Most innovative people in golf

May 29, 2013
By Jack Crittenden
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Average: 4.1 (15 votes)

Creative minds, risk takers and cutting-edge heroes: Here are 18 people who are improving the golf industry through new ideas, fearless moxie and a love for the game

BY MIKE STETZ AND MICHELLE WEYENBERG

Given golf’s challenges, this is no time to lay up. Golf needs risk takers. It needs people to channel their inner Roy McAvoys of “Tin Cup” and grip and rip it.

“I didn’t come here to play for second,” the fictional character says on the 18th hole of the U.S. Open.

The good news?

The risk takers are not just fictional. A growing number of key players in a host of different areas is looking at ways to elevate golf, attract new players and incorporate new technologies into the business of golf.

In some ways, it’s a golden age. Never before has golf had such fascinating new tools in which to experiment with to increase profitability, course efficiency and player enjoyment.

“If you read the Steve Jobs bio, he speaks of his early designs and how much Sony influenced him,” said Frank Tichenor, golf course superintendent for Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield, N.J. “I think innovation in golf is taking existing technologies that were developed for other industries and applying them to ours to make our operation more efficient.”

Golf Inc. invited readers to nominate the most innovative people in the golf industry during the past few years. We received more than 220 nominations. Our editors then selected the 18 we felt met our standard of doing something that was new, unique and captured the imagination of others.

We found that innovation is taking place everywhere in golf, so we separated the innovators into six categories: operations, new technologies, marketing, player development, agronomy, and development and design. They are then listed alphabetically by last name.

Make no mistake. While some of the changes offered by these innovators may bend traditions, the innovators are wedded to the game, to its unique and fascinating charms.

“Innovation in terms of the golf industry means rediscovering the roots of the game, said Tom Abts, general manager/head golf professional of Deer Run Golf Club in Victoria, Minn. “Golf doesn’t have to reinvent itself to be successful — golf needs to rediscover itself to be successful.”

These innovators know the game needs to evolve to capture a new audience as well as maintain its current one. We live in a new age, where free time is shrinking and work and family demands are increasing.

Golf is not stagnant. It never has been. Be it by changing hole placements, to adding bunkers, to heightening roughs, the game is an ever-changing experience.
Here are the 18 people changing the business of golf.

OPERATIONS

1. TOM ABTS
General Manager/Head PGA Professional
Deer Run Golf Club
Victoria, Minn.

Fast Play Friday is the innovative idea that put Deer Run Golf Club on the map, said Tom Abts.

With the golf industry struggling for some time with slow play, Fast Play Friday was not only successful in keeping rounds under four hours,it changed the culture of Deer Run with four-hour rounds becoming the norm every day of the week – even Sunday afternoons.

“Too often people try to be out of the box and come up with silly ideas,” Abts said. “Golf is a timeless game, not a fad. Fast Play Friday just brought back the original pace of the game. Scottish shepherds were not lollygaggers.”

But the idea that affected him the most as a businessperson was the successful marketing campaign for the course, Fun at the Run, which led him to winning the Minnesota PGA

Promoter of the Year Award and the course being named the Best Public Golf Course in Minnesota by local CBS viewers.

He’s also proud of the Kid Plays Free With a Parent on Saturday Afternoons.

“The joy of seeing kids playing golf with their parents is always moving,” Abts said. “That it became so successful and has been adopted by so many courses all over the country is especially gratifying.”

2. MILAN KAPEL
Owner/Manager
Berkshire Hills Golf Course, Chesterland, Ohio

Being new to the industry, Milan Kapel wanted to appeal to more golfers and heard about the term “family tees.” So he set out to transform his golf course from having three sets of tees to six — each tee set up to accommodate a specific driving yardage with corresponding flags.

Tees range from 3,900 yards to 6,700 yards and are set up by skill, not gender: Orange = 260+ Drives; Blue = 220; Green = 190; Purple = 175; Brown = 150 and Yellow = 135. 

