BALTIMORE, MARYLAND | On a Friday night in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, a short walk from the Inner Harbor and its bevy of crab houses, there is a party coming alive at Five Iron.
All 10 bar stools are occupied as patrons are engrossed in their homemade sliders and margaritas. Every once in a while, a pingpong ball comes fluttering in their direction as a match takes place a few feet away.
The energy is not all congregated in this one area, however. Simulators are spread throughout what was once the office of an internet marketing firm. The golfers in those hitting bays are either grinding away on their games, combing through launch monitor metrics like a scientist looking for a cure or they are happily whacking away before retreating to their drink. Some come here often to practice their swings or compete in a league – memberships are $200 per month at the Baltimore location and slightly north of that for the others – and some are here in the same way a group of friends may spontaneously decide to go axe throwing nowadays.
This is Five Iron Golf, an urban indoor golf experience that targets both serious and casual players looking to find a slice of golf nirvana amidst concrete jungles. The Manhattan-based company launched in 2017 after co-founder Mike Doyle had success teaching simulator lessons in the back of a men’s clothing store. One of his students, Jared Solomon, joined him in a crusade to develop a high-tech, inclusive environment that could offer substance to golf nerds and entertainment to golf newbies. For every country club amenity – lessons, club fitting, club storage, a putting green, showers and legitimately nice golf clubs, to name a few – there is an entertainment element such as a Golden Tee machine, shuffleboard station, pool table and an inventive menu where surprisingly delectable food is made from scratch.
Solomon played tennis at Hamilton College in upstate New York before going to law school at Columbia. Coming out of school, he went to work on Wall Street while his wife, who also attended Columbia, clerked for a judge in Rochester. It was at that time when Solomon started going to Spin, a pingpong social club that would eventually provide a model for Five Iron. At the same time, he was also taking golf lessons with Doyle and finding himself entranced with analytics.
Not long after, Five Iron formed with Solomon serving as the CEO.
“The nice thing was because I didn’t have a background in golf, I don’t think I was persuaded by typical golf culture,” Solomon said. “We didn’t do green and maroon and all of the country club stuff that people still do to this day. We just liked street art and graffiti and urban. And we’re like, ‘Let’s do it.’ We weren’t even necessarily worried about alienating the serious golfer because we didn’t even really know. We were too stupid to be concerned about it.”
The name of the company comes from its first location in New York City on Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron District, and now the concept has expanded to a total of 13 locations across the United States, with New York (three), Chicago (three) and Philadelphia (two) being points of focus. Five Iron officials said the brand is likely to reach 20 locations by no later than the end of next year, and conversations have taken place to expand internationally. The Seattle location that came online this spring was backed by hip-hop star Macklemore, now a part owner in the company, and locations in Detroit and Boston are in the works. Facility sizes are typically in the 10,000-15,000-square-foot range, giving enough room for flexible event space. Prices for simulator rentals are split into peak and off-peak hours, but one hour of time is generally in the $50-75 range.
Shortly after Callaway acquired Topgolf for a deal valued around $2 billion, the equipment brand invested $30 million into Five Iron this past November. That has been a massive value for Five Iron, which now has the experience of Topgolf executives on their side.
“Five Iron is kind of a microcosm of Callaway,” Solomon said. “Callaway is trying to be the best place for the serious golfer with Callaway Golf, TravisMathew and things like that, while they are also trying to be the best on the entertainment side with Topgolf. And so for us to be able to learn from the golf side of things to improve our club fitters, golf instruction and the quality of clubs in our locations, and then on the entertainment side to learn from them with their beverage program, the menu design, cocktails, how they approach creating an entertainment brand … it’s just been hugely helpful.”
What Callaway saw in Five Iron is the same thing North Castle Partners saw when the private equity firm acquired Five Iron in January 2020. North Castle is also an investor in Full Swing, the indoor golf simulation technology. Full Swing simulators are used at Five Iron, and they allow players to compete virtually on famous golf venues.
In an evolving industry full of growing entertainment options, Five Iron is attempting to stand out not only in its catering to serious golfers but in its recognition of the modern schedule. In the same way Peter Millar has positioned itself as a lifestyle brand with apparel for all different aspects of life, Five Iron wants to be available to anyone at nearly any time.
“We’re open from 6 a.m. until at least midnight in our locations,” Solomon said. “You’re really catering to the person that wants to get better, so they can take a golf lesson in the morning or take a lesson late at night. And then there are lessons throughout the day, happy hours, team-building culture and then eventually corporate events and like a top-off crowd at night, bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, etc.”
Solomon calls Five Iron a company trying to, in some ways, “invent the four-wall concept” in this segment of the golf industry. This part of the business is still in its infancy, he says. Even when it comes down to choosing locations, it’s still a process of figuring out what works best.
“We’re always learning,” Solomon said. “We certainly made a million mistakes that we’ve learned from and improved.”
Not too many mistakes. In year five, Five Iron is moving quickly.
Photos: Courtesy Five Iron Golf
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