A Letter to Our Founding Members: The Story of Golfinity
Dear Golfinity Members,
Each of you is part of a dream-come-true, and in this first member communication, we wanted to share our story with you. Welcome to an adventure created to expand the reach of golf and enrich lives through skill development, community and fun.
In December of 2009 I finished a season teaching golf at The Whippoorwill Club in Armonk, New York, north of the city. Instead of taking a golf professional position someplace warm for the winter, I decided to move to Austin to start a youth after-school enrichment program called Golf in Schools. The idea was to bring golf to the community so families could introduce their kids to the game in a fun, accessible way. Prior to teaching in New York, I had implemented youth golf programs throughout Asia, and loved the experience of sharing my passion for the game. I started the program in five elementary schools in Eanes ISD and turned soccer fields, gyms and even hallways into my own little driving ranges. Golf was officially a subject in school!
A successful start in Eanes opened doors to other school districts in the Austin area. Lake Travis, Leander, Round Rock, even Dripping Springs, were all flying the Golf in Schools flag. By 2015 our programs were offered in over 85 schools across Central Texas, with almost 2,000 students per year participating in one of our programs.
It takes a team to make a dream. As the program grew, so did our incredible team. David Gerken, Golfinity General Manager and Director of Instruction, helped me start the program, and even opened his own Golf in Schools chapter in Chicago. Golfinity Senior Instructor, Nicholas Trice, joined Golf in Schools in 2013 and went on to become the Program Director. Marin Bergman, my little sister, served as an After-School Coach, then Membership Director, and now works in Marketing. Our Director of Technology, Sam Wallach, also started as an after-school Coach.
It was rewarding to see so many kids have a positive first experience with golf. And I loved our connection to the school communities. Through PTA events, grant-funded programs and clinics in PE classes, I watched the game grow in front of my eyes.
I realized the next step was to create learning opportunities beyond the on-campus classes. Plus, I really missed coaching one-on-one. So I set out to find a golf course partner who would allow our team to teach Golf in Schools students at their facility. I made a three-page proposal and shopped it all around town. The deal was simple: I would provide new, enthused golfers and a golf course would allow access to teaching space. It seemed like an easy decision for a golf course to make.
Several firm no’s and a couple of maybe’s later, I could see I needed to pursue another solution. Driving south on Hwy 183 I often noticed a large building sign next to the Austin Aquarium that said YES Fitness. Out of pure curiosity I walked in to see what was inside. It was a large, mostly open space, with turf along the ground and fitness equipment scattered throughout the building. I noticed a back corner that wasn’t being used and contacted the gym owner to see if he would be willing to let me set up a few hitting bays to teach golf lessons. He agreed!
I didn’t have any extra money to build out the space, so I started visiting local banks in hopes of securing a small business loan. That went about as well as trying to partner with a golf course. It’s a humbling experience to be told no over and over. I was determined to make our golf school a reality, so I kept pushing forward, hoping to find someone who would be willing to take a chance on the plan. Finally, a banker in Lakeway, who happened to be a big golfer, agreed to provide a small loan to help get the new phase of the business started.
I’ll never forget the conversation in his office when he told me the bank would agree to loan the funds. “On paper you don’t have the credit or collateral to get this loan, but I like you and I believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “And it’s not a huge amount of money, so I’m going to make it happen.” He changed my life. (Side note: The banker retired and I lost touch with him after the loan was paid off. He has no idea that the little three-bay golf school he funded has turned into Golfinity).
Our indoor school, which we named The Golf School, was not a fancy set up. There was no simulated ball flight on hitting screens or slow motion video. We hit into mesh nets and aimed at vinyl targets behind them. We used launch monitors that connected to small tv’s through an iPad. It was unusual for all of them to work at the same time. On top of that, teaching golf while group fitness classes were going on behind us wasn’t ideal, but having a physical location to teach our students was an amazing feeling.
We started promoting the school by inviting students from our Golf in Schools program. We put up stake signs along the road with our contact info. (Turns out posting signs across North Austin wasn’t permitted. One day I showed up to the school and a local officer was waiting for me with a $2,000 fine. I talked him out of the ticket…and fixed his golf grip!) We set up portable hitting stations at community events and inside the Lakeline Mall to attract new students. I’ll never forget the time we were at the mall and couldn’t get our hitting net to break down once we finished. Our team had to drag the large net through the middle of the mall and up an escalator to get out. I don’t believe we were invited back.
I worked with an operations consultant, Brad Closson, for several years and he still works closely with our team today. Brad was a former collegiate golfer and golf course general manager, and a big believer in Golf in Schools. He was by my side as we launched The Golf School. At our grand opening party, Brad invited one of his other business clients, Marc Rankin, to come check out our new concept. Marc brought his son, Chamber, who was six at the time, to come hit some balls and experience a lesson. Afterwards Marc decided to enroll him in our program. Marc and I became friends and he offered business advice as I looked to grow the new retail space.
Just as our school was gaining momentum, the fitness gym went out of business. I was barely making the loan payments and definitely could not afford to rent the whole gym space. Leasing a smaller space nearby didn’t seem financially possible, either. I met with the investors of the gym and asked if I could move into the upstairs floor until they found a new tenant. I couldn’t cover all of their costs, but we handshook on a monthly fee to keep the lights on and for me to take care of the building.
For three years we operated on that handshake deal. As we grew our business we made sure to open the doors for any real estate agent showing clients the space. I would get so nervous when someone new would come to look. Somehow, a permanent tenant never came to be. Perhaps warning each visitor of the unique sounds and smells from the aquarium next door played a small part. Hey, I just wanted people to know what they were getting into! Though we were never forced to leave the space, we did have to share the downstairs floor with the Halloween Express during the fall for a few years. Imagine coming in for a golf lesson and having to walk through the ghoul and goblin aisle to get to your hitting bay. Our lowest moment came when one of our junior students was afraid to come to her lessons because of the large monster occupying the front of the entryway. Luckily her dad was a good sport and took over her sessions until Halloween passed.
While things were getting spooky at The Golf School, Marc Rankin and I began to envision a golf learning experience beyond our makeshift space. With Marc’s background in commercial real estate and private equity, he challenged me to dream beyond our sublet operation. We wrote the business plan for Golfinity, began searching for potential locations, and started to fundraise for the project.
We must have visited 25 vacant retail spaces to see if they would fit the vision. I was insistent on keeping the location near The Golf School, and within close proximity to our school partners. That made finding a space even more challenging. As we teamed up with a local architect, and as the Golfinity dream took shape, we began to envision a more purpose-built space, constructed from the ground up.
Marc and I traveled all over the country pitching Golfinity to potential investors, visiting indoor golf centers and meeting with golf simulator companies. It was exciting to share the story and vision. Each time we presented the idea it felt like it was coming closer to reality, even if only by inches. In 2019, after three years pushing forward, shovels went into the ground on our site. To see the building come to life has truly been surreal.
Golfinity was built on the idea that inspiration is everywhere, that people can grow everyday, and that life is best lived with purpose and soul. Whether you’re taking your first swings, or gearing up for your next tournament, you are a part of the next chapter of our story. Welcome to our dream.