Since making the changes, the course has increased sales by 10 percent after the first year and has seen an increase each year as more golfers learn about the course.

“When we introduced our new teeing areas, we explained that by playing the proper tees you’ll have more fun because you’ll have more opportunities to hit greens in regulation and have more birdie or par attempts,” he said.

Kapel said women and seniors are coming back to the course because they can play it and score the same as they did 30 years ago. 
“We all want our club to be the best and want our golfers to feel welcome and enjoy their game,” Kapel said.

3. GEORGE KELLEY
CEO/Principal
Greenway Golf,
Founder/Owner
Stevinson Ranch Golf Club
Stevinson, Calif.

For George Kelley, going 100 percent solar at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club was an easy decision. “We are always looking for ways to be good stewards to the environment and for ways to save money,” he said.

One hundred percent of the project costs were financed over seven years, with a 30 percent federal cash rebate used for operations.

Kelley said the principal and interest payments are slightly more than the energy savings, but with another spike in energy costs, they will be net positive.

“At the end of seven years we will have no-cost energy,” he said.

While he’s saving energy, Kelley is also an Ambassador of Fun – implementing the Fun Starts Now program at Greenway Golf, a course maintenance and management company. The inspiration came after hearing author Mike Veeck, who runs six minor-league baseball teams, speak at a National Golf Course Owners Association conference about his book “Fun is Good.” The belief is that people inherently just want to have fun.

“We believe that we are entertainers and that we are in the entertainment business,” he said. “I know that we are doing well when one of our golfers plays poorly, yet can’t wait to come back because of the fun he or she had.”

Today, players are greeted with music and can rent speakers that can be plugged into a music source while playing. Kelley believes that within three years music will be a standard feature on new carts.

“Just one of many new ideas that I have,” he added.

4. STEVEN RATTNER
CEO
JustOne Golf

When the principals of JustOne Golf were doing their research, they learned that 75 percent of golfers confessed to gambling in some form on every round. That, in combination with the popularity of hole-in-one prizes typically offered at charity golf tournaments, convinced them they had an idea worth pursuing.

The brainchild of Steven Rattner is for JustOne Golf to give golfers the opportunity to place a wager on a par 3, with the chance to win anything from $20 to $1 million.

The kiosk is a permanent installation at a par 3 of any course. Golfers can play for $5 up to $250 dollars. They can win from $5,000 to $1 million if they hit a hole-in-one. If you play for $25, no matter the turnout, you get a free drink. Every time a player wins, whether it is closest to the pin or a hole-in-one, he or she receives a video that can be immediately posted on social media platforms. Rattner calls it Golf 2.0.

“The golf industry has had a number of down years in terms of rounds, but we think we have an innovation that will add a level of excitement to existing {players} and {a} new generation {of players} that is coming in… that will get them to try to play the game,” Rattner said.
With little up-front cost, courses can dramatically increase rounds, and drive food, beverage and merchandise sales. 

TECHNOLOGY

5. JOE GUERRA
President & CEO
Sequoia Golf

Joe Guerra had heard about facial recognition technology being used by department stores to scan customers to see if they had criminal records. That allows them to identify the people who likely aren’t there just to buy socks.

But Guerra got a bright idea: Why not use it for his golf management business to recognize members and treat them with more personalized care?

He’s the president and CEO of Sequoia Golf, which manages 55 golf courses. Obviously, he has a lot of members, a number of whom use more than one course. Now he has a way for his staff to identify who is coming in the door and greet them by name.

“A name is magical,” he said. “You immediately create a more intimate relationship.”

Plus, with the technology, the staff has access to a record of what the player eats and drinks and his or her favorite equipment.

Guerra is big on setting his courses apart through the magic of technology and second-to-none customer service. He works constantly to maximize the power of his larger-than-average-sized golf company.

“We need to go above and beyond what an individual golf course can do,” he said. “Otherwise what’s the point of having 55 courses?”

