Earlier this year, the National Golf Foundation released a report that showed 32.1 million Americans participated in the game in 2017, a monofilament-thin increase from the year before. However, the number included 8.3 million who played exclusively at “off-course” facilities, i.e. golf simulators, driving ranges and the like. That number represented a 7 percent increase ... and a changing landscape.
“Golf participation is evolving,” said, Joe Beditz, HGF president, in the report. “On-course, green-grass participation is holding its own and off-course is continuing to grow.”
You might even say it glows.
At least it does at Indian Wells Golf Resort, located in Palm Springs, Calif., where “Shots In The Night” has turned day into night. An immersive golf experience, “Shots” was designed by California-based NextLinks, whose CEO, Dave Schultz, has created an interactive golf experience that comes to life after dark. Schultz was an electrical engineer and operations executive at General Electric for two decades.
He also was an aviation electronics technician in the United States Navy, where he trouble-shot the systems of A-6 and F/A-18 aircrafts. Now he’s tweaking a stalled golf industry with an entertainment platform that utilizes the same kind of sophistication.
“To engineer that solution, we’ve had to do what great chefs do and serve up the best aspects of a transcendent round of golf in a ‘deconstructed’ manner,” Schultz said. “We don’t force people to bomb drives or hit 200-yard targets. We start with attainable, fun skills that get people hooked. … We’re really just beginning to show the world how golf can unite and inspire something special.”
The “Shots” concept is scalable to a variety of golf facilities, and its debut at Indian Wells has been spectacular. When it opened in October, the innovative attraction was projected to produce revenue in excess of $700,000 during the first year. And remember, this is revenue at a time when golf courses traditionally sit dormant.
Turns out the projections were low. Indian Wells general manager Steven Rosen said, with advance bookings included, the new game in town generated more than $300,000 during the first two months. Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
“I think what has surprised us the most is the wide variety of demographics that it draws,” Rosen said. “Our intent originally, when we were talking about the design and the development of this, is that we would bring forward a group of individuals that would be in the mid-20s maybe to the mid-50s.
“But it is a much wider demographic of individuals, including families with small children right up to more conventional golf-playing groups of individuals.”
For some hardcore golfers, nothing beats 18 holes of blood, sweat and beers. But the golf industry strains to sustain itself on that core alone. “Shots” appeals to a softer core, one that is more inclusive, that includes new hands as well as old hands, that fancies entertainment over intimidation.
Keep in mind, Indians Wells is not a laser park, or an off-course anomaly. We’re talking Palm Springs. We’re talking 53,000 square foot clubhouse and fine dining. We’re talking two 18-hole golf courses that were among the top 25 “Best Municipal Courses in the United States” according to Golfweek. You want serious golf, you can get it at Indian Wells — all day long.
But when the sun sets, Indian Wells turns into a golf Fun House, where colorful graphics and interactive games are combined with all the comforts of home. Shortly after dark, it’s lights-cameras-action, as the natural grass putting course adjacent to the clubhouse comes alive.
With overhead spotlights, high-def televisions and music, the traditional golf experience turns into a street carnival of golf entertainment. Each green becomes a stage for putting versions of well-known games like "Darts," "Shuffleboard," and "Corn Hole.” All skill levels, including those who don’t know a putter from a pumpkin, easily assimilate into the action.
Meanwhile, the glowing driving range features a dozen bay stalls ready to accommodate those who prefer a full swing. The range has giant inflatable targets, with lighted golf balls and LED sensors that create a rapid blink whenever a target is hit. Like the putting course, a selection of familiar games are integrated, such as "21" and “Cricket.”
With the activities, Indian Wells provides a food truck on site, designed to complement the “Shots” experience. The truck is catered by the popular VUE Grille & Bar restaurant, and features eclectic options like Chili Cheese Tater Tots or a Thai Noodle Salad Bowl. Paired with the items are soft drinks and a full bar menu.
In short, handicaps notwithstanding, it's a party. At the same time, “Shots In The Dark” is not a shock to the wallet. As the NGF report underlined, affordability and accessibility is a continuing theme in the golf course industry. The average price paid for an 18-hole round of public golf was approximately $34 in 2017.
The hourly rate to reserve a putting green or driving bay at “Shots” is $40 — that’s for a group or individual.
“It truly is changing the perception of the game of golf for people who have never been exposed to it,” Rosen said. “It does one thing and one thing only, which is important - it makes it fun.”