20 Years Ago

As a thirty-nine year old golf professional with a young family and demanding job running a pay-and-play nine hole golf centre in Kent, the last thing I really needed was to lose a considerable amount of money in the dot com crash. Nevertheless, waking up to this reality was quite sobering for my wife and I. From time to time, with the minimum of repetition needed for such a serious mess up, my wife reminded me that I was a fool and an idiot for losing a big chunk of money which could have put us in a much more comfortable situation. Being headstrong and foolish, as she had rightly described me, I said I would earn it all back with more to spare, and with that I set off on a career as a golf consultant. My chosen speciality subject was golf ranges. I made contact with several companies, including Power Tee, who I represented for some time. We were reasonably successful in encouraging golf ranges to automate the teeing process so that golfers could hit from a predetermined (and adjustable) height, enjoy the magic of the ball seamlessly emerging from under the range surface without any bending over or reaching required.  As I drove around the country making various stops at golf ranges and centres, I realised that the collective benefit of the things I saw might be of use to other people operating golf facilities. I approached a few of the supply companies - and bingo! Golf Range News was born. Remarkably, until that point, there was no magazine or representation for those who owned and operated golf venues, so the opportunity was vast and unclaimed. Heading back to my teenage years, my highly educated parents (I come from a long line of academics, which will shock and amaze those that know me) were despairing when it came to my indifference to all things written and read. Adding a touch of dyslexia probably didn’t help, but I was the least well-educated person in my family and was only interested in playing ball sports - cricket golf and football (the proper version, not the one with the misshapen ball!). So, years later I was faced with writing a magazine with no idea how to construct a sentence or paragraph, with no knowledge of punctuation whatsoever. Emails and websites were very new and I knew nothing about these as well. I was a failed tour professional, a slightly more successful golf professional, but somebody with a very limited range of abilities suited to a career in journalism and publishing. 

Unsurprisingly, the first issue of a Golf Range News, which was just 24 pages, took a full three months to create and I was helped greatly by Ellen Nall who styled the magazine with its elegant logo and simple two column page style. Marion, my lovely wife and far better half, was luckily gifted in English language and corrected, improved and often completely re-wrote my dreadful prose. 

The magazine was launched almost exactly 20 years ago today and we had some excellent feedback from not just the ranges and centre operators to whom we had sent the magazine, but also from our advertisers and other suppliers who we had not been able to contact in time for the launch issue. Wow, this was indeed exciting! The horror of horrors was that I now had to create another new magazine, complete with new material in less than three weeks. Panic set in. The second issue was by far the most terrifying. However, over time we just got used to creating a magazine every month and doing what was necessary to get interesting stories and news articles that were relevant to our readers. 

Rohan Barnett was - and is - a fantastic friend of ours who had been working in childcare for Essex County Council. A bad day at the office for Rohan in those days involved some horrible tragedy involving children who had fallen through the net of life. Rohan came on board just a few months after we started the magazine and quickly assumed control of all items to do with production of the magazine, as well as contributing massively to the professionalism and look of the finished product. 

 

The Organisation of Golf and Range Operators

- OGRO, was formed by Rohan, Marion and myself later in 2002. OGRO, as it is widely known was set up to look after the interests of golf and range operators, who were not catered for by any of the existing golf bodies or professional associations acting for their members. Golf ranges are an interesting subject as they are the place where almost all new golfers start to play. They therefore provide huge opportunity for teaching and retailing. This remains the same today however, as we will see, things have changed enormously over the last two decades. 

We were determined to keep both the magazine and OGRO as a small tightly knit group but were very keen to do the right thing by our readership and our members. We also wanted to be more involved with the important decisions that were being made in relation to the sport as a whole. To heighten our profile, and to honour one of the very great figures in golf, we asked John Jacobs OBE to become our president. We were thrilled and honoured when he accepted and despite him not being able to attend due to illness, we held a celebration lunch at the Meon Valley Hotel in Hampshire. Peter Alliss, kindly stepped in to accept the presidency of OGRO on John’s behalf and dozens of well- meaning messages were read from the great and a good from around the golf world, including Messrs’ Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Thomson, Norman to name but a few, who sent warm and kind messages congratulating John on accepting his new role. 

