative formats have emerged.
Topgolf took the familiar surroundings of a driving range, and then added electronically tracked balls, food and beverage table service, and elements of gamification that you will not find hitting shots into a vacant field.
Golf equipment giant Callaway described it as a “tech-enabled golf entertainment business” when they spent $2.6bn to complete their acquisition of the company in March 2021.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Topgolf Callaway Brands president & chief executive, Chip Brewer says: “In the US, off-course golf is already larger than on-course golf (28mn versus 25mn) and it is structurally set to grow more quickly’’.
“To illustrate this: by opening 11 venues per year, Topgolf alone will add 3-4mn new off-course golfers per year. And, Topgolf alone will have more unique participants than all on-course golf in the next few years.
“From here, Topgolf specifically — and off-course golf in general — is set to become the form of golf that most new golfers first experience . . . it is no exaggeration to say that Topgolf is not only transforming our company, but all of modern golf.”
Callaway has also invested in Five Iron Golf, an “indoor urban golf experience”. It uses simulators to create a virtual driving range, or a number of simulated golf courses, from the comfort of an indoor facility with a bar, a restaurant and no need to leave the city or brave adverse weather conditions.
Not all of golf’s modernists are shunning the course, however. Film-maker Erik Anders Lang grew a community around golf on YouTube that he is now taking to the course.
“I’m big on the amateur game,” Lang says. “When I got into golf, it was because I loved playing. You get into the pro game and get into their stories, and you realise most of these professionals started in the same way as many normal golfers. We have the same DNA. All these cats started on a ratty old driving range with a dream.”
Lang believes that exposure to the professional game has created two major problems in the amateur game. First, pace of play — in that elite golfers have created a more meticulous method of playing that takes much longer than is necessary for weekend warriors around the world. Second, greenkeeping — which he describes as “relatively unsustainable environmentally, and financially, in that it has a huge impact on costs and that is all passed on to the customer”.
“I’m inspired by the amateur game and playing on different golf courses. The course is the stage, as much as it is for the pros as it is for the amateurs.”
From that inspiration sprouted Random Golf Club, originally a YouTube channel that celebrated the connections forged on the course, particularly the unusual or unmanicured tracks in far-flung locations. Lang’s videos and outings are more countryside walk with friendly strangers than country club round with a client. His channel developed into a community and a brand, with a membership programme that rolls out this summer, built around a shared love for the more rustic elements of the game.
“Random Golf Club is a sustainable club for its members that uses exciting content to drive forth a grand voice of non-pretentiousness, authentic connection and the unknown,” says Lang.
“I thought nobody felt how I did about golf, where sometimes I get to the tee and want to take my shirt off as I would if I was hiking down the trail 10 yards to the right. That’s freedom and beauty.”
Whether he likes the label or not, Lang is now part of a huge influencer community within golf — amateur players who have become professional content creators with huge followings.
Jess McAlister founded the Digital Golf Collective as a brand marketing and talent agency to represent the biggest names in this burgeoning golf influencer world. McAlister sold DGC to Hollywood agency United Talent Agency in 2022 but has had a front-row seat for golf’s digital and social evolution — something she describes as “a cultural and generational shift in the industry”.
Golf content has exploded across social media platforms, with every amateur keen to improve their swing via coaching videos. At the same time, brands have identified the younger and more diverse faces within the influencer community as giving them more bang for their buck than a PGA Tour pro golfer might.
“They’re young, they know how to use social media, they’re fit, they’re attractive, they’re marketing machines,” says McAlister. “These days, there are simply more business funnels and more opportunities to be in the sport, talk about the sport, and show that it’s fun, that it’s accessible, and that anyone can do it. That golf is for everybody. It’s a sport you can play at three or 93. So, literally, it is for anybody.”