General Manager and Head Golf Professional at the Village Greens of Woodridge, Brandon Evans talks about what it takes to introduce children to the game of golf in this episode of the Chicago Golf Report Podcast. Brandon explains the highly popular 1000 1st Swings – Introduce a Kid to Golf program that was launched earlier this year.
WL: Our guest this episode is Brandon Evans. He’s the director of fun and entertainment and also a professional golf instructor at the Village Greens of Woodridge. You can visit the Village Greens of Woodridge online at villagegreensgolf.com. So Brandon, can you tell a little bit about your story, and where you come from, and how you got into golf?
BE: Sure, absolutely. I grew up in a small town called Plano, IL. I played every other sport besides golf, growing up. One day I wandered over to a neighbor’s house and grabbed a club out of their garage and started swinging it.
Fortunately they were nice enough to enlist the help of their 20-something-year-old son, Eddie Smith, to take me out to the local YMCA and let me hit a few golf balls that day, or at least attempt to hit a few golf balls. I was instantly hooked on the game. I developed a passion for it. We played a little 9-hole course called Cedar Dell, out there in Plano, and played it every single day for the next 6 or 7 years. I ended up working at the golf course throughout high school.
I didn’t really know I could do golf as a career until about my senior year in high school and I found out about a golf management program at Ferris State University, where I ended up attending and graduating, just a couple of years ago in 1996. I can’t believe it’s been that long. Anyway, I graduated from that program and worked at a couple of golf courses in the Chicago area; Cantigny, Crest Creek, and St. Charles Country Club.
Then, I found my way over here to be the General Manager at Village Greens of Woodridge back in 1997, when I was 23 years old. I like to tell people that I didn’t know what I was doing then and I still don’t know what I’m doing! I haven’t had a bad day at work in the last 12 years and absolutely love what I do; getting out of bed every morning and coming to work is a passion and just a pure joy. We’re loving every minute of it over here at Village Greens. That’s kind of how I got started in the game of golf and how I ended up here at Village Greens.
WL: If you described your teaching philosophy to people who come out to the Village Greens of Woodridge, how would you describe it? What kind of approach do you take to someone who is just learning the game? Someone who is saying, “Hey, I put my game in your hands, tell me what I need to know.”
BE: Well, regardless of the student or whether they are an accomplished golfer; we always try to really narrow down what their ultimate goals and objectives are. Typically, for a beginning golfer, they don’t really know what their goals and objectives are. Most of the time they are just looking to get a golf ball up in the air, or they are trying to learn enough about the game of golf to participate in their company’s golf outing which is coming up in 2 weeks.
Those type of objectives. What we try to do with beginning golfers is try to make the game fun at the beginning. Try to give them all of the knowledge, all of the tools, and all of the information that they need to feel comfortable, first of all, in and around a golf course, so that they are not apprehensive about the game; they are not intimidated by the game. Once we get them comfortable, then we try to make it as enjoyable and as much fun as possible.
We try to give them the technical ability with their golf swings to at least get that golf ball up in the air, and get it moving forward. Because, as we all know, it’s a little frustrating to play golf with the ball just kind of dribbling along the ground. That’s kind of the approach we take with people who are just learning how to play the game.
WL: So you have a very unique program going on for young golfers, very young golfers, and you are sort of teaching them the premise and it seems to be you’re even teaching the parents on how to teach the game of golf. It’s called 1,000 First Swings. Can you tell me a little bit more about that program? What do you do, and before you even begin, where did the idea come from to put this together?
BE: Absolutely. I’ve always had a passion for junior golf. Obviously, I was given a lot of opportunities growing up, just by being in and around the golf course. The game of golf has given me a lot of opportunities to meet wonderful people and obviously make a career and a profession out of it. To be able to expose kids to the game of golf has always been a goal and ambition of mine.
This past winter, the Woodridge Park District was fortunate enough to apply for and get a grant through U.S. Kids Golf and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association for 10 sets of junior golf clubs. We started tossing around some different sort of ideas on what we could do with those golf clubs and how we could influence kids. We realized that we really had an opportunity, with those clubs now in hand, to remove all of the barriers that traditionally prevent kids from learning and sticking with the game.
Those barriers being:
A. Getting them some equipment to use, at least to start off playing with.
B. The price or the cost of the game.
C. The one that we always kind of forget about, or don’t pay attention to as much, as golf professionals, is the social support that goes along with the game.