His firm even started its own IT arm, called Shortgrass IT, which offers a host of innovations to golf courses, from website design to mobile application development. Sequoia’s mobile applications allow members to do just about everything — from booking tee times to seeing current weather conditions.

“The reality is that there are more golf courses chasing fewer golfers,” he said. “The onus is on us to really drive innovation, making the course more relevant to today’s golfers.”

6. TOM STICKNEY II
Director of Golf Instruction
Bighorn Golf Club, Palm Desert, Calif. (winter)
The Promontory Club, Park City, Utah (summer)

Technology and social media are in constant motion. While several in the golf industry steer away from them, Tom Stickney stays focused due to his unrelenting approach to create the best possible learning experience in the business.

“I want to provide my students with the instructional technology I was never lucky enough to experience personally, in order to give them the best options in order to improve,” he said. “If you don’t lead the pack, you will be left behind in an instant. I hate to be on the back end of new trends.”

And so, he continues to push forward, always searching the field of computer technology for teaching opportunities, such as 3D motion analysis, FlightScope X2 launch monitor and V1 Sports four-camera video.

He’s very active on social media, using the platforms to explore the insights of golf professionals, researchers and scientists. Stickney also created a branded social media and educational forum in Tomstickneygolf via Twitter and YouTube in order to allow his students to have access to his ideas 24/7.
“There is always someone who knows more. It’s my job to find and learn from them in order to get better,” he said.

7. ANDY WEEKS
CEO
W5 Golf Inc.

Andy Weeks has pioneered the call center industry in the golf business during the past 15 years, first with EZ Links and now with W5 Golf.

W5 provides technology and services that help golf course operators run their businesses better. From a technology perspective, it provides rate management software, Web reservations software, websites and email marketing solutions. From a services perspective, it provides reservation center services, website management and email marketing campaigns. 

“The reservation center is really the driving force behind the business, helping golf courses capture more rounds, improve their customer service and increase their customer data capture,” Weeks said.

The W5 reservation center has pioneered selling tee times based on the various rate strategies of its golf course customers. Reservationists are trained in specific language to optimize each of these strategies and also how to offer “demand shifting” as a way to induce golfers to book into less-utilized times.

“We see golf courses following the trends of the hotel industry and looking to offer best-rate guarantees to their customers through their own brand,” Weeks said. “Golf course operators have shown a desire to create their own rate strategies and build brand loyalty to the golf course’s brand.”

MARKETING

8. RANDY FARBER
General Manager
Bolingbrook Golf Club
Bilingbrook, Ill.

Unless you happen to run a certain golf course in Augusta, Ga., golf course managers are always looking for ways to get more players.

Randy Farber, who led the Highland Park Country Club, a municipal daily fee golf facility in Highland Park, Ill., did so in a novel way. Instead of advertising in the local newspaper or radio station, he teamed with a firm that offers daily deals to attract more players to his course.

It worked. He saw an increase in players. But he also realized he could do better if he used the information he gleaned from the promotions and personally targeted the players the deals attracted.

After all, he wanted them to come back. He wanted them to come back again and again and again. And — very important — he wanted to attract a younger demographic.
“The problem was we weren’t growing the game,” he said.

But now he was powered with information, such as players’ emails and zip codes. He noticed his deals were attracting a lot of players from one particular zip code, which was the affluent Lincoln Park area.

Bingo!

He concentrated his marketing efforts in those areas having the demographic makeup he was seeking and was able to attract 1,000 new golfers.
Farber has since been promoted to be general manager of Bolingbrook Golf Club, which, like Highland Park Country Club, is run by KemperSports.

9. EDWARD KAGEYAMA
General Manager
Ka’anapali Golf Courses
Maui, Hawaii

One might think that managing a golf course in Hawaii would be a piece of cake. You have great year-round weather, a steady stream of tourists and thrilling and exotic hazards such as volcanoes. (The last one: A joke.)