John Jacobs sadly died a few years ago, but we greatly enjoyed his company for the first years of OGRO. He attended conferences, lit up GolfBIC, and was a kind and generous participant in everything we scheduled throughout the following

years. We are very happy that Pete Cowen – another of the world’s greatest coaches - agreed to become our next OGRO president. 

We staged the first OGRO Conference at Harrogate in 2003. Our lead speaker that year was Stephen Lewis, who now chairs the Golf Foundation. Stephen was running a company called Bay Drive, which was responsible for developing Topgolf in from its infancy in the UK into the global company that it has become today. The rest of the conference and small tabletop exhibition proceeded very well and was popular enough to turn into an annual event, with the Great Danes Hotel in Maidstone becoming the home of the OGRO Conference and exhibition for a number of years. 

 

Topgolf 

Topgolf was a game changer for the golf industry and its influence is still being felt in golf ranges today.  In essence, those using golf ranges in the early days were the ‘anoraks’ of golf, preferring to practise quietly with a solemnity that almost inhibited joy. Luckily there was a large number of these people, but they accounted for no more than 3% of the population, despite the game being enjoyed by at least 6% of the population when you include all of its forms. Topgolf latched onto the fact that whilst golf ranges were able to successfully compress the golfing experience into a smaller area and a more convenient time frame which could be protected against the vagaries of the weather, they were not much fun. 

Topgolf was the brainchild of the Jolliffe twins and worked on the basis that families could enjoy a golf experience at a golf range together. All of the golf range outfields for Topgolf sites are synthetic, which allows golf balls (complete with embedded computer chip) to roll and run and reach the targets closest to the range structure. This is critical as it allows players with little experience, power or competence to score points, whilst the far more experienced and competent golfers who have accompanied them on their trip to the range can then aim at the smaller targets further down the range which have more points. 

If you can imagine a scenario where a young son or daughter tops a ball from the Topgolf bay and it skips merrily along before falling into one of the segmented sunken targets, which are so big that they are hard to miss. The technology works its magic, and the youngster records a few points on the electronic score pad displayed in high-tech glory inside the bay. 

“Okay kid, let me show you how you ought to do it.” Says the doting dad. The more experienced father takes aim at a target further down the range and hits a quite presentable golf shot, which fails to find any of the targets. Instantly the lead is established, and the excitement generated by the young lad goes through the roof as he increases his lead over his hapless father over the next few shots. This is a sneaky way of levelling up, but one that has born huge fruits and encouraged hundreds of thousands of golfers to play. Both of the Joliffe brothers have made a fortune from their invention and rightly so. It is a piece of utter genius to pair golf with technology in such a way. 

From the outset Topgolf centres were always known as game centres, rather than golf ranges. This is a key distinction; customers are invited to play, not to practise. There is plenty for the dedicated golfer, but the majority of golfers arrive at the Topgolf centres with friends. They can drink and eat in the golf bays and order additional refreshments using a buzzer located behind the bay. Some may find this brazen commercialism vulgar: it’s not - it’s brilliant fun and new golfers love it. 

 

Consulting 

For many years OGRO provided consulting services to the golf industry. This included linking up with PGA Design Consulting to co-author the Range Design Guide, which is still the only reference book for those wanting to build a golf range. Our clients have been many and varied over the years and we have been involved in the design of over 40 golf range projects. This is perhaps the most fascinating part of the job, as it allows us to use logical principles and interesting design options to ensure that golfers will enjoy visiting a golf centre for many years to come. Our clients benefitted hugely from having their investment carefully thought out by people who have experience in the design, construction and then operation of numerous golf facilities. Over the years we have worked for scores of different clients including World of Golf, Topgolf, Huxley Golf and many other companies and individuals. 

Just over 15 years ago, we were contacted by a major firm of lawyers acting in a failed golf range project in Portugal. As consultants and expert witnesses we were able to defend the claim, saving our clients an astronomical amount of money, which ran to well over €100 million. 

