By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA
Say what you will about the year that was 2020, but for the game of golf, there was a renaissance of sorts that saw a bevy of new golfers take up the game and many individuals return to golf after years of inactivity. Whether you’re at a private club, public course or stand-alone range, retaining these individuals for the long-term is the challenge faced by PGA Professionals across the country – and it’s a challenge that the pros we spoke with are all too ready to accept. In fact, retention starts with the effective onboarding of these new golfers.
Onboarding refers to the actions facilities and their golf professionals are taking to help beginner golfers feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Putting steps in place to help new golfers get acclimated to your facility by giving tours, showing them how to get range balls, teaching them about securing tee times and providing basic information that makes them feel like they belong are the key first steps in the process.
I recently spoke with three PGA Professionals – industry leaders representing three different types of golf facilities. David Reasoner is the PGA Head Professional at Ridgewood Country Club, a private facility in Paramus, New Jersey. A Past-President of the New Jersey PGA, Reasoner provides some fun and engaging ideas that he and his staff put in place to welcome new members and engage them and their families from the start.
Mike Woods, the PGA Director of Golf and partner at Morton Golf Management, shares his thoughts and best practices regarding the onboarding process, something he and his colleagues at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, California have been doing for many years. Woods highlights the expansive menu of unique programs they offer for public golfers of all levels, especially those who are new to the game.
Finally, Erik Sorensen is the PGA Owner/Operator of Newbury Golf Center, a 2020 GRAA Top 50 Stand Alone Facility in Newbury, Massachusetts. Sorensen himself, a 2020 GRAA Top 100 Growth of the Game Teaching Professional, boasts an impressive PGA Professional resume and brings many years of teaching experience to the golfers of Massachusetts’ North Shore, offering several player development options for new golfers, and providing tools that his beginner golf students can use to ease into the learning process.
Ridgewood Country Club, Paramus, New Jersey – Across his 21 years at Ridgewood Country Club, Reasoner has welcomed many new members and golfers of all skill levels. The key to retaining these new members is getting them on board right away, with information, inclusion and attention. “Upon joining, we have new members fill out a form highlighting their intended use of the facility, their interests and family information, and share that information with the management team so everyone knows who’s coming in ahead of time,” Reasoner said. New members also provide a photo of their family so club staff is familiar and can address them accordingly upon meeting for the first time. Conversation can immediately address the needs and interests of the new members and their family – programming for their kids, opportunities around the club – in a welcoming environment where new members are greeted with a smile and staff already knows their names.
“From there, we take them on a tour of the facility, and walk them through everything we have to ensure they’re comfortable. It also gives them an opportunity to ask any questions that their sponsor hasn’t already answered, and introduce them to other staff members”, Reasoner added.
At Ridgewood Country Club, members are informally grouped by the year they joined the club – members this year will be part of the Class of 2021. Through conversation and engagement, members are proud to be part of their class, and recall, over the years, other members who joined at the same time. Who’s still there and who may have left? To build that pride in membership, Reasoner hosts an annual tournament that includes the latest three classes. Each foursome in the event is comprised of a member of each of those three classes, as well as one individual from the club’s golf committee, a wonderful way for members to get to know each other, as well as club leadership. There’s an interactive Q&A afterward during which Reasoner will ask a few members to stand up and discuss their experiences at the club, both good and bad. “We want to know what works and what doesn’t in order to get better,” Reasoner stated.
He highlighted yet another innovative program he facilitates that helps in onboarding his Professional Golf Management interns as much as it does his new members. The Intern Challenge is a three-month program (from May 15 to August 15) during which each of his five interns will help five new members to see who can reduce their handicaps the most. The interns conduct one group clinic for their five students each week and also offer private lessons to focus on the challenges of each new member. “It’s a great way for new members to get to know each other and creates camaraderie as well.” Reasoner mentioned. “I also want the interns to get to know the membership and be comfortable speaking in front of them while building that rapport.”
The onboarding steps taken at a public facility will vary from measures Reasoner highlighted, but the mission to grow the game and retain new golfers remains constant. At Haggin Oaks Golf Complex, a 2020 GRAA Top 50 Public Facility, Mike Woods describes their efforts to attract and retain new golfers. “We know there’s a large number of people out there who are considering playing golf,” Woods began. “In 2020, many of them actually acted on it.” Woods stressed the importance of being accessible online when potential new golfers do their research.
“Our website is massive and gets a huge amount of traffic every day,” Woods added. “And we’re getting ready to launch a “Newbie Button” on the website.” Woods explained that new golfers who click this button would have access to all the information needed to take up the game of golf, with Frequently Asked Questions and next steps provided. Information includes lesson opportunities for new golfers and discusses the differences between private and group instruction. There is a full calendar of programs easily accessible on the website so new golfers can sign up with confidence and minimal trepidation.
Two unique beginner programs offered at Haggin Oaks provides coaching and mentorship by avid golfers who know what it’s like to be a new golfer and nurture these individuals with care and understanding, focusing primarily on elementary topics like how to get range balls, how the various golf clubs differ, what to wear and eventually how to make a tee time. One of the programs offered for beginners is facilitated by one of ten Golf Coaches – someone who’s played the game for a long time and can play golf with some skill, but is definitely the kind of person who LOVES to bring new people to the game. “They operate these Welcome to Golf classes and do a great job of connecting with new golfers and onboarding them.” These sessions are very economical, often $39.99 to participate, but Woods and his team have even offered Groupon discounts to entice new golfers, often making the price as low as $15 to participate.