But Edward Kageyama, general manager of Ka’anapali Golf Courses, says he faces the same pressures as other course managers. People are stressed for time, and golf takes up too much of it. Yes, even in paradise, it’s not paradise.

“Those that refuse to innovate will be left behind,” Kageyama said. “Today’s golfer is technology savvy; their time is valuable and facilities that take advantage of this and create new ways to interact with golfers through social media and different programs for golfers to consume will be able to keep golf alive as well as help to grow the game.”

Kageyama has created a number of outside-the-box programs to attract nontraditional golfers. The Fit Club, for instance, allows golfers to play as much as they please after 4 p.m. They pay a monthly fee and can come as often as they like. The walking helps them get fit and they get more confidence in their games. Golf My Way, another concept, allows golfers to play 18 holes during a seven-day period. It’s great for tourists who can’t spend four or five hours away from the family on vacation.

And Kageyama is obviously a romantic at heart. Take the Wine & Nine afternoon special.

“This program is geared towards honeymooners and couples who want to get out and play golf, catch sunset and enjoy the elegant 19th hole at Ka’anapali’s Roy’s Restaurant,” he said.

10. NICK SOLSKI
Head Golf Professional
Zavidova PGA National Russia

Promoting golf in places such as Lithuania and Ukraine takes some creative thinking. Golf isn’t all that familiar in Eastern Europe after all. Indeed, according to the website Golf Ukraine, there were no golf courses in Ukraine as little as a decade ago.

That’s why Nick Solski had to try some outside-of-the-box ideas to attract golfers to the Superior Golf & Spa Resort in Ukraine, where the PGA advanced pro recently completed a 20-month stint as director of golf.

Before that, he promoted the game in Lithuania.

Among his ideas while in Ukraine were creating events such as Golf in High Heels, which attracted 100 women, and a whisky-fest tournament, where golfers knocked strokes off their scores by sampling whisky on the tee.

In his time there, he managed to introduce the game to more than 2,000 people.

“Innovation is everything,” said the 30-year-old from Manchester, England. “That’s because golf courses and clubs are not cheap to build, so unless the owner is looking to use the resort as a loss leader for other business, they want a return on investment.”

But would such innovations that worked in Eastern Europe work at U.S. courses?

“Absolutely,” he said. “I have never met a golfer who said that they had had the perfect golf experience. I think that standing still is going backwards, so offering new ideas to members shows them that you care about their time and you are interested in how to make the time they spend at the club better.”

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

11. TERRY ANTON
CEO
SNAG

Terry Anton has chosen life’s ultimate challenge, something even more daunting than climbing Everest or filling out a perfect NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket.

He wants to make the game of golf easy to play.

Owner and CEO of SNAG (Starting New at Golf), Anton travels the world with his specially made equipment — oversized clubs and golf balls — to instruct people – mostly children — how to take up the game properly.

This year, the company made a huge step forward with the announcement that Jack Nicklaus will use SNAG equipment for the new Jack Nicklaus Learning Leagues. Nicklaus and Anton hope to get more young people interested in the game.

“We hope to create an effective feeder system for decades to come,” Anton said. “We want to make it easy for anyone — young or old — to learn.”
SNAG golf can be played indoors or on recreation fields, and someone can learn a perfect grip in 30 seconds, Anton said.

12. JOSHUA JACOBS
Founder and CEO
TGA Premiere Junior Golf

Joshua Jacobs helps kids learn golf, etiquette, life lessons and negative inverse mathematics. Golf scores, such as birdies, are negative numbers, after all.

“Most kids don’t learn that until fourth grade,” said Jacobs, founder and CEO of TGA Premiere Junior Golf, an after-school enrichment program based in El Segundo, Calif.

His mission?

“We’re trying to bring golf to the masses,” said Jacobs, who started the school-based program nearly 10 years ago.

He now franchises the concept. It’s in 52 locations and recently went international, with a franchise in Madrid.

It was the first entrepreneur-business model to grow the game of golf, he said. Golf is one of the few sports that traditionally have not been taught in schools. So, unless mom or dad is a golfer, children have had little chance to be exposed to the sport.