 

Adventure Putting 

Obviously the success of Topgolf brought new opportunities to bring entertainment, rather than pure practice to golf centres. Although we do not discuss the details of our work, it is no secret that we did strongly advise Topgolf to introduce an adventure putting course at their Watford site. Adventure putting was in its infancy in Europe at that time and there were only a few adventure putting courses and only at seaside venues. There were no fully fledged adventure putting golf courses at golf ranges: perhaps a few cheap crazy golf structures existed, but nothing on the scale of adventure putting as we know it today. 

At Topgolf in Watford there was a major problem with customers queueing to get a bay - they were victims of their own success. We rightly identified that those waiting would also benefit from being able to putt around a beautifully landscaped putting course, complete with water features and exotic planting. Topgolf was successfully able to sell rounds of putting along with their core experience of Topgolf. Not only this, but golfers of all standards stayed longer on site with many opting to do both activities: not surprisingly, the food and beverage income increased substantially, as well as their profits. 

Today there are well over 500 adventure putting golf courses in the British Isles, with some being covered to take away the issues in relation to weather and the seasons. Making golf fun has created a stronger desire to take up golf. Championing adventure golf has been one of the best things that the OGRO team have achieved, and these adventure golf courses continue to help the main sport of golf grow faster than any other initiative. 

 

Families and Coffee 

Planning restrictions have got tighter for those wishing to develop new golf centres and golf ranges. It would probably be unwise to only build a golf range today, providing there is sufficient space to add an adventure putting course, a large retail shop and a food and beverage operation. 

The focus for most of these highly successful new golf centres is aimed at the family unit. Those that can attract the whole family to visit, perhaps when they are engaged in different activities before meeting up for a bite to eat or other refreshments, will benefit massively from a greatly increased spend. This is the key behind modern golf centre design. In addition, 20 years ago it would have been incomprehensible to imagine how much we would spend on coffee on a day-to-day basis. Today, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and a plethora of other brands try to tempt us to buy a fancy coffee with a dozen variations, and prices are now nudging £4 and beyond per cup.  Not surprisingly, the best golf centres will now include a posh coffee opportunity. There is good money to be made in selling high- quality coffee to eager consumers and far more profit and less hassle than selling multiple alcoholic drinks to the same individuals. 

The whole appearance of golf ranges has become more professional and whilst in the early years concrete paths, stark lighting and hard mats were normal, today our customers are used to carpeted bays, with soft lighting, seating, music, heaters and high-tech options in every bay. There is a real feel of luxury to the modern range and this helps welcome new players who like the refinement.

 

Range Technology 

Over the last few years there has been a remarkable rise in range technology. To be specific, I am referring to the type of technology that records details of everyone’s shots, transmitting them to a screen in the bay at the range. Toptracer, which is now owned entirely by Topgolf, was one of the first of these companies to provide images of ball flights based on the recorded position of the ball in flight. Ball data can be collected accurately by a variety of different methods with probably the most accurate version being harvested by radar. 

Doppler radar was first used in the ballistics industry and was successfully able to analyse bullets and missiles as they travelled towards their targets. This was invaluable information for the murderous industry of warfare, but is much more pleasantly utilised in golf ranges, where it is vital to select each individual player’s ball flight and not get it muddled up with the guy in the next bay.

Inrange, Awesome Golf, Flight Scope, Trackman and several more companies are providing expert solutions for those wishing to enhance their customers’ experience. For many years golf ranges wanted to replicate the Topgolf experience at their own golf range, but Topgolf was not willing to share their technology with everyone, for obvious reasons. This sentiment changed completely when they purchased Toptracer and now they are willing, for a hefty fee, to share their insights and allow other golf centres to benefit from turning their ranges into game centres. 

This has had a major impact on the way that a golf range looks today. We were able to advise the industry to build wider and deeper bays; today bays are being extended backwards to provide seating, poser tables and stools so that multiple people can enjoy the experience from one single golf range bay. Food, drink and music are regularly to be found in the range bays of today – a noisier and more fun experience than some purists might like, but it is bringing golf to new and younger age groups. 

The technology is expensive, but today it is quite normal for a range to charge £10 for 100 golf balls, with some even charging more. Twenty years ago it was rare that 100 balls would cost even £5, and passing on even small price increases to customers was very problematic. 

