Founded in 2000, Golfzon, the South Korean company best known for the highly sophisticated golf simulators it makes, is among the most vibrant businesses in the burgeoning off-course entertainment realm.
Consider that the company recorded $1.3 billion in revenues in 2022 and that golf enthusiasts played 87 million rounds on its simulators last year in 63 countries.
That is some presence, but it is only part of what Golfzon is all about. While simulators are the biggest piece of its operation, the company has been vertically integrating for years and now derives revenues from a variety of other sources, whether the clubs and courses it owns in Korea; the professional simulation golf circuit, aka the G-Tour, it has established in that country; or the David Leadbetter Golf Academy business it now owns. In addition, Golfzon recently began partnering with Troon Golf in the creation of a network of family entertainment centers in the United States called Golfzon Social.
“Our mission is to bring golf to anybody and everybody anywhere, no matter what their skill level or experience,” said 52-year-old Tommy Lim, who joined Golfzon as its chief marketing officer in 2010 and is now CEO of Golfzon America.
It is an ambitious goal that the company takes very seriously. And it is leaning hard on Lim to get it done.
Following is the latest edition of The 19th Hole, in which Lim discusses his start in the golf business for Callaway Golf and then Nike in Korea, his decision to go to work at Golfzon in 2010 and subsequent promotion to CEO of Golfzon America and how so-called “screen golf” came to replace karaoke as a form of evening entertainment in Korea.
The father of two teenage children who is a solid 10-handicap, wears wire-rimmed glasses and is married to his high school sweetheart, Lim also gets into his passion for bourbon, his love of Korean cooking (especially a short-rib dish called galbi), the pleasure he derives from living in the leafy suburbs of Northern Virginia after growing up in high-rise condominium in Korea and how much more time it takes to build a golf simulator facility in the States than in Korea.
I was born in Seoul, one of two sons and raised in Daejeon, a city located in the middle of the country. My father worked for the Korea Forest Service, and my mother was a housewife. She also ran a Korean restaurant when I was in high school. I ate there often.
I went to college at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in material engineering, and then Sungkyunkwan University, from which I received an MBA.
I went into the Korea army while I was in engineering school and did not get my MBA until I was done with my military service. I was not a very good student until I went into the army. But when I returned to college, I started to study much harder and get better grades. That’s why I was chosen for an exchange program in the U.S. and attended Indiana University for a year.
I first played golf at Indiana when I went to a muni course with some friends and rented clubs. I was horrible, but I continued to play when I returned to Korea, but only a few times a year because golf there is very expensive.
Once I received my MBA, I went to work for Callaway Golf after applying for a marketing job the company had posted on the internet. It was a very small operation, and my boss and I were the only two people in the department.
Four years later, I moved to Nike Golf as its director of marketing in Korea. I was still a very bad golfer. In fact, I did not break 100 until after I left Nike. But I loved the game, and I loved working in it. I remember running an event for Nike in Korea that Tiger Woods attended, and I really enjoyed meeting him.
I joined Golfzon in 2010 as chief marketing officer. At that time the company, which had only been founded a decade before, had just broken $100 million in sales and held some 80 percent of the simulator market in South Korea. It was also making plans for an IPO the following year, by which time our revenues had doubled.
Why were we doing so well? Golf was becoming very popular in Korea but there were less than 450 courses in the entire country. People had no place to play, so they started going to facilities that had golf simulators.
Karaoke was another factor. It was very popular in the late 2000s, and a big part of Korean culture was going out after work and socializing with friends over drinks and with karaoke. But after the recession in 2008 and 2009, the whole culture seemed to change. People still wanted to get together, but there was less drinking and more concern about wellness and fitness. At the same time, interest in playing golf on simulators started to grow, in part because it offered some exercise, as opposed to karaoke, which offered none. That’s when simulators really took off, and a lot of the people who ran karaoke bars moved into the simulator business instead.
The first golf boom in Korea started with Se Ri Pak, who became our first golf star after she won the U.S. Women’s Open and the LPGA Championship in 1998. And the game grew like crazy in Korea until the recession. But after that, a second boom kicked in.
