Wednesday, December 6, 2023

NC trend: Making golf fun, really

The sport doesn’t have to be a good walk spoiled,
an innovative golf pro is proving with Operation 36.

Ryan Dailey has nightmarish memories of his first time on a golf course. “It was so frustrating,” he recalls about his round at Ray Brook Golf Club in upstate New York. “I lost so many golf balls and shot 130 the first time I played. I don’t know why I continued.”

He not only continued, he became a PGA Class A Professional and a full-time faculty member at Campbell University, where he was assistant director of the business school’s golf management program. After teaching courses, Dailey gave lessons at Campbell’s home course, Keith Hills Golf Club in Buies Creek. While there, he contemplated ways to increase participation on the golf course by making it fun to learn the game. He concluded that a holistic, trackable method should start with families, particularly junior golfers.

In 2011, after trying several strategies, Dailey conducted the first Operation 36 Golf clinic at Keith Hills with about a dozen beginning golfers. The structure now includes weekly clinics and nine-hole leagues and progress monitoring through the Operation 36 app, which allows clubs to compete internationally.

Operation 36 co-founders Ryan Dailey and Matt Reagan met at Campbell University, where Dailey was a faculty member.

Eleven years since its inception, nearly 100,000 new players in 16 countries have taken part in Operation 36 training, which is offered at 53 courses in North Carolina and 22 in South Carolina. They run the gamut from high-end private clubs to municipal layouts. Participation from adults and children is roughly equal. The cost averages about $360 for an eight-week program with courses receiving some of the revenue.

“We went in thinking that we were going to serve the families at Keith Hills (Country Club) in Harnett County,” Dailey says. It has gradually spread around the world “a lot faster than we had ever imagined.”

In February, Golf Genius Software bought Garner-based Operation 36 for an undisclosed amount. The Wayne, Pennsylvania-based company provides tournament scoring software for nearly a third of the world’s 30,000 golf courses. It also sells software to manage pro shops. Founder and co-CEO Mike Zisman says the two companies “have a shared vision of making golf more fun for more people.”

The Operation 36 concept is simple. Instead of starting at the tee box, typically a couple of hundred yards from the hole, new players begin 25 yards from the cup. The challenge is to finish the hole in four strokes or fewer for nine holes, thus shooting a par score of 36. Once the golfer shoots 36 or better, he progress to the second division, starting 50 yards from the green, then to 75 yards. 

The method lets new golfers learn skills needed from shorter distances and advance until they can shoot par 36 from all 10 divisions, which ends at 3,200-plus yards for nine-hole layouts. “You even don’t need a full set of clubs,”only a wedge and putter, says Dailey, 42, who formed Operation 36 with Matt Reagan, 32, one of his Campbell golf management students. 

“We’re trying to help the industry get more rounds of golf, get people using the facilities more,” Dailey says. “It’s a win-win,” with more practice leading to more activity at courses. 

“We’re trying to make learning golf exciting, make it fun, make it enjoyable, make it fast,” says Dailey, who was named with Reagan as among the state’s best teachers by Golf Digest in 2018 and 2019. “We’re just trying to speed up the enjoyment process, get them to fall in love with the game.”

The 18 full-time Operation 36 staffers remain with Golf Genius, including two software developers who joined a tech team of more than 100. “Now we have access to quite a few more assets to help us expand a little bit faster and try to help more people enjoy the game.” ■ 

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