“We wanted to break down that barrier.”

And he has. His program can be taught indoors or out. You don’t need a golf course. The equipment is tailored for children. The program’s curriculum is the result of collaboration between golf professionals and education experts. The students are also introduced to real courses, which partner with the program.

In addition to the after-school program, TGA — an acronym for Teach, Grow and Achieve — also offers clinics, tournaments and family events. It’s open to pre-kindergarten students through eighth-graders.

AGRONOMY
13. BILL BROWN
Founder
iTurf Apps

Bill Brown is a techno-geek. He’s also a certified golf course superintendent. He couldn’t see why his two passions couldn’t be combined. After all, so much of golf course management is using resources in the most efficient way possible to maximize course play, save money and minimize environmental impact.

Take SunSeeker. It’s an app that was created for the solar panel industry to help identify sunlight paths. Brown figured it would be a great tool for the golf industry as well. It helps course superintendents to see the path of the sun on any given hole, allowing them to make landscape adjustments to create either more shade or provide more sun.

“There are so many things out there that are complete game changers,” said Brown, who lives in Kennett Square, Pa.

That’s why he founded iTurf Apps, which is a site dedicated to helping turf managers better use technology in their jobs. He and his partners do podcasts, video chats and offer one-on-one instructions on how to use the latest innovations.

“My goal is to teach turf professionals, that with today’s technology, you can do more with less; allow them to be better environmental stewards, business professionals and leaders in the ever-expanding turfgrass and golf industry,” he writes on his website.

Data collection can be a big advantage, he said. For instance, today’s technology can allow turf workers to monitor moisture meters throughout the course, time stamp the readings and then send that data to a central base. With that information, the supervisor can better know how much irrigation is needed that day.

“The water savings can be enormous.”

He recently started a new venture called Turf Republic, which is a social media network allowing for better communication among turf managers.

14. FRANK TICHENOR
Golf Course Superintendent
Forest Hill Field Club, Bloomfield, N.J.

Not one to be afraid to experiment, Frank Tichenor had been toying with the idea of purchasing a drone after seeing one at Brookstone, a speciality retailer. But after seeing a demo at the Golf Industry Show show, he was sold.

Equipped with a camera, he uses his drone to identify excessively shaded areas, high-traffic spots, diseased areas, dry spots and much more. Tichenor believes it will enhance his work by reducing time needed to do tasks.

“I am a firm believer in embracing technology as the recession has forced the golf industry to work smarter with less,” he said. “If you don’t jump on board with these technological advances, you will be left in the wake.”

But, he added, while he will test new products, he has been burned in the past.

“I think much of it has to do with how much desire you have to improve and the funds available,” Tichenor said. “We do not have a large budget, so we are forced to innovate, which in itself is not a bad thing.”

DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN
 

15. RAY HEARN
Architect
Raymond Hearn Golf Course Designs Inc.

Ray Hearn likes to take risks. He recently transformed Island Hills Golf Club in southwest Michigan into a course that appeals to beginners, youngsters and people with limited time to play. The course offers five different routings, including five, seven and 12-hole options.

Hearn is known for his lay-of-the-land design concepts, which seek to incorporate as much as the natural terrain into the golf course as possible. The Michigan-based architect completed a new par-3 course in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea, and an 18-hole track imaginatively integrated into a working vineyard in the south of France.

In the U.S., he completed the renovation of the Mistwood Golf Club in Romeoville, Ill., where he incorporated 21 sod-wall bunkers into the course, giving it the feel and play of a course in the British Isles.

“It was a pretty innovative idea,” he said. “And some people thought I had gone too far, that the bunkers were too difficult for public players. I think that’s kind of insulting.”

The bunkers have been a huge hit.

“People have an appreciation for risk and reward,” he said.

16. DAVID G. GROSS
General Manager
Africa Business Associates

David Gross sees potential where others see too much risk.