From that connection, Woods says that their retail store carries everything the new golfers might need, from $5 golf gloves to super-affordable box sets that make the transition into golf as easy on the pocketbook as it is on the mind of the new golfer. They even offer complimentary rental sets if needed.
A second beginners’ program, the Women’s Mentoring Program, meets three days per week and offers an elementary level of education in getting new women golfers on the course. One of Haggin Oaks’ 19 nurturing mentors takes three new golfers through the check-in process, shows them how to secure their golf cart and how to proceed through a round of golf – not necessarily working on the technical aspects of the golf swing, but focusing on where to park the vehicle within a round and how to expeditiously play a round of golf, not rushing of course, but definitely being cognizant of the pace of play.
From these encounters, relationships blossom, which often mean as much in customer-retention as the golf itself. Understanding the importance of the social aspect of the game, it is true that the connections and bonds being formed bring new golfers out to the course more often. “The next thing you know, we have ladies who have turned into golfers and we’ve bridged the gap between taking a lesson or being on the range and actually being on the golf course, sometimes without their mentors,” Woods boasted. “As they feel more comfortable, they join other golf groups and leagues at clubs and courses all over the area, including ours. That model of onboarding has been very successful for us for quite a few years.”
Woods stated that there could be 60-70 women playing on each of the three mentoring days, resulting in over 200 rounds each week from that program alone. There is no cost in this program – they simply pay their greens fees and cart fees, reducing any barrier to entry. “This has been a great way to build loyalty,” Woods commented. These are cost-effective, welcoming programs that help individuals get comfortable at the golf course. More technical player development programs are offered simultaneously through one of their PGA and LPGA Professionals.
In fact, Woods described it as their “Secret Sauce”, if you will. New golfers either meet one of the PGA Teaching Professionals and start improving their skills through private instruction, or they hear about one of the group programs taught by the facility’s PGA Professional team. These classes are similar to supervised practice sessions that cover a different topic each session. At $25 for a 90-minute session, the options remain affordable. Woods commented that students come to these sessions and realize that half the participants are the same individuals as in the coaching and mentor groups. “They start to figure it out,” Woods commented. “One day a week you take a class – one day you join the mentor group – another day you come practice. New golfers start to understand – ‘I’m getting this down.’” Woods concluded by stating that “it’s very rare that someone will defect out of the game when they reach this level of engagement – they’re making friends and enjoying the experience.”
Camaraderie and friendship are evident at stand-alone driving ranges across the country as well. With fun, family and friendship as a cornerstone of most of these facilities, Erik Sorensen recently opened a fun and inviting practice destination for the golfers of New England. At Newbury Golf Center, the long-time PGA Professional offers player development programs for golfers of all skills levels and experience. His facility has grass tees, as well as mats, and welcomes new golfers to its practice putting green and short game areas. He even offers a Mike Bender Wedge Range, and welcomed the world-renowned golf instructor to his facility to collaborate.
As is the case at all facilities, new golfers are vital to Sorensen’s range, having just opened last August. In his efforts to grow the game, he highlighted his affinity for training aids, and uses them in his lessons. “I always leave my students by teaching them how to uses the training aids. They’re coming [between lessons] and practicing with a purpose, using the training aids that we’ve made available to them,” Sorensen commented. “There are days I walk the range and might see six to eight of my students practicing with training aids, setting up their own practice stations.”
Understanding that it’s all about relationships, Sorensen will stop and engage his students on the range, as well as newcomers to his facility, unfamiliar faces who he strives to welcome with a smile. With over 100 students in his women’s program and well over 100 juniors, he knows that a quick introduction and conversation with someone on his range holds endless possibilities for new business and often makes the customer feel welcome and important.
Sorensen has been around the block enough to know that simply putting the amenities in place only goes so far in growing one’s business. Without the “hello’s”, “how ya doing?” and “how’s the family?”, his pristine facility might attract curious golfers, but will it retain them? That’s where his personality and expertise come in. Onboarding is about engagement – going beyond the “hi” and “goodbye” and providing the latest on programs and new equipment and special events – providing information so people feel included.
“I’m teaching six clinics right now, in the middle of the winter, and they’re all sold out,” he highlighted. “And I’ll do another six clinics next month.” Sorensen has had eight fitting days with Titleist and sells multiple sets of clubs at each one of them. These are the programs that give customers a reason to come to his facility over another in the area. He understands what it takes to help new golfers get acclimated to the game.
To sustain his early success, Sorensen has plans for monthly clinics and a full slate of summer golf schools in 2021. He provides custom clubfitting services that ensure golfers are using equipment that conforms to their swing, body type and physical capabilities. He employs a knowledgeable staff that provides information on the special amenities offered at Newbury Golf Center.
“My number one thing with my staff is customer service. If you give people good customer service, they’re going to come back. They’re engaged – we know their names and are friendly,” Sorensen stated.
It’s a common theme – engagement. Onboarding new golfers is about engaging them. Giving them tour of the club like they do at Ridgewood Country Club, giving them affordable opportunities to learn the game like the folks at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex have done for many years and not only encouraging them to practice, but actually teaching them how to practice, using valuable training aids that expedite progress and improvement, like Sorensen does at Newbury Golf Center.