Research in recent years has shown that the game of golf is 'too difficult for beginners' and especially for children, so how can we make the game easier and more fun to learn? Writing for the UKGCOA Tom Brooke, Managing Director of Glendale Golf explains what they have done to attract more families to their facilities, the challenges they faced and the rewards...

At the start of summer this year, my wife and I took our children (a 5 year old daughter and 3 year old son) to our local village carnival. I was delighted to see a local golf club there with a stall and we made it one of our first stops. Our kids were encouraged to have 3 goes each at hitting an airflow golf ball, using traditional, cut down golf clubs, into a 4 inch hole in the middle of a target set 2 feet off the ground. Unsurprisingly, neither of them got anywhere close to achieving it, or had any fun in the process, or showed any signs of wanting to have another go.

Fast forward two months. As a family we visit one of our Glendale Golf venues, Tilgate Forest Golf Centre, to play our newly branded ‘Fun Course’. My wife and I took a pitching wedge and a putter each, my 3 year old son had a football and my 5 year old daughter used the new SNAG Golf equipment that we now provide there free of charge. The kids had a great time and it was just fantastic to watch how enthused my daughter was with hitting the ball and running as fast as she could to ‘get the ball in the hole before Daddy does!’ An hour later, we returned to the clubhouse and sat down for lunch. The results:

1. Two young children having a really enjoyable experience at a golf centre
2. Two adults who used to play golf at least once a week before having kids, actually getting the chance to hit a few balls
3. A family of four having lunch in the clubhouse and an extra £30 in the till
What other sport can boast the same values as a family of four all enjoying participating together at the same time? Surely that’s one of our biggest selling points!?

Going back to our experience at the village carnival, let’s make it clear; it wasn’t the Golf Pro’s fault that our kids had no fun. Good on him for being there and doing what he could to encourage participation. The real problem is, golf as a sport just hasn’t caught on properly to the one of the biggest problems it has in ‘growing the game’ - It’s just too difficult for beginners and especially for children!

To support this, the golf industry has been given the research it needs to really understand why participation has dropped so much in recent years. The ‘Growing Golf in the UK’ survey, conducted by Syngenta in 2013, looked at the reasons why people do not take more of an interest in the game. One of the most common responses was indeed that the game is too difficult for beginners, but in addition to this, ‘family commitments’ and ‘time to play’ were also most frequently quoted as the barriers to entry.

At Glendale Golf, as a national operator of public golf courses, we felt a responsibility and an opportunity, to act on this. We all agreed that it was going to take more than just relaxing our dress codes and offering the odd group beginner lesson to really make a difference.

As a starting point, in 2015 we launched our first annual ‘Festival of Golf’ event, something we have now run every August for the past three years. The event puts an emphasis on opening our centres to our local communities with a number of initiatives designed to encourage new customers through our doors. Much of what we offer has a focus on golf; simple initiatives that many operators try like the free beginner lessons and family green fee offers on our short courses. In addition to this though, we also include Fun Days with other attractions like live music, BBQ's and children's entertainment, with the aim of offering an alternative reason for someone to visit a golf centre for the first time, even if they weren't keen on actually trying golf as part of the experience. We did this to try and overcome some of those perceived 'barriers to entry' and broaden our target market that little bit further. We felt that once we could overcome that very first barrier and make someone feel welcome and comfortable, we might then have more opportunity to actually get a golf club into their hands for the first time. At some of our centres, our PGA Golf Coaches and Centre Managers also attended a number of community events in their local areas, to encourage more participation and increase awareness. As a result of these efforts, we've been very proud to have seen an average of over 100 new golfers into each of our centres each year when we run these events.

Whilst this was a good starting point, we weren’t really achieving that much in the longer term to retain all of these new customers we had worked so hard to attract. Other than while we were running the Festival of Golf each year, we simply weren't actually offering anything innovative or attractive enough to retain the beginner and family markets on a more regular basis.

