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Golf is enjoying a comeback, thanks in part to nongolfers

The Masters Tournament, which begins on Thursday, is the unofficial start to golfing season.

As fans get ready for the game's biggest event, golfers are finding that the most promising prospects are happening off the fairways, and with novices.

Companies like Topgolf and the PGA Tour Superstore are the beneficiaries of this trend. These types of outlets are attempting to introduce golf as entertainment to both first-timers and veteran golfers without using traditional golf courses, and it appears to be paying off.

"People are engaging in the game in different ways," said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. According to Mona, more than 4 million people experienced golf through a driving range or simulator last year.

In various ways, the changing nature of golf — considered both a sport and a leisure activity — is paying dividends for some big brands. Developing a relationship with golfing in the context of food, beverage and entertainment is getting people to take a swing at the real thing, according to Mona.

"People are experiencing golf in different ways but coming back to the traditional game," he said.

'The best of times'

Topgolf combines golf with entertainment.  Patrons can play competitive games while enjoying the atmosphere of a bar or nightclub.
Source: Topgolf
Topgolf combines golf with entertainment. Patrons can play competitive games while enjoying the atmosphere of a bar or nightclub.

It could be one of the reasons why participation in the game has been stabilizing as of late. According to data from the WGF, golf has now seen year-over-year growth in the number of rounds played for two straight years. That modest growth is helping to boost investment.

Over the last decade, approximately $3 billion dollars has been invested in renovating around 1,000 golf courses across the country, WGF figures show. In total, the sport generates $70 billion in economic impact for the US annually and is responsible for 2 million American jobs, according to the WGF.

"I would make the argument it's the best of times right now," said Mona.

PGA TOUR Superstore has expanded its experiential offerings to include greens and simulations that allow customers to test equipment out before they purchase it.
Source: PGA TOUR Superstore
PGA TOUR Superstore has expanded its experiential offerings to include greens and simulations that allow customers to test equipment out before they purchase it.

Yet the grass on the driving range hasn't been entirely green. During the course of the last 12 months, the golfing industry has witnessed high profile bankruptcies like with retailers Golfsmith and Sports Authority, as well as smaller scale equipment makers like Ben Hogan Golf.

Separately, sports apparel giant Nike recently decided to exit the golf equipment business completely, while competitor Adidas is in the process of selling its TaylorMade Golf unit.

The industry continues to grapple with slower growth, but that hasn't stopped entrepreneurs and small business owners from finding opportunity, even as bigger names see frothy growth. In just a few years, Topgolf has grown to more than 30 locations in the U.S. and U.K., and generated hundreds of millions in revenue.

At Topgolf, patrons get a traditional driving range experience combined with the flash and entertainment aspects of nightclubs and bars. They take swings while feasting on martinis and chicken wings.

Topgolf is trying to position itself as an entertainment alternative for younger generations of potential golfers, and those looking for different ways to enjoy the game. Millennials are a big part of that target audience: A whopping 67 percent of its visitors are under the age of 34, and 37 percent are nongolfers.

The PGA Superstore is also trying to capitalize on the nontraditional golfing "experience" by using interactive elements like simulators, practice bays and putting greens — making the same kind of technology pros use available to the average golfer. As a result, PGA Tour Superstore said their club business is the healthiest it's been in several years.

Many of the efforts taken on by golfing are geared toward growing the game, making it more accessible to a bigger part of the population. Traditional marketing and advertising methods to promote engagement can only go so far, and the next evolution of the industry is likely to come from newer entrants to the game.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated an incorrect starting day of the Masters Tournament.