“My key innovative idea is using Chinese-held capital and/or technical know how to spur the competition and growth of golf course developments on the African continent,” Gross said.

Gross feels the size of the combined Chinese and African markets, which have more than 2 billion people, and the expected regional growth rates make the concept a no-brainer.

The Lekki Free Trade Zone, near Lagos, Nigeria, is a prime example of how this innovative concept is already working. The Lekki Free Trade Zone will now incorporate an 18-hole golf course to attract investment and long-term residents. Gross’ special relationship with the investment company that runs it allows him to work with the company on selecting a suitable investor, construction company, and the services that will follow.

The fact that he is fluent in Mandarin, can speak and write elementary Shanghainese, as well as a touch of Taiyuanese, helps him communicate directly with those in the bilingual labor market. He’s studying Mandinka and Swahili.

17. DAN PEDROTTI
President
Foresight Golf

Being an innovator, at times, takes guts. Take Dan Pedrotti, president of Foresight Golf, in Boerne, Texas. He made the difficult decision last year to close the venerable Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio.

Many in the community weren’t happy about the decision. The course had a long, storied history and hosted the 1968 PGA Championship.

Pedrotti said he had no choice. Economically, he couldn’t make a go of it. But he isn’t about to leave it shuttered. Inspiration hit him when he was watching a TV show about

American Lakes Veterans Golf Course, a nine-hole course in Tacoma, Wash., dedicated for wounded veterans.

Pedrotti plans to build a similar course called, Valor Club at Pecan Valley.

His concept is even more ambitious. In addition to a nine-hole course, the Valor Club will include apartments and retirement residences designed to accommodate wounded veterans. Also on site will be the Valor Dome, an indoor cycling track where paralympians can train.

“I’m really humbled by what it could be,” he said.

In his vision, it wouldn’t just be veterans using the course. It would be open to all citizens, allowing them the chance to interact with such unique men and women. His firm would manage it at no cost and teach veterans skills for running a golf course.

He hopes to have the course open by fall. The entire project may take three to five years to be realized.

The criticism he’s taken for closing the course wasn’t easy to absorb.
“But sometimes you have to take the hit and the pain because later people will say, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool thing they’ve created,’” he said.

And lastly ...

18. JON LAST
Founder and President
Sports and Leisure Research Group

Stereotypes: All golfers are rich white guys who dress very funny on the golf course. Plus they cheat when it comes to their scores. And research marketers? Why, they are geeky, number-driven, bland and prone to put you to sleep when it comes to their presentations.

Not true, of course. Only some golfers cheat on their scores.

And Jon Last, founder and president of Sports and Leisure Research Group in White Plains, N.Y., is anything but bland. (Geeky? Well …)

He’s funny, down-to-earth and scary spot-on.

An innovator? You bet.

Arguably, no one has a better pulse on golfing trends thanks to his education and experience in working within the game.

“I feel I’m one of the few people in the field who has classical training in both business and research. I’m able to look at an issue at multiple level,” he said.

And he’s able to communicate his findings in a compelling and entertaining fashion.

“I like to think I can tell stories without getting into jargon,” he said.

Among other things, market researchers provide their customers with key information about consumer habits and trends. Last is coveted by those in the golf industry because of his broad experience in the game, including a stint with the PGA as a researcher.

Plus he has a love of the game and understands its traditions and how the community values them.

Yes, times have been tough for the industry, but Last believes in offering suggestions for change from a positive angle.

“I always like to say that research is like a lamppost, he said. “It can offer support and illumination. The best use both.”

Comments

Submitted by Tilani Edwards (not verified) on
Fabulous read! I am going to write to TOM ABTS to hear more about Fast Play Friday!

Submitted by Dr. Robert Pasa... (not verified) on
This article is very informative in that it gives the widest scope on different aspects to the game and business of golf. The summaries were informative without being too lengthy. As a sports psychologist, I hope that you would widen your scope to the mental or body/mind aspects of the game in a future article.

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