This is a simulation. (And it's still golf!)
I am what most people would probably consider a fairly typical millennial. I’m 29 and barely remember life before the Internet. I grew up in a suburb but moved to a big city as soon as I could, and I took my first loan not to pay for a house, but for graduate school. I spend too much time on my phone, hate to admit how much I love the vibe in artisanal coffee shops and—judging by the number of first-person references in the previous sentences—am largely failing at dispelling the self-absorbed stereotype.
I also love golf, a thread that has run through my entire life. Golf was basically my job in high school. I played on my college team, and yearn for the summer so I can sneak off for a few rounds any time I can.
I am, as I’ve been told a variety of ways in recent years, part of a generation that’s killing golf. Just like we’re killing diamonds, cereal and fabric softener—basically anything that makes for a good headline. Apparently golf doesn’t align with my values, and my attention span is too short to appreciate it fully.
I wish that were true, but it’s not. The reality is that when you live in a city, especially one the size of New York, it’s almost impossible to play golf with any semblance of regularity. It’s not that I don’t want to play golf. It’s that I can’t.
The good news is that we’ve already solved this problem. We just haven’t done a good job appreciating it.
A few months ago, a friend of mine texted me that he was in the city for the day and asked if I wanted to play golf. Finding, booking and traveling to a course from the heart of Manhattan that day for a quick round was a laughable idea. It probably would have been easier to book a trip to the moon on such short notice. Besides, I had plans later that evening anyway. I had a few spare hours, not half a day.
But that’s the only golf option available to most millennials who live in big cities, as so many of them do nowadays. Unless you were lucky enough to be grandfathered into a country club—and in many cases even if you were—playing golf requires spending a small fortune to play questionable courses, a mind-numbing commute and blocking out almost an entire day for the pleasure.
Luckily, my friend had a different idea: To try The Bridge Golf Center, a state-of-the-art indoor golf facility in Harlem that doubles as a free after-school program for the neighborhood's underprivileged youth. I booked a time on my phone, and 45 minutes later, we were both standing in front of a Trackman-equipped simulator playing a round at the Belfry (we were in a Ryder Cup mood). For $35 each we got an hour at a booth, which gave us time for a warm up, 18 holes and a sneaky range session afterwards.
Instantly, this place was solving all my problems with golf—and some I didn’t even know I had. I was surrounded by technology; that week’s PGA Tour event was playing on the television in the background, and I was getting instant feedback about every one of my shots, data from swing speed to carry distance and everything in between. I could plug in my handicap if I needed, video my swing if I wanted and, had I been playing with a new golfer, could’ve opted to give all their shots a “boost”—a 25 percent increase in distance, for instance, which means a 200-yard drive would travel 250 yards, designed to soften golf’s often harsh introduction.
I was struck by a single thought: That this was the gold mine golf had been waiting for.
• • •
For most of the game’s history, golf has been a sport confined exclusively to people with lots of time, lots of space and lots of money at their disposal—three things that will forever hamper its ability to scale, critics say.
But you could look at this problem another way: It’s quite incredible, really, that golf was able to thrive at all by appealing to such a tiny minority of the population. Because it has, golf now sits on an opportunity unlike any other in sport: A giant, relatively untapped market of the population concentrated in singular locations across the country. It’s the growth proposition most sports would dream of.
And that growth resides in America’s cities.
Like it or not, America’s cities have become the driving force of the U.S. economy unlike ever before. Urban areas account for just 3 percent of the country’s land area yet encompasses more than 80 percent of the U.S. population, according to recent Census data, a phenomenon that consistently grows. Just in the last 10 years, large metro areas and their suburbs have grown almost 20 percent, with medium and small metro areas contributing a further 7 percent.
U.S. cities also boast rises in practically every other positive economic indicator: Large cities host an ever-increasing share of U.S. businesses (32.8 percent, jumping to 58 percent when you include those based in their suburbs), which attracts not just more people but a more educated workforce (35 percent have bachelor’s degrees, 69 percent including suburbs), and have seen medium incomes rise at a faster rate as a result.
Crucially, cities have also seen an accelerated rise in young professionals flocking to them as they follow the jobs. Even as that trend has slowed slightly in recent years, as older millennials also look to the suburbs, those areas are becoming increasingly dense, becoming miniature cities in themselves.
Yet golf, mostly by necessity, remains a sport focused singularly on rural areas and suburbs. After all, when you need lots of spare land to build a course, why would you focus on the areas that have none?
Except some forward-thinking companies have started figuring out ways around that problem.
Topgolf is the most notable. All 54 of its current and planned worldwide locations are situated around cities. Its business model is designed specifically to syphon-off large numbers of people from nearby metro areas, and it’s worked. The company has experienced explosive growth in recent years and is routinely hailed as the future of golf for its ability to draw younger, new (and non-) golfers.
Simulators present golf’s best key yet to unlocking the potential cities offer for the sport.
Golf simulators—or screen golf, if you prefer—has experienced a boom in South Korea in recent years, a country whose populace has been first adopters on a number of mainstream technologies, from cellphones to IoT technology, eSports, robotics and beyond.
An estimated 200,000 people use simulators daily in South Korea, and between 2003 and 2007, the number of golf-simulator facilities has grown more than 800 percent, from less than 300 to more than 2,500. Today, Golfzon, the most popular simulator company in the country, has installed more than 30,000 simulators worldwide and claims 55 million rounds annually.
Eighty-two percent of South Korea’s population reside in cities, and with golf courses being either too expensive or too far away (usually both) the country turned to simulators, and golf is a growth industry because of it. Despite a scarcity of golf courses, the number of golfers in the country has actually increased in recent years.
Golfzon hasn’t become quite as ubiquitous in Japan—it owned 40 percent of the nearly 1,000 simulators operating in that country in 2011, compared to an 89 percent market share in South Korea that same year—but the number of virtual golf bars in Japan has been growing nevertheless. Meanwhile, a 2015 report from the government-sanctioned newspaper China Daily noted that the recent rise in golf simulators has allowed the golf industry to see a 10 percent year-over-year growth in that Asian country.
In the U.S., many dense cities remain a largely untapped market for golf despite their massive populations, but there have already been success stories.
Golf & Body NYC has been thriving as a private, high-end indoor country club in Manhattan's midtown. Indoor simulators are an increasingly common fixture in the growing number of luxury high rises in the city. There’s a small-but-growing number of exclusively public options now, too: The Bridge, Brooklyn Greens, Golf Manhattan, Five Iron Golf and Premier Indoor Golf are just a handful that have opened in the last five years. Outside of New York, Eagle Club Indoor Golf is in the process of upgrading to a new location in downtown San Francisco.
There are, like anything, challenges to overcome. There simply aren’t many simulators, relatively speaking, at the moment, which means prices are still much higher compared to South Korea, where there are lots. Prices will start to drop the more people come through its doors, but to ensure higher volume, you need lower prices. You also need more simulators to host all that turnover, which generally means higher costs for businesses. There are ways around these problems, but they take time.
The golf industry often talks about the need for a cheaper, faster experience to grow the game. If the success of Topgolf and Golfzon prove anything, it's that people happily flood into golf when the prohibitive barriers to entry are lowered. But unlike Topgolf, golf simulators can be brought closer to people because they require less space to build. They also present a uniquely natural bridge to traditional golf: The courses people play exist, after all, the equipment people use is real, and the game you're playing isn't golf-inspired. It's a simulation of golf itself.
To truly thrive among today's generation, golf needs to go where the people are. It needs to embrace its cities, and use golf simulators as its vehicle to doing so. Only then will the game thrive for generations to come.