Traditionally, we’ve run junior golf programs, and we still do, where the parents will drop the kids off and we will teach them for a few days and expose them to the game of golf. But, if the parents aren’t involved, if there’s not a family member involved who is really involved in the game; it’s hard sometimes for kids to stick with it.
My assistant, Prince Winbush, and I were tossing around some ideas and some goals, and we kind of threw a number out there of 1,000 kids that we were going to try to reach with this new equipment in hand and with the support of the park district to provide some complimentary range balls just for kids to get an experience.
We knew that the missing factor in all of this was our ability, on a staff level, to be able to go out there and administer the program. We simply can’t teach 1,000 kids in a given year. But what we can do, what we do have, is the knowledge to be able to, through our web site and through our blog, to provide that information to the parents, to the aunts and uncles and grandparents who might want to bring a kid out, borrow our equipment, hit some free range balls and then give them the tools and the information that they need to enjoy an afternoon on the driving range or on the putting green with their kids. That was really the impetus of the 1,000 First Swings program. We set a goal of reaching 1,000 kids.
The ironic part is that we never really set a time limit on it. We thought it might take us a couple of years in order to reach 1,000 kids. But I can tell you that we’ve only had the program marketed for about 2 months now and we are very close to getting our 1,000th commitment to come out and participate this year. We are nearing our 200th actual participant, in other words almost 200 kids have made it out to the course so far. But we’ve nearly got 1,000 registered or committed to coming out to Village Greens this year.
Subsequently, we’ve gone out and we’ve purchased some more equipment and we’ve got Brownie Troops, and Girl Scout Troops, and Boy Scout Troops, and birthday parties, and large groups of kids who are coming out here to participate. Then we have the singles; the father who brings out his daughter; the grandmother who brings out the grandson and just enjoys a nice afternoon out there on the range.
WL: What’s the process then if somebody would be interested in getting involved with 1,000 First Swings? Do they need to call first? Can they just stop by? How does that go?
BE: We encourage people to register through our web site, which is www.villagegreensgolf.com. You’ll see a couple of banners and under our specials page is the 1,000 First Swings web page. That details the program; tells a little bit more about our goals and objectives. It also has a registration form on there. But once the kids are kind of registered, all you really need to do is pick a date and a time that you want to show up. That’s the other nice feature about this program; it’s not limited by dates or times.
You can show up anytime the driving range is open, which is one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. We always recommend that if you want to do it in a relaxed fashion that you don’t come during the after-work hours because the driving range gets a little bit busy. Basically, you can pick the date and the time you want to come and you just trade a driver’s license at the front counter for use of the equipment and you return the equipment, we give you the driver’s license back.
What we’ve also done, we’ve gotten some commitments from Titleist to give each of the kids a free golf ball to take home. We give them a bag of tees that they can use down on the driving range. We’ve got a commitment from the park district to also give the kids 3 more free buckets of range balls if they expressed an interest in continuing on with the game. Not only do you get that initial experience with somebody in your social circle, but we’re also going to give you 3 more buckets of balls to kind of keep the momentum rolling. Hopefully by that point, they will be hooked on the game of golf and it will turn into an experience that they can use for the rest of their life.
WL: What would be the age groups that would be open for that?
BE: We’ve had some as young as 2 years old out there. In fact, my son, who is 2 and half years old, was one of the initial participants in the program. We’ve had a number of 2 year olds and we’ve had some as old as 17 out there. We kind of market it for any kid under the age of 18 who just wants to simply try out the game of golf and give it a shot.
WL: I’ve read about some of your games that you have put together for kids who are like 5 and under about washing the clubs and ball in the middle and stuff like that. What is the idea behind those types of games that you create for them?
BE: I think I mentioned before that one of the things that we really want to do, especially at a young age, is get the kids to equate the game of golf with having fun. As such, we don’t really want to put too much pressure on them to hit the perfect golf shot or have the perfect swing. We want to keep them safe while they are down there on the range. We want to teach them the basics, but it’s kind of hard to hold a 4 year olds attention to get them into the proper grip, the proper stance, the proper backswing and follow-through time after time.
What I want to pass along to the people who are bringing these kids out; the grandparents; the parents; the aunts; and the uncles is that there are things that kids are going to naturally do, like develop a fascination with the club washers. Develop a fascination with the filling divots and throwing sand all over the driving range. We encourage that sort of activity; anything that the kids can do that are going to keep their interest and get them to equate having fun at the golf course-we want to encourage that sort of behavior.
