News & Opinion

Simulation gives golf a real edge for growth

We’ve got this grow-the-game thing all wrong. To grow the game, we’ve got to grow golfers. But how? What would attract young, potential future players to golf?

Video. Gaming. Digital imagery. Golf simulators.

One way to get potential new players golf-ready would be to start them someplace other than on a golf course, where they often are intimidated by better golfers, not welcomed by faster players, unfamiliar with etiquette and overwhelmed by the variety of shots required.

That’s why simulator maker Golfzon may be in the right place at the right time.

Golfzon, based in South Korea, is arguably golf’s best simulator experience. It has been hugely successful in South Korea and hopes to break into the United States, where it has simulator-play locations in 12 states, in a bigger way. No one has created a national golf simulator-play franchise business in this country. 

Maybe Golfzon will succeed. The idea makes sense to Joel Smith, a former assistant pro in Greenwich, Conn., who chased a playing career on the mini-tours before an injury helped him decide to change course. He worked for Nestle, then landed what he calls his dream job with Golfzon, which exposed him to the wonders of Korean golf.

“The thing to understand about Korea golf is that there are 650 courses in Korea, and Golfzon has 5,500 retail locations,” Smith said. “They call it ‘screen golf,’ not ‘simulator golf.’ It’s a much larger component of the golf culture.

“If anyone from the USGA is listening, Koreans start off on a simulator, not a green-grass course. So, by the time they get to their first round on grass, they already know how to play golf, get the ball in the air, know the rules and have a great experience. That’s why the number of golfers in Korea is growing and why the number in the U.S. is declining.”

Eighty percent of Korean golfers started by playing screen golf, which is not only a popular recreation there, it’s a popular tournament spectator sport. 

“One of my first duties when I joined Golfzon in 2017 was to go to Golfzon’s headquarters in Daejeon, South Korea, and represent the U.S. in a global screen golf competition,” Smith said. “We had players from 14 countries in our made-for-TV arena of 40 simulators on three levels. It was incredible. You play, and others compete in booths around you. It was very tournament-focused, and the TV audience is big.”

Golfzon’s numbers are eye-opening: 30,000 simulators in use around the world, 56 million simulator rounds played per year, 2 million members and an average of 350 simulator tournaments a day. Just how big is Golfzon in South Korea? Five times bigger than Starbucks, which has 1,100 stores in the country.

The competition in the full-sized golf simulator business in the U.S. comes from Full Swing Golf, whose endorsers include Tiger Woods, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth; TruGolf, which launched the Links golf video game 25 years ago and has online interconnectivity as a focus; and aboutGolf, which has partnerships with the PGA Tour and Golf Channel; and HD Golf.

What’s interesting is that while all of the simulator makers’ models can be found at various locations, from an Under Armour retail store to Golf Galaxy to Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., there usually are only one or two, and they’re used for entertainment and games or for club-fitting to promote equipment sales. The indoor-range concept, a standalone facility with multiple simulators (10 or more) that could handle league play and serious golfers who want to practice year-round, has been overlooked.

Topgolf, the innovative outdoor range, also is serious competition. Its experience is enhanced by computer-chip data that allows players to compete in assorted target games, all while eating and drinking and paying by the hour. Topgolf is far smaller than Golfzon. It has 38 locations in the U.S., with a handful more in stages of planning and construction, and 13 million guests a year in the U.S. and United Kingdom. Each Topgolf facility, however, is a big deal and a true guest experience.

Topgolf has done an exceptional job at providing recreational entertainment and an alternative to traditional golf. However, Topgolf barely has scratched the surface of its potential as a teaching center. 

Golfzon could make a difference in instruction, but the company will face similar marketing challenges as Topgolf.

“In our U.S. business model, you have seven to 10 simulators, a healthy food-and-drink service and you’re off and running,” Smith said. “Our biggest competition is seasonality, and the American consumer’s mindset of what simulators are. Golf simulators haven’t been a great golf experience for American consumers in the past. We have to change that. We have to get them to experience a Golfzon simulator.”

The selling point of Golfzon is that any shot you can have in golf, you can pretty much face in its simulator.

“I haven’t personally seen a hole-in-one in a Golfzon simulator, but I once saw someone drain a 95-foot putt,” Smith said. “And it was breaking the whole way.”

I tested Golfzon a few years ago at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. A handful of Korean executives in business suits stood around a hitting bay and watched me play three holes hitting shots into a large simulator screen. The graphics were the most realistic I’d ever seen. Even the putting was really good, all things considered, with flowing arrows on the green indicating the putt’s break. But the most astonishing aspect was the bunker play. 

After hitting an approach shot into an on-screen bunker, I was directed to play the next shot from a special tee area made of odd whitish brushes. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. Then I made a swing, and, Wow. It felt exactly like hitting out of a bunker. My shot turned out so well that I drew light applause from the execs, but I barely noticed because I was stunned. Those brushes were insane. 

“Until you try it, you can’t believe it,” Smith said.

Golfzon’s top-of-the-line model sells for $70,000. Its new, smaller version, the Vision Compact, costs $23,000, and comes with 171 simulator courses to play. Golfzon has a variety of offerings between those two price points. Screen size varies from 10 feet by 11 feet high to 30 feet wide.

The Vision Compact is the model that the avid golfer with a high-ceilinged man cave might buy for his home. Golfzon’s brightest future in the U.S. figures to be the retail locations where, as they do in South Korea, customers come to play in leagues, tournaments or to practice or learn the game. One advantage that Golfzon has over Topgolf is that it requires less real estate and can be used year-round because it is indoors.

“It correlates to the Tiger Woods Golf video game from Electronic Arts back in the day,” Smith said. “The younger crowd is going to be attracted to this. Golfzon could be the indoor Topgolf.”

Golfzon draws South Koreans into the game and teaches them how to play so they can advance to the next level: a real golf course. It grows golfers in South Korea. That method could work in the U.S., too … if anyone out there is listening.