Today, it’s suburbia’s favorite new game. But for years, it was a company hemorrhaging money. This is the inside story of how two twins, a skeptical management expert, and a big-thinking investor changed their fortunes— and the sport of golf.
Richard Grogan made a career of spotting bad ideas. He didn’t suffer them lightly—at Bain & Company, the strategic management firm where he was a senior partner, the many companies’ boards he sits on, or while director of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. So in 2003, when he was on a ski vacation with his family, he wasn’t especially impressed when two bankers representing a pair of British twin entrepreneurs approached him with a new opportunity. The conversation was brief.
“What industry is it?” he asked.
“Golf,” they said.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he said, dismissing them. “Now, there’s another two-word answer, and it starts with the letter F.”
But the twins, Steve and Dave Jolliffe, had been doubted before. They’d built a quirky little British company called Topgolf, a spin on golf driving ranges that they saw as a recreational sport all its own: more of a boardwalk game than the stuffy pastime they saw as obsessed with, as Steve says, “the difficulty, the dress code, the silly rules.”
The PGA wanted nothing to do with them. Golf equipment companies said no to partnerships. Investors said no. Now Grogan, too. “I told them that golf isn’t a business; it’s a sport, and it’s the second- biggest source of losses of investment capital in the United States in its sector besides restaurants,” Grogan says now. “Why in God’s name would I want to do anything in golf, which, by the way, is in decline?”
That last point is true. The number of U.S. golf players peaked at 30 million in 2005 and has steadily dropped since. (It’s now at 23.8 million, with a particularly steep drop among young people.) Since 2006, there have been more U.S. golf course closures than openings every year. But the twins persisted. With the right help, they believed, they could create something that turned all those noes into yeses—that would make the PGA come to them, attract the best sponsors and partners, and turn millions of non-golfers into avid Topgolfers.
They’d have a way to go. But eventually, they’d be proven right.
“GOLF IS NOT a lot of fun when you aren’t very good at it.”
That’s the idea that inspired Steve Jolliffe and his brother. It was 1997, and the brothers were golfing while deciding their next step. They’d just sold off their mystery-shopping business— that is, a firm that companies hire to send people secretly into their stores to evaluate their staff—and were looking for something new. As they golfed, they began complaining about the game: It’s time-consuming, and the driving ranges used for practice are usually joyless mud fields.
They thought about how to make the game better, quicker, and more fun. Microchip technology was becoming commercialized at the time, and they wondered, What would happen if we put a chip inside a golf ball to track the distance and accuracy of a shot? They pried a chip out of a dog collar, put it into a golf ball, and then, because the chip was designed for police to help find lost dogs, took it to a local police station to ask the cops to scan the golf ball. It worked.
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