When the kids are doing that sort of stuff, there are still things that you can teach them. You can teach them the terminology, like a divot; and course etiquette like how to fill a divot and how to keep your equipment clean and how to play these simple little games in and around the golf course; even if they are not actually swinging at golf balls. Let them have fun and still teach them about the history, the tradition, and the etiquette of the game that I think are so vital.
So what we’ve done on our blog, and on our web site, and Facebook page is we’ve kind of communicated that information to the parents and the grandparents to let them know that it’s okay if your kids aren’t really interested in hitting a hundred golf balls while they are down there. But take some of the opportunities to teach them about the game while they are kind of satisfying their own curiosity and fascination.
WL: What kind of feedback have you got from parents, as far as the program? I know you’ve got a lot more feedback than you expected. What has been their take on the whole program?
BE: The turnout so far has been fantastic. As far as specific feedback, just a lot of “Thank you’s”, a lot of comment along the lines of “I’ve always wanted to make it a point to bring my granddaughter out and let her experience the game.” They talk about “My grandma and grandpa always going to play golf” but they have never had the opportunity to do it; so “Thank you for providing me that opportunity, thank you for showing me some of these articles about how to teach the kids and how to play these games while they are down there on the golf course so that I didn’t feel quite as intimidated bringing them out to the golf course.” Obviously, “Thank you for doing it for free, so that there is really no financial investment.”
The majority of the comments that we’ve had back have just been “Thanks for providing me a day with a kid that I love, something that we were able to do together and bond together and just have nice, quality time and did it in an atmosphere that is relaxing.” A lot of comments, especially from parents and grandparents that haven’t been around Village Greens for a long time, suddenly kind of rediscover our golf course and rediscover what we have to offer and say that they will be back and they will be bringing their kids back in the future, as well. That makes us feel good that they have kind of reconnected with us; but more so that they are really interested now in taking the initiative in getting this next generation of golfers down to the driving range and getting them hooked on this game that we all love so much.
WL: I think Village Greens of Woodridge is doing a terrific job in terms of offering all kinds of different programs. Not just for kids but you are offering unlimited range balls for an annual fee I think you charge?
BE: Yes, we started…We really promoted for the first time this year…We’ve always had kind of an unwritten promotion for unlimited range balls for $99.99 per year for as many range balls as you want to hit. Our driving range has a limitation, it’s only 240 yards long and we fully understand that. In fact, we always encourage our customers to go next door to Zigfield Troy if they want to hit their drivers and have a few more amenities.
What we are trying to do is satisfy a niche in the market, and we think that we’ve done that with both really passionate golfers who just like to hit a lot of golf balls; we call them our range rats; as well as some beginning golfers who are just looking for an affordable avenue to work on their games and perfect their games. We capped it this year at just over 100 participants, which was our limit and we think we are kind of on to something, at a price point that is really attractive to people and really kind of gets them involved on a steady basis with the game of golf.
We see too often nowadays where people will develop a passion for the game and then play a couple times and then just kind of walk away from it. With the unlimited range program, we keep them coming out to the golf course on a regular basis. The more balls they hit, the more enthusiastic they are about playing and it just kind of perpetuates itself.
We’ve got that program going on and we’ve got a couple of other promotions, greens fees promotions, to fill up some of our slow times during the day. We have a $9.99 nine hole club that we promote when we have a golf league on one side of the course, or a golf outing on one side of the course.
Traditionally, the other side of the golf course, which is kind of throwaway tee time; so we started a $9.99 club where you can come out and play 9 holes of golf for $9.99. And we have about 800 members of that $9.99 club who vie pretty aggressively for those tee times when we do post them.
We’re trying to be unique in certain regards in terms of the offerings we put out there, but also, we understand that economic times are a little bit tough so we’re searching for those programs to get people on the golf course or at least on the driving range in an affordable manner. So they can participate in the game even if their discretionary income has changed in the past couple of years.
WL: I think one of the other unique things that you have to offer is the location. Being a couple of minutes off of I-355 and 75th street really is, for anybody coming north or south, it’s pretty nice to be able to get right off the I-355 and be right there. How else do you see Village Greens of Woodridge being positioned amongst-there’s certainly other choices in the area-but how do you try to position the course and who do you try to appeal to?