 

Ball Dispensers and Payment 

When we started Golf Range News there were several companies supplying golf range equipment. Golf ball dispensers provided a variety of different products, and today the undisputed leader of range equipment is the Ipswich-based European Golf Machinery, run by the Yallop family and their dedicated team. Payments for golf balls used to depend on tokens and sometimes coins; a few years later prepaid cards were introduced, but in recent years even they have been superseded by modern technology. Now payment can be made by card, phone, barcodes: some golf ranges still even accept cash, but I am not sure for how much longer this will continue to be the case. 

Bay Booking 

During the pandemic, many habits had to be adjusted and different systems implemented so that contact with other people was kept to an absolute minimum. Booking a golf range session became the best way for most ranges to operate. In years gone by, many had tried to implement a system of day booking, but without success. The market leader is quite clearly YourGolfBooking.com, who provide a low-cost and super simple system which is easily understood by both range owner and the end user. Sessions can be booked on the half hour or hour and payment is taken online by card, which covers the cost of the balls used in a suitable timeframe. The customer is sent a barcode that is then presented to the golf range dispenser, and hey presto! the balls are vended to the customer. 

The golf range owner gets his money the following day, without having the cost and hassle of banking, and the customer can pick their time to visit. The days of queueing for a bay are now numbered with the advent of this simple, but brilliant system. We estimate that the booking system alone is worth an extra 10-15% increase on the range turnover - not to be sniffed at! 

 

GolfPods 

The leader in high ball stop fencing over the last 20 years has been Hi Nets, owned and run by Andy Weeks, who has become a good friend. Andy has managed to prove that his structures are safe in high winds and will not fail when the weather is challenging. I won’t elaborate on his expertise, other than to say that for anybody building a perimeter net over 15m they would be mad not to speak to Andy and his expert team. One of the truly innovative ways that Andy has developed his products has been to create the golfpod. Simply put, this is a short golf range netted on all three sides and also on top. This allows ranges to be completely safe with no ball escape issues whatsoever, and vastly reduces the amount of space needed to operate such a range. The golfpod operated by my good friend Neil Burke at Horsham Golf and Fitness is a very interesting proposition. Drastic action was needed when Neil and his partners sold some adjoining land to the local football club. It was clear that the range could not continue, as balls were falling into the car park on a regular basis. At some risk, because this have never been attempted before, Neil and Andy devised a strategy to utilise the existing Hi Nets stanchions and create an enclosed golf pod. This, married to the latest technology from Awesome Golf and Flight Scope, allowed Neil to take more than he had ever done before, despite the fact that the facility was no longer able to offer golfers the vision of their ball’s full flight. It is quite clear that golf ranges in the future will embrace this fully enclosed style of range and rely more on technology to create additional interest for the golfing consumer. 

Robots 

Robotic ball collection and grass cutting is here to stay. Philip Sear has been at the heart of bringing this new technology to the golf range industry. It has had a few teething problems, but more and more golf ranges are benefiting from automated ball collection, including ball washing and range outfields now being kept in pristine condition throughout the year - and not wrecked by the ploughing action of heavier ball pickers as they are pushed in wet and muddy conditions by heavy utility vehicles. The range environment is a fairly violent place to test new products and whilst it was not impossible to imagine a robotic ball collection system 20 years ago, I would have found it very hard to believe that such a system would in fact work seamlessly in all types of weather, providing a superior way of managing the range outfield. 

 

Golf Retail 

Golf retail has undergone something of a change in the last twenty years. Online retailers and American Golf have been dominating the sales for many years and a number of facilities have switched to selling just the very basics – tees, balls, gloves and hats, in favour of creating more space within their clubhouses for more popular (and profitable) activities. 

Our own experience is not unusual – at Grimsby we are very proud to pair up with American Golf as our retail partner, whilst at Basildon we now only offer the very basic accessories, with our old shop making way for a pizzeria and fast food counter. There are still a good number of exceptional independent golf retailers, most of them PGA professionals, still daring to offer a large array of merchandise and competing with the online offers, which seem harder and harder to compete with. Overall, the golf business is about service and customer care – those of us that are good at it can excel in any given area, given a good location and a reasonable supply of customers. 

