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February 2024

A New, “Moneyball” Approach to Instruction and Coaching

By David Gould

It’s a 2024 priority at Cyprian Keyes Golf Club to run a cost/benefit analysis on their Toptracer Range installation. Long owned and managed by David Frem, the upscale semi-private facility in central Massachusetts is looking to up its customer-relations game, with instruction as a catalyst. This requires intel on the connection between game-improvement and levels of golfer engagement that can generate greater loyalty and higher spend-per-visit or spend-per-season.

Cyprian Keyes hasn’t gotten too far with Moneyball-style analytics for instruction programming or the deployment of staff golf professionals, but Frem has nonetheless hit upon a sophisticated distinction within that whole premise. It goes like this: Lesson-giving is an important part of your player development efforts, but not the only part. And every-Thursday lessons that take Joe Golfer’s swing apart and put it back together can be more of a grind than a “light-hearted” experience.

“We look at this whole question in terms of ‘golfer journey,’ in all its different forms and stages,” Frem says. “The idea is to find ways of segmenting all those names on the database by where they’ve been and where they’re going—so we can efficiently help them continue along.” A program at the facility called Four After Four has modern-day player development written all over it. This is a low-pressure session with a golf professional and three of your friends in the quiet of the late afternoon. It can restart a stalled “journey” or become a player’s go-to version of golf participation, at least for a while.

Golfers involved with a facility’s coaching and training program spend more than golfers who aren’t involved—that’s the bare-bones belief beyond virtually all research and rhetoric about the Business Value of Golf Instruction, or BVGI, as its backers like to call it. Studies at a dozen or so facilities have borne this out, using the POS function to flag instruction-program participants and track their behavior, revealing many positive correlations.

A strategy followed at Invited (formerly ClubCorp) is built on staff pros connecting with golfers—in this case, all private-club members—using a “care group” structure and tactics. In this model, the golf professional is assigned one of several “pods” of golfers. That professional is compensated, in some cases handsomely, according to various behaviors the golfers in the pod exhibit. We’re talking about frequency of visits, participation in events, spend-per-visit, moving up in member class, re-upping each year, providing new-member referrals and the like. So-called at-risk members are the first to be placed in pods.

The work of Marissa Kulig-Crow at the 36-hole Lyman Orchards public golf complex in Middlefield, Conn., can hardly be surpassed as a tale of adult instruction driving facility revenue. Over a decade-long process crowned by Kulig-Crow’s receipt of the 2022 LPGA Professional of the Year Award, she built and grew a women’s player development program from 150 players at the start to over 2,000 active participants. Knock-on effects, dollar-wise, have been significant to say the least.

People who keep tabs on “BVGI” data and documentation often refer to a four-panel powerpoint produced by Steve Loescher during his lengthy tenure as corporate director of instruction for Billy Casper Golf, now the Indigo Golf Partners division of Troon, LLC. Titled simply “Gina,” it’s a time-lapse illustration of just one golfer’s value to her facility, all driven by her early start in the game, her successful work as a junior with her original coach, and further on into her early adulthood as a competitive player continually receiving coaching.

It takes strategy and an innovative spirit to successfully integrate instruction and player development into the core business, no doubt.

If your instruction team consists of W-2 full-time employees, they’re inclined to compartmentalize the teaching and coaching duties. They’ll consider it a good use of time, but not at the expense of golf-ops duty, which in their view is what they really get paid for, and which can soak up man-hours in countless ways.

If the lesson-giving is handled by non-employee contractors, their golfer service and dedication to improvement may burn hotter, but do the goals of these teachers match up with the goals of the enterprise? A career in golf devoted to teaching, training and swing-diagnosing can bring a tendency to become idealistic, even quixotic. The PGA or LPGA member whose reading material is “The Search for the Perfect Swing” by Cochran and Stobbs or Homer Kelley’s “The Golfing Machine,” might cause an owner to perceive more value in golf professionals who are studying tee sheets, spreadsheets and inventory-tracking software.

But a multitude of signs point to the need for a balanced sense of value between attention to administrative details and attention to the customer themself, through game-improvement activities of various sorts.

“Instruction is the closest and richest form of golfer interaction,” Frem acknowledges. “It’s a far cry from just having a conversation at the counter—even though there’s value in that. At Cyprian Keyes, we’ve been emphasizing interaction and the relationship-building between pros and golfers. It’s pretty clear that the result is increased loyalty and a feeling on golfers’ part that they belong.” A golf facility that really clicks and can optimize its ROI, in his view, is one that’s “light-hearted and fun, because of how familiar the staff and the players are with each other.”

In a memo she wrote on this very subject, award-winning coach Erika Larkin began with an open question to her fellow teaching professionals: “Are you a revenue-generator... or are you overhead?”

The title of Larkin’s memo was “Showing and Quantifying Your Worth as a Golf Instructor to your Facility.” And yes, in tandem with a complementary spreadsheet she created, Larkin worked her way through a comprehensive list of data points that connect an instructor’s efforts with positive outcomes. She was also quick to add that “It’s not all about dollars and cents, because the intangible values you bring are highly important and worth emphasizing.”

Because of technology—even on the golf-o-tainment side of the business—player improvement in its many little steps and stages has been seeping in from all directions. The golfer who on Monday doesn’t know his or her swing speed with the driver, then learns it on Tuesday, will wake up on Wednesday pondering ways to increase it. As we’ve seen at the sim-pubs and big-box sporting goods stores, opportunities to discover your golf swing’s numerical profile seem to continually increase. That means more data-driven conversation starters about improvement possibilities—with any sort of golfer.

The upshot is that a “culture of improvement” can be more readily inculcated than in the past. A golf environment where lots of players are making progress, ironing out swing flaws, learning to read greens and making better in-game decisions has a buzz to it. The professionals motivate them to practice, then deliver praise for good results—at some point it all gets contagious. There are outbound messages that celebrate many different types of game-improvement, not simply that one, single (luck-driven) accomplishment, the hole-in-one.

“Golf instruction dove into technology and hard data a decade ago with launch monitors and other tools, number-crunching the player’s swing and what the ball did,” says Lorin Anderson, president of Proponent Group, a business-services provider to instructors. “Now instructors are in a second phase of data generating and analytics, all about the financial performance of their businesses—this includes measuring how interactions between themselves and the consumer drives value at golf facilities.”

Recent discussions between 16-year-old Proponent Group and NGCOA education led to Anderson's involvement at Golf Business Conference 2024 as a presenter during one of the handful of breakout sessions, covering BVGI—“The Business Value of Golf Instruction.”

“We’re talking about golf instruction getting monetized and where you see that historically is outside the mainstream golf industry at media companies,” Anderson points out. “The publishers of GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest—two places I worked at for decades—recognized the thirst for instruction content and profited immensely from it. A handful of superstar teachers have done so, as well. It’s way past time for golf facilities to get their share.”

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