So, to us it was quite simple. We referred back to the market research and agreed that we needed to do much more, as part of our standard offering and not just on the odd occasion, to provide more for families, to provide a quicker alternative (not just 9 holes on the main course, this still takes 2 hours!) and to find ways of making golf easier and more enjoyable to play for beginners.

As a result of this, we've introduced a series of simple, easy to introduce and inexpensive initiatives at a number of our facilities which are now available every day throughout the year.

At Duxbury Park Golf Course in Chorley, Lancashire, we opened a small, family themed park which we've called the 'Golf and Games Park'. It sits within the grounds of the facility, close to the clubhouse but far enough away from the golf course to cause any distraction to our existing, more traditional golf customers. The park includes a giant pirate themed sand pit, a selection of garden games and a short orienteering trail through the woodland. Access to the facilities is free of charge, with the idea being the revenue stream will be provided through family lunches and giving the local community alternative reasons to visit our venue. We can then encourage our new found customers onto the adjacent four hole pitch and putt golf course, where we now have larger hole cups and SNAG golf equipment available to make it so much easier and enjoyable for the first time golfer and for younger children.

At Tilgate Forest Golf Centre in Crawley and at Edwalton Golf Centre in Nottingham, we re-branded our nine hole Par 3 golf courses into what we now call the 'Fun Course'. There are now multiple options to play these courses including two tees on each hole (long and short) and two holes (8 inch and 21 inch). Players then have the option of using traditional golf equipment, SNAG Golf equipment or playing FootGolf. The welcome signs onto the Fun Course encourage participants to 'have fun' and to 'celebrate when you get the ball in the hole'! We've not just seen children and families try the Fun Courses, the set up actually provides an enjoyable, fast paced alternative for the experienced golfer as well. It's great fun with a couple of friends, particularly playing towards the 21 inch hole cups with the chance of holing out from much further out than you normally would do!

The principles behind the creation of our new 'Fun Courses' are simple and we feel tick a lot of boxes when it comes to overcoming those barriers to entry highlighted in the research:

  • Firstly, put the name 'Fun' into it to promote exactly that - Fun! (Golf in its purest form, as I have often experienced firsthand, is often anything but fun!)
  • Secondly, what does 'Par 3' really mean to a novice or junior golfer? Asking a young child or someone new to the game to hit a small white ball 150 yards towards a hole cup 4 inches in diameter really is quite difficult for most people, let alone in 3 shots.
  • Providing larger hole cups and shorter tee options makes it so much easier and achievable for beginners and children, surely that's more enjoyable?!
  • SNAG Golf equipment is ideal for beginners and children. Large headed, plastic golf clubs and small tennis balls make it much easier to connect and get the ball in the air.
    As well as the Fun Courses, we have also converted a section of the driving range at Tilgate Forest into the 'Fun Zone'. The initiative was supported by England Golf and provides an enjoyable and informal experience on the range, with a collection of colourful targets and a points based scoring system. We've also introduced a dining experience to the Fun Zone and customers can order food and drink to their bays whilst learning to play golf and having fun with friends and family.

As well as the Fun Courses, we have also converted a section of the driving range at Tilgate Forest into the 'Fun Zone'. The initiative was supported by England Golf and provides an enjoyable and informal experience on the range, with a collection of colourful targets and a points based scoring system. We've also introduced a dining experience to the Fun Zone and customers can order food and drink to their bays whilst learning to play golf and having fun with friends and family. 

The initiatives have been cost effective and easy to introduce. For example, the total cost of the ‘Golf and Games Family Park’ in Chorley was less than £4,000. On the opening weekend, we achieved an additional £1,800 in revenue, mainly through catering. The 9 hole ‘Fun Course’ set up, including the 21 inch hole cups, a selection of SNAG Golf equipment and some new signage, can be put together for around £2,000 on existing par 3 or ‘Academy’ courses or even on an area of unused land which many golf courses seem to have within their grounds.