After the IPO in 2011, Golfzon started to vertically integrate. We started to purchase golf clubs and courses because we knew that many of our simulator customers also liked to play on green grass. That is the way golf is in Korea, and 70 percent of our total golf population of 5.5 million people play golf on green grass and also simulators.
We also looked at other ways to serve golfers. So, we started an academy business with simulators and PGA professionals to help people learn golf. We also added brick-and-mortar retail outlets where we sold golf equipment and apparel, and today, Golfzon Market is the largest golf retailer in Korea.
One of the things I did as chief marketing officer was start a professional simulation tour in Korea. That coincided with the launch of Vision, our first camera-based simulator, in 2011. That was a real step-up in technology, as simulators before that could not pick up the ball very well, especially when it came to the short game and putting. But Vision was a game changer, and the response from golf professionals was that it made our simulators as close to green grass golf as anything they had ever seen.
After I had been at Golfzon for a few years, my chairman decided to explore the U.S. market and see if we might expand there. I started researching that idea in 2015 and spent about 18 months in the States just getting to know the country and the different places where we might set up operations.
I felt we needed to tell that to our customers and show them how good Vision really was. And the best way to do that, I thought, was to show people how top golfers performed with our technology.
The golf associations in Korea laughed at us at first. They said that professionals do not play simulators. But they did after checking out our new technology, and from that we started the Golfzon Professional Simulation Golf Tour, or G-Tour. It’s televised, it features nine tournaments for women and nine for men and has total prize money of $3.5 million. All events are played in a special stadium we built outside Seoul for $130 million.
From a marketing perspective, the G-Tour has impacted our business in a big way.
And we continue to improve our technology with the introduction last year of TwoVision, which has practice, gameplay and competition modes as well as unmatched short game capabilities.
After I had been at Golfzon for a few years, my chairman decided to explore the U.S. market and see if we might expand there. I started researching that idea in 2015 and spent about 18 months in the States just getting to know the country and the different places where we might set up operations. Los Angeles and Dallas. Chicago and New York City. Orlando, too.
In the end, we determined that the Washington, D.C., area was the place to be, and I moved there in 2016. Officially, Golfzon America started in early 2017.
There is so much growth potential in the U.S. And from a board perspective back home, we have to win this market. It is important for our entire global business. We have to do this.
And I believe we are off to a good start. Right now, we have Golfzon simulators in about 130 different facilities in the States, and the expectation is to grow that number to 150 by the end of the year. We also have hundreds of simulators in individual homes and clubs and expect to grow that part of the business by 30 percent a year. With the opening of our first Golfzon Socials this past year, in partnership with Troon Golf, we put our name on our own branded entertainment facilities that feature our TwoVision simulators, a full bar and restaurant and things like shuffleboard, corn hole and ping pong. And the hope is to build a total of 30 of those.
In addition, we have launched Golfzon Range by Leadbetter, which is a new concept in indoor golf training, and continued to provide instruction that utilizes our technology through the Golfzon Leadbetter Academy.
I travel 100 days or so a year, which is a lot. But we sell simulators everywhere.
I love where I live in Virginia. I love living in a single-family home with a yard and a stone patio and a screened-in porch. I go out there at night with a bourbon and relax after what is usually a daily call with headquarters back home. I never had that growing up in a city, in a high-rise condo.
I belong to two clubs, Hamilton Farms in New Jersey and Chantilly National in Virginia and try to play three times a month on a golf course, and about that many times on a simulator. My wife, Jenny, and daughter, Bella, will play nine holes, but my son, Sean, likes to play 18 with me. My best score ever is a 65 at Hamilton Farms. But that came during the pandemic when, like many people, I was playing a lot.
Yes, there is a pretty big difference in building something in the States and Korea. The construction time is the same, but the permitting process seems to take quite a bit longer. We needed more than 10 months to build the Golfzon Social facility we opened earlier this year in Scarsdale, New York. In Korea, the total time to do something like that would be less than half that. The first couple of years that I was working in the States, members of the Golfzon board back home wanted to know why it was taking too long with some of these projects. They said that I must be playing too much golf.
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