Since Ian Bonser purchased 3 Hammers golf complex in 1986 it has gone from strength to strength, with the facility winning a national award for their junior coaching and attracting not far from a quarter of a million people every year. Andy Brown visited the Midlands to see what all the fuss is about.
If you were going to make a list all of the facilities you wanted at a golf complex to attract beginners what would you have? An indoor putting green, modern driving range, a restaurant and a short course would be on my list. The 3 Hammers Golf Complex has all of these things and more – when it comes to knowing their core market and providing a service for them they tick all the boxes, proven by the fact that between 220-230,000 people visit them every year.
Ian Bonser is the owner of the Complex and actually learned to play golf there 40 years ago. When the opportunity arose to buy it in 1986 he jumped at the chance, despite the dilapidated state it was in. As you can see from the timeline, the facility has been constantly upgraded and it is clear they are not afraid of taking a chance. “I’m a keen golfer and play at many places around the world and I make a point of always looking and listening – you can learn a lot if you keep your eyes and ears open,” says Bonser. “We recognise trends and have the willingness to try something new – we will always have a go. We are not afraid to fail. It also helps that I’m the committee!”
The fact that if Bonser wants to make a change or try something new he doesn’t need to go to a board must make life easier – he says that his accountant knows he is getting restless when he speaks to him about spending money on new projects – but one thing that has been constant is their appeal to beginners. “For many years I have been saying that we are like a feeder station for golf – people don’t learn to play golf on Championship courses. They learn at places like this and they eventually outgrow us and go on to become club members in the local community,” says Bonser.
“We take the view that if we do a good job with them in the first place then they will come back to us for one thing or another, to buy something from the shop or hit some balls on the driving range, so we are creating our own customers of the future. If you take a beginner out onto a full size golf course it doesn’t work, it is intimidating and the danger is that they never come back. We are in the fun business.”
Throughout the interview Bonser frequently refers to ‘creating their customer of the future’, and one of the consequences of having a Complex more suited to beginners is that, almost inevitably, one day they will progress to a more challenging golf course. Rather than this being a problem 3 Hammers have embraced it, and Bonser says that they have associations with around 15 local golf clubs and estimates that over the last two years they have put 12 juniors into Walsall golf club, eight to Bloxwich Golf Club and six to Brocton Hall Golf Club. “It’s about not being protectionist or trying to hang onto people, we know people will fly the nest but they come back. Initially I did find it hard to accept, as you would spend time and money attracting people to come to us and then wave goodbye and see them as a member of a different golf course, but this means we are doing a good job for golf generally.”
One of the things that was done to grow interest was a little outside the normal parameters of golf club marketing, you certainly wouldn’t find it in a marketing handbook – they hired a helicopter. When the Complex found out they would be picking up the Critchley award from the Golf Foundation at Wentworth Bonser chartered a helicopter which landed on the driving range and they took two teenagers who had gone through the various junior schemes with them and have been junior captains. “One of them took his A level maths exam at 11.00 in the morning and by 11.30 we had him in a helicopter flying down to Wentworth,” recalls Bonser, a ghost of a smile on his face. “He said it was the best day of his life and, whatever it cost me to hire the helicopter, I would have paid double because of what it helped me achieve in terms of morale and publicity.”
The latest innovation at the Complex is Top Tracer (formally Pro Tracer) which is currently being trialled at the driving range – 3 Hammers are one of five trial sites across the UK using the technology owned by Top Golf. Bonser says that the feedback received so far has been very positive and that it fits into the mission statement of the Complex, in that it makes golf more fun; those using the driving range can play different games against each other as well as receive lots of information about their shots. 3 Hammers are not charging customers any more money for using the new technology – it is all part of the service. The driving range is one of the best I have seen – far too often they are simply empty fields, whereas at 3 Hammers the range outfield has been modelled on a real golf course. There are bunkers and lots of different flags and undulations meaning that a visitor can play shots more akin to an actual round.
Speaking of actual rounds, the short course there rounds off the offering nicely. Designed by Henry Cotton in the mid 1960s the shortest hole of the 18 is the 45 yards 15th while the longest is the 10th at 122 yards and can be played by both beginners and more experienced players – the day after my visit the American Golf par three championship was being played on it. “The short course has a big part to play here as it is a much easier progression from the driving range to the short course. It is welcoming and not intimidating but it is also a challenge for the better golfers as well; it’s like playing a full sized golf course with the first 300 yards missing off all the holes, but you are still left with all the difficult bits. We have a fixed fee of £6.95 for a junior for the day and £9. 95 for an adult so it is very affordable.”
The 3 Hammers currently employ five PGA professionals and have a sixth who is currently going through her training and, of course, she learned to play at the Complex as a junior. Lessons are an essential revenue stream for the club – the retail side is looked after by American Golf – and Bonser estimates that they give in the region of 150 private lessons a week. Last year the pros there also taught over 3,500 children and there are 250 regular women visitors through the Ladies Love Golf scheme, which they set up themselves.
It’s clear that the 3 Hammers are a golfing success story and increasing numbers of those in the industry want to hear what Bonser has to say. So what does he think is the key to success? “There are a lot of golf courses in the UK that have an average age of member in the region of 70 – the clubs in this position have to replace potentially 50 per cent of their membership over the next five to seven years so they have to be more welcoming, friendly and engaging,” he says. “I think the golf clubs that do have an open door policy and are more welcoming are the ones that are doing better and will be more successful.
“I’m involved with another local golf course who I have been giving advice to, and at the moment we are focusing on making the course less intimidating and more fun to play and they have started to do that by widening the fairways a little bit. It’s not making it easier, it’s making it more enjoyable; the good courses let you get your ball into play and enjoy it.” Enjoyment is not something that is lacking from 3 Hammers – one of golf’s success stories and proof that having a clear market segment to focus on and then providing the best possible service normally means that, no matter the industry, success will be just around the corner.