It would be fair to say that we have faced some challenges in introducing these new initiatives. It’s not been an overnight success and we were not expecting it to be easy. We know we're not providing state of the art Top Golf or Adventure Golf attractions and there is so much choice for family days out in every community. Competition isn’t just the other golf club down the road; it’s also the local leisure centre, soft play, theme park or cinema.

As a very reasonable target, we've been aiming to attract a regular throughput of new customers, perhaps a dozen or so families each day at each venue at weekends and during the school holidays. We've run a couple of 'Family Fun Days' as part of the launch of our new offerings and on each occasion we've had huge numbers of people visit us, almost to the extent where we've been too busy on the day itself. At the opening event of the Golf and Games Park at Duxbury, we had over 300 people attend, with queue's all day to use the fun course or try Snag Golf and our catering team couldn't keep up with demand. However, we’re now starting to look at how we can convert all of the effort that we put into these events, into improved customer retention at more manageable levels on a regular basis to really make a success of our new initiatives.

The more significant and immediate challenge, one we have had to be very careful of managing, is the expectations of our existing customer base and doing what we can to limit the disruption that groups of children might cause to the traditional golfer who has visited us for a few hours of peace and quiet! This is something we are very aware of and we knew there would be some level of risk involved. Green fee and membership is and always will be our bread and butter. However, when that serving of bread and butter is significantly less generous than it was a few years back, we're very conscious that changes have to be made and we have to try new things to encourage a wider audience. We're working hard to get the balance right, at the same time as being transparent and honest with our customers about why and what we are setting out to achieve.

Once we have achieved a more stable and regular base of customers using our parks, fun courses and fun zones, the next stage is to have in place a professional and well delivered pathway through our golf academy system for those that are enjoying the new offerings enough to want to develop their golf that bit further. We're looking to make progress with our golf coaching set up's, both with our existing PGA coaches as well as recruiting newly qualified coaches to focus more on junior and beginner golf development. We feel that with our new facilities, it gives us that extra platform to really make it work.

We've been proud of the growth we have achieved in conventional green fee and membership revenues at a number of our centres in the past three years, which has been north of 30% in some cases. However, we recognise that growth won't continue at that pace, certainly in the golf market as it is now. To be a more robust and well rounded operator in today’s industry, we need to support this by broadening our appeal to the family market and to the wider community.

This points us back to the industry research we looked at and most importantly, remembering to really listen to what the leisure consumer actually wants. We can only truly 'Grow the Game' if we provide facilities that are genuinely more family orientated and give a quicker and easier format of the game. Simply trying to encourage a child to play a ‘par 3’ course or allowing someone to wear jeans and pointing them in the direction of the driving range with a steel shaft 7 iron and a bucket of balls after a 15 minute 'taster session' just won't do it!

We only launched these initiatives at the start of this summer, so it’s far too early to prove that what we’re doing is a success. However, we are confident that what we’re providing ticks a lot of boxes in overcoming those barriers to entry that are preventing this ridiculous sport that we all love from really thriving in today’s market.

In developing this further, our strategy is to continue to focus on the delivery of a high quality, affordable golfing experience for our existing golf market, whilst at the same time providing an element of family focused and beginner friendly activity. The biggest challenge with this of course, is striking the right balance between the two, something which I'm sure we're not alone in trying to figure out.

Going back to the story at the beginning, my daughter has really enjoyed our repeat visits to the ‘Fun Course’, as have I, as it means I not only get to spend time with my children, but I get to play a bit of golf at the same time, albeit in a slightly amended format. It also means that I can take all of the credit in 15 years time when she is holding aloft the Solheim Cup.....

I’d been really keen to discuss our initiatives further as well as any others that are being tried at other venues, let’s work together to really make a success of ‘Growing the Game’. Please feel free to contact me on 07803 744600 or tom.brooke@glendalegolf.co.uk