 

UK Golf Federation and GolfBIC 

In 2010, the United Kingdom Golf Course Owners’ Association - UKGCOA - joined together with OGRO to jointly host a new annual event called GolfBIC, the Golf Business and Industry Convention. We had realised that in order to grow the influence of the proprietary sector there was no point in hosting two separate events for those invested in the golf industry. Joining together was the perfect scenario and Jerry Kilby, who was then the chief executive of UKGCOA, and myself worked very hard to ensure that the new event was a great success. 

For several years we held these events at the Marriott Forest of Arden, near Coventry. An array of fascinating speakers topped most years by our own president, John Jacobs doing a star turn. The events including a tabletop exhibition and a gala dinner and regularly attracted over 250 delegates. GolfBIC is a great way of renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. 

The UKGCOA morphed into the UK Golf Federation in 2018, and since then has gone from strength to strength. For awhile, I was a proud board member, prior to getting in a bit of a tangle with the new Worldwide Handicapping System. OGRO has now given up its role at GolfBIC, with the Federation’s latest event being held at The Belfry on 21st March 2022.  We wish the Federation every possible success; Doug Poole, Richard Haygarth and the rest of the board are doing a fabulous job in making golf more accessible to the masses. The Federation has a sworn aim, in ensuring that golf fees remain free of levy or tax from any of the governing bodies. Their work is vital for the health of golf and they deserve far more credit than they have got so far - vested interests sometimes take a while to allow logic to prevail. 

Over the years, I have been fairly outspoken about some of the golfing bodies that get in the way of the good work done by those owning golf centres and public-facing golf facilities of all types. Rather than taking a tacky swipe at their ongoing lack of thought and vision (was that a tacky swipe?), I just hope that the busy bodies keep themselves out of the way of those genuinely engaged with creating more golfers. 

 

The Golf Features Family 

Websites are critical to any publication and this became even more so as the cost of post and printing rose. We have developed a number of websites that are related to the publication and also to OGRO. Golfcourses4sale.co.uk has proved to be very popular with those looking to purchase or sell a golf facility. Our great friend, Tony Reader, runs another of our related websites: machinery4golf.net which is the market leader for used golf machinery and allows golf operators to buy and sell used equipment, without being wholly reliant on the machinery dealers. The site has grown and grown over the years and is a useful resource for people searching for a specific piece of equipment. 

We have adjusted the title of our publication as we broadened our sights. Golf Range News became GRN-OGRO, briefly Golf Resorts Direct and then Golf Features, the magazine that we publish today. A really big change for us occurred in October 2018, when we ceased the printed version of Golf Features. This disappointed a few but allowed us to reduce costs to our advertisers and refocus our offer for the digital age. 

The Golf Features magazine you read today has all sorts of information and stories on golf operation of all types – ranges, courses, resorts, machinery, property, news from the PGA, The Golf Foundation and a whole host of other issues are covered each month and dropped into your inbox. Thank you for reading, and please keep your ideas and feedback coming – it has been great to learn more from our friends across the world over the last two decades. 

Since 2002, Marion and I have developed several our own projects including Maidenhead, Grimsby, Fuengirola, Staplehurst, Newark, Basildon, and a few others. Today we are very happy with our lovely golf course at Basildon and our exceptional golf centre at Grimsby. It’s been a terrific ride and one that I would not swap with anyone. The future also looks very rosy for those involved in delivering golf to the masses. 

So, the last 20 years have been completely fascinating for Rohan, Marion, Tony and myself. We also owe a debt to our USA contributing editor, M James Ward, who has provided insights from across the pond on both people in golf and some of the world’s finest golf course architecture since 2016. In 2022 we look forward to welcoming our daughter, Joanna Jenkins to the team. 

We have had a lot of fun and it’s been an absolute pleasure to provide information to the golf industry. We have met some remarkable and wonderful people and on behalf of us all we would very much like to thank all those that we have been involved with, operators, owners, readers and a very big thank you to our advertisers and clients, and anyone else who I have left out, for helping us to produce the magazine and strengthen OGRO over the last two decades. 

We look forward to many more years. 

Colin, Marion, Rohan, Tony and Joanna.

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