BE: You are absolutely right. Our location is absolutely perfect and that is one thing that we are kind of blessed with; being so accessible, even from downtown Chicago. We are one of the busier courses in Chicago. We’ll play about 46,000 to 47,000 rounds per year.
What’s a little bit unique about us, we have a very steady clientele, a lot of residents play from the town of Woodridge. We have 23 weekly golf leagues that participate out here at Village Greens. Sixteen of which are women’s golf leagues. I don’t know of another course in the area that has as many as 16 women’s-only golf leagues. In fact, one of our golf leagues has been around for over 80 years. Which, when you think about it, women’s league being in existence for over 80 years is pretty remarkable. Our men’s club has been…They are going to celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, all participating at Village Greens of Woodridge.
With 23 weekly leagues, we have very steady participation rates there. We also cater to smaller golf outings. We’ll do about 80 to 100 events per year; mainly in the 20 to 50 person size range. We aren’t really well known for the larger type of events, nor do we want to be. We want to just fill up a certain portion of our tee sheet with those golf outing events and still allow our leagues and some of our regular players to have access to the course when they want to play.
We have a lot of different market niches, a lot of different segments that we kind of tailor to and we are happy to be able to offer a lot of different things to a lot of different people and still get them all on the golf course and having fun in a way that’s economical for the golf course as well.
WL: This has been great, Brandon. I appreciate the time you have given me. There is lot of great information, a lot more stuff I would probably like to follow-up on. Especially with the different league, too. That’s amazing to have a league that’s been around for 80 years.
BE: It truly is; especially women’s league. Sometimes you will hear of a men’s club at a private country club that has been around that long. Now, Village Greens itself has only been around for 50 years, so they haven’t been playing her at Village Greens for 80 years. We can certainly put you in touch with some of the members of that league; some of the coordinators and the chairpeople of that league if you wanted to follow-up with them. It’s kind of a unique story that they have and they have a lot of great stories to tell associated with their league.
WL: Oh, yes, I would imagine.
BE: We are kind of honored and blessed to have those people around.
WL: That’s terrific. I will say, too, that you just seem to…I’m not sure that there is a course that I’ve seen…And I’ve been really studying the 215 courses in the Chicagoland area, and I don’t think there is a course out there that really is as active as yours is in terms of everything that you are accomplishing or looking to accomplish. Kudos to you, because that’s a lot.
BE: Thank you. We are trying to…We are not doing it for economic reasons, we truly have a passion; our staff truly has a passion for getting people to enjoy the game of golf and getting them access at an affordable price. I know its a little cliché to say that nowadays, but we really try to find certain blocks of our tee sheets; certain ways to accommodate our various segments of our clientele. Whether that’s giving free tips on our Facebook page or we’ve got a link up to golf for a beginning women’s clinic.
What’s a little bit unique about that is that we give them the standard 5 weeks of instruction, but then we tap into those 16 women’s golf leagues and we actually ask for volunteers from the women’s golf leagues to escort the newbies, the people who just finished up the clinics, around the golf course for about 4 weeks. Late at night where there’s no pressure and they get a totally different perspective from what a PGA pro, myself, teaches them in their 5 weeks to what a 30 handicap lady who plays in a 9-hole league might be able to offer them.
In that way, we kind of perpetuate the system. We get them from instruction, driving range, to onto the golf course in comfortable manner and then after a year or so we usually find them playing in one of the 9-hole leagues, and after a couple of years we find them playing in the 18-hole leagues. It’s been a nice little feeder system for us. We barely charge for that. We charge $99.00 for the first year and if they want to come back and repeat the program, we only charge them half price or even free, if they bring a new friend with them. We’ve got women who have participated 4 and 5 years now. Not because they still need the instruction, but just because they have fun and they want to meet some new women on the golf course when we’re done instructing them.
WL: Wow. The list goes on and on. You’ve got a lot of great stuff going on, I’ll tell ya!
BE: Like I said before, we have fun. I’ve never had a bad day at work and I’m always looking for new ways to help golfers around Chicago. I enjoy the game. I appreciate you taking the time and asking me about some of the stuff that we’re doing.
This has been the Chicago Golf Report podcast. Visit chicagogolfreport.com right now for exclusive discount offers, Chicago golf news, and in-depth event listings.