Lewis takes junior golf instruction straight to schools

Dave Robinson (left), who owns several TGA franchises in Michigan, brings golf instruction to schools.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of Golfweek

As a PGA pro, Troy Lewis always knew that growing the game was important for golf.

But the notion of what’s good for business took on a whole new meaning when nurturing golfers became a business he owned.

In late 2005, Lewis acquired a TGA Premier Junior Golf franchise, which helps entrepreneurs create for-profit, after-school golf programs in their respective territories. What started as a way to complement his PGA duties now has him managing as many as a dozen part-time instructors at nearly 40 schools annually in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Surprisingly, it’s still pretty unique,” said Lewis, referring to teaching golf at schools instead of courses.

Which rankles Joshua Jacobs to no end. The founder of TGA says failing to engage school children is a mistake golf can’t afford to make, considering that it’s a means to generate players not only for today but tomorrow as well.

According to Jacobs, the notion of teaching cherubic kids how to play golf at schools has a warm, fuzzy feeling to it, but actually doing it requires volunteer spirit that’s in short supply. By failing to occupy school gyms and playgrounds, golf relinquishes to other sports fertile turf that could yield its next generation of participants.

Leveling the playing field against lacrosse, soccer and other activities has become a priority for industry leaders. The PGA of America and The First Tee – through its National School Program – are making inroads introducing golf in physical education classes. But they face obstacles. For example, Jacobs says, busy PGA pros often can’t get away from their clubs to serve as school ambassadors, and educators typically have no vested interest in the game.

That’s where TGA franchises enter the equation. They incentivize teaching golf to youngsters with a capitalistic carrot: The opportunity to own a business.

Thus far, TGA has sold 53 franchise territories in 23 states. The company’s golf curriculum is offered in about 2,500 schools and community-based organizations such as YMCAs. TGA’s goal is to have 100 golf franchises in operation by early 2014.

Such projections are based, in part, on the bullish expectation that the golf industry increasingly will realize that outreach to new consumers is a must.

“The thinking in golf has been that everything will come to us,” Jacobs said. “There’s a movement under way to change that and the thinking that teaching golf away from a green-grass facility is taboo.”

Jacobs says school administrators facing budget and program cuts are more receptive to private vendors that deliver fee-based programs – especially those that emphasize life skills and fitness.

“They’re very focused on addressing the at-risk hours when kids can waste away time playing video games or get into far more mischievous activities,” Jacobs said.

TGA usually offers its after-school programs (grades K-8) in eight-week sessions, with students meeting weekly in one-hour classes. Cost ranges from $13 to $20 per class and includes usage of golf equipment. TGA provides junior clubs made by PowerBilt and Almost Golf balls that can be safely used indoors or outdoors.

It’s common for a franchise owner to operate in about 30 schools simultaneously, offering classes 24 weeks annually at each location, usually during fall, winter and spring sessions.

Jacobs declined to disclose financial details of individual franchises. To get into the business, owners pay a fee that typically ranges from $16,000 to $20,000; some territories cost as little as $6,000 and others as much as $35,000, based on population size and affluence.

Operators say they receive ample support from corporate headquarters and a network of fellow owners. They say the biggest challenges of running a TGA business, like any franchise, are hiring the right personnel to build out a territory and managing growth.

If TGA continues to be successful, it might establish a new employment category in the golf profession and attract people to fill it.

Indeed, Karsten Beutnagel, 48, is an industry newcomer. After working as a human resources executive for 20 years, Beutnagel, who fell in love with the game in his mid-30s, decided to pursue a career in golf. He bought a TGA territory in Fairfield County, Conn., in 2009.

Along with tracking his business growth, Beutnagel takes joy in watching youngsters learn and progress as they meet different TGA achievement standards, similar to the way students in martial-arts classes earn different color belts.

“When (school officials) see the whole educational system behind it, most of the time, they say, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ ” Beutnagel said. “They like the convenience factor for the parents and kids – they don’t have to buy equipment, they don’t have to go anywhere. . . . this program is not a hard sell.” He added that each franchisee purchases liability insurance to assuage school concerns.

For Lewis, TGA ownership just made good business sense and gave him a chance to give back to the game.

Other than his TGA equity, Lewis says the franchise funnels students to his lessons and camps at The Golf Club at Fossil Creek in Fort Worth, where he serves as director of instruction. By Lewis’ estimation, his TGA classes in fall 2011 reached 230 students, of which 10 percent to 20 percent came to him for additional tutelage.

“I look at my role in TGA and think, ‘Gosh, there are all these kids that we just reached,’ ” Lewis said. “Whether I benefit personally, I know they’re more likely to enjoy the game and play somewhere.”

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