Learning! 100 Profile: The PGA Swings and Connects

Learning! 100 Profile: The PGA Swings and Connects

E-Learning Links Membership With A Program For Growth

By Richard Acello

Viewed from the gallery overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines, it’s easy to imagine a life in the PGA Tour as Tiger or Phil or the ever-changing cast of golfers chasing Woods and Mickelson down manicured greens to seven-figure paydays.

In reality, the Professional Golfers’ As- sociation consists of 28,000 professional golfers employed at 15,000 golf courses and facilities throughout the U.S. They man-age and operate the courses, they coach, and operate pro shops. Although they are in the top one percent of all people on the planet who play golf, they are not “on tour,” and those on tour are often not among the privileged few who wind up chasing Tiger and Phil.

At the same time, as anyone who as played the game casually can attest, pro golfers are recognized artists who have spent decades trying to master the art of knocking a little white ball into a cup several hundred yards away. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t be expected to become marketing wizards and analytics experts, but that’s where they are in an increasingly competitive entertainment marketplace.

And the golf industry itself has been in the rough in recent years, buffeted by the recession in 2008 and what has become to be known as the “three toos”: golf is too hard, it’s too expensive, and it takes too long. Like your scorecard, the numbers tell a story. According to PGA studies, in 2005, the golf industry supported 2.07 million jobs and a total wage income of $61.2 billion; by 2011, jobs were 1.98 million and wages dropped more than $5 billion to about $55.6 billion. Over the same time pe- riod, golf ’s total economic impact fell from about $195 billion to around $177 billion.

All of these considerations weigh on the thoughts of Dawes Marlatt, senior director of education & employment for the PGA, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with about 450 employees. How do you engage 28,000 golfing professionals, who are more or less independent operators at thousands of facilities?

This Club Has  A Generation Gap

“It is difficult,” Marlatt acknowledges, “because we’ve got four generations at our workplace. It’s a challenge to get them engaged and adopt our training given the age differences, and their various situations as professionals — it’s really, really tough.”

In 2011, the PGA asked the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a research study that found the golf industry is facing a “reset” in supply and demand with a real decline in participation both in the number of golfers and number of rounds played. This led to a learning and development blueprint that laid out an action plan for growth known as Golf 2.0.

One hazard to a growth-oriented training initiative was a generation gap among PGA members. Research found new members are about 30 years old when they join, with an average member age of 45. This means a roughly 50/50 split in mem- bership, with half being more “tradition” oriented — the PGA was founded in 1916 — and the other half being more digitally- focused. In the PGA’s multi-generational workforce, some members embraced technology and others not so much.

The PGA needed to speed up the development of expertise among veteran members to get them to share their institutional knowledge and experience with younger members without fear of losing their jobs to their proteges. “We also had to find a way to help our younger, more digital- savvy workforce become better at what they do faster,” Marlatt says, “because the pros coming in today don’t have 20 years of trial-and-error experience to fall back on.”

Amid the gloom, there were reasons for hope. The Boston Consulting study, for example, found an untapped market for the industry of up to 61 million consumers that it said “would like to play the game,” including women, Hispanics, and seniors. The developing strategy sought to “retain and strengthen” the core audience; re-engage lapsed golfers, and bring new players to the game. The PGA responded to the research by creating know-your-customer and player-development initiatives to target the “would like to play the game” crowd.

Retooling Awareness

Operationally, this meant the PGA had to build an effective, customizable course curriculum to suit its various generations and independent members. “It’s always difficult to get adult learners into online learning,” Marlatt explains. “You have to be careful and thorough, and take a balanced approach to e-learning opportunities. That’s why all the effort to get folks energized has been very important.”

The resulting program is a far cry from what Marlatt calls “basic training” offered to members as recently as a few years ago. Assets now include e-learning courses that can be viewed on demand, PGA research analytics to help guide marketing, social learning through PGA Connect, a PGA wiki, and computer-based testing.

“One of the benefits of this effort is that it helps our members understand what goes on with consumers,” Marlatt says. “And then the question is how do we get our professionals to recognize they need to market themselves and get involved in the selling of products and services to clients. In general, golf pros have not been comfortable in that space, because it was all about the relationship they enjoyed as a pro and their skills.”

“So, we’ve had to retool our awareness, he says. “And it was huge because we couldn’t get the pros to jump in with the player development and know your customer initiatives until they understood sales and marketing, sales promotions, and budgeting for all that.

Marlatt was also cognizant of the fact that the e-learning program needed to not intrude on the pro’s game. “Their daily work lives are already very busy, so the content has to be available when they are around,: he says. “And it seemed like when we were dealing with 28,000 pros that they have 28,000 different operating systems, so the effort had to create solutions with this in mind.”

With Skillsoft, the PGA developed 17 new custom courses for apprentice train- ing and 26 for member training. Course content was presented in an interactive, golf-oriented context. There was a major emphasis placed on an intuitive user experience. By providing certification levels that followed a personalized, elective approach, the PGA was able to engage an aging membership on a digital learning platform. Courses were tied to four certification paths, giving members a “next step” to strive for within their profession, and flowing into the next phase of their development which includes collaboration and mentoring.

In addition, the PGA lined up a “who’s who” of the industry to validate the content and vouch for its relevance and importance; and positioned the program as a “just-in-time, just-for-me” solution that saved learners time and money.

Improving Metrics

So far, the program is paying dividends. The PGA’s certification (player development) and effective business tools (“Get Golf Ready”) programs have increased member engagement by motivating 42 percent of the participants targeted by those programs to play golf for the first time.

The PGA also called on KnowledgeAdvisors to track learning analytics. Their findings revealed improvements in job impact, busi- ness results and return on investment from 2012 to 2013. They found that the PGA’s investment in training and development showed for every $1 invested there was a $5.14 return.

“With a great partnership and a careful blend of relevant content, technology, and clever program designs, you stand a better chance of engaging your labor force and improving their performance,” Marlatt says.

An ironic twist to golf in the 21st century is that because of technology, your in-the-flesh golf procan put you in a simulator, analyze your swing with the latest software, and recommend just the right clubs to compensate for whatever flaws might yet exist in your swing.

“The teaching and coaching space is exciting in this day and age, with all the technological advancements in the products,” Marlatt says. “There is an economic benefit to the industry, that’s driven by the PGA pro understanding what they can do with the technology.” ” Simulators might be interesting, but the pro’s end marketing goal is to get his students out on the course. It’s golf; there will not be a new and updated version of the sport next year.

Don’t expect any simulator to turn you into e-Arnold Palmer 2.0.

“The human interaction with a pro coach is important to a player’s development,” Marlatt concludes. “It‘s quite easy to learn the basics of golf, but if you want to get good, you have to have personal coaching and a long-term commitment.”

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