Mike Zisman has a background in enterprise software and a long career in building and managing successful businesses – Soft‑Switch, Lotus Development Corporation, and IBM among them. He has a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania and was on the faculty at MIT before becoming an entrepreneur.
Zisman is passionate about the game of golf (his club memberships include Merion and Saucon Valley in Pennsylvania), but it was his interest in solving scheduling problems that served as the genesis for Golf Genius Software and its tournament management system. Thanks to a partnership with the USGA, the platform has managed almost eight million rounds in 2017 and will soon be available in more than 10,000 golf facilities across the U.S.
Zisman recently took some time to talk with NGF about Golf Genius’s popular software, its innovation, its benefits to the golf community, and the way it combines technology with tradition. Golf Genius Software has been an NGF member since 2013.
When did you first get involved with golf as a participant and how deep has your connection to the game run over the years?
I developed a real passion for the game years ago, but I always say don’t confuse a passionate golfer with a good golfer. I’m very committed. My wife also plays golf, so I play a lot with her and other couples, and I’m deeply involved with Merion Golf Club. I joined about 13 or 14 years ago, have been on the board of directors, chairman of finance committee, treasurer, currently assistant treasurer, and I’m very involved in the complete restoration of the East Course we’re undertaking. So I have a strong connection to the game. Most of my friendships are around golf. My kids used to play, then they got into girls, and now they’re getting back into golf, which is nice to see. So I’ve always had this passion for golf, always enjoyed it, and always was the guy organizing the annual golf trip.”
How did the Golf Genius software come about?
Ever since the late 1980s when I started playing, I had a bunch of friends going on golf trips – places like PGA National, Sea Island, Pinehurst, and Kohler. I was always the one organizing it. And I was always the one getting all the crap at the end of trip, stuff like, ‘I played with so‑and‑so three times and I didn’t play with Mike at all.’ On a golf trip, you come to play golf, you have dinner, and go to bed. So if I don’t see a guy in my foursome on the course, I might finally see them on Sunday and say, ‘So, how is everything?’
I was very frustrated with these golf trips and in particular — how do you get everyone playing with everyone else? It’s a scheduling problem. It’s not a lot different from how airlines schedule airplanes and crews, how FedEx routes trucks; it’s a class of operations research problem. I went off and worked with a professor at Wharton and solved that problem, and realized that’s not a product. You have to have tournament software, accounting software, and cartography. So in 2010, we came out with this product called Golf Trip Genius that was targeted to save the guy organizing the golf trip an enormous amount of time. It was a very small product. We went from there to golf leagues. Many people think golf is an elitist game, but 90 percent of golfers are public golfers. So we built a product for golf leagues. By 2014, we thought we really had the software we needed to go into private clubs, which really run complex tournaments and have very sophisticated requirements. We were quite successful with that and started working with the USGA, which has now adopted us as their product in this space.”
How has the partnership with the USGA gone?
The USGA Tournament Management tool (powered by Golf Genius Software) that’s replacing TPP is in about 4,500 clubs right now and will be in about 10,000 clubs by early 2018. We’re very fortunate; we have a wonderful relationship with the USGA and we deliver a lot of value. Our tagline is ‘Less work, more fun, more revenue.’ We’re creating less work for the guy in the golf shop. People don’t realize how much is involved with a classic member‑guest tournament. As a chemical engineer, I often say to people you don’t care how complicated refrigeration is, you just want to know that the beer is cold and the milk is okay. This is the same thing. As a golfer, you don’t care about how much work it is to put these tournaments together, you just want to show up and play golf. That’s the way it should be. But setting up these things can be very complicated. They’re changing all the time.”
How will Golf Genius Software continue to enhance the golf experience, both on the consumer side and the facility side?
“We make things very easy for the golf professional. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a product. But when I entered the market in 2009, that’s all people did. They focused on a tool for the pro shop that made it easy to set up tournaments, print scorecards, and cart signs and things like that. But being a golfer, I said ‘Wait a minute, the golfer’s experience begins with the scorecard. It doesn’t end with it. So let’s focus on the golfer’s needs, how do we make this more fun?’
We introduced things like live scoring, TV leaderboards, and portals. We also realized almost all of these clubs on Mondays have charity or corporate outings. A club can go to these outing coordinators and say for an extra $20 a player we can give you a near PGA Tour experience – live scoring, live leaderboards, sponsors up on the leaderboard, a website, and so on. So a club, instead of using us as an expense, we’re just a cost of goods. If they do this 7, 8, 9 times, let’s say, they’re making 10 times what they’re paying us. The beauty of it is that the charities raise more money. We’ve had clubs go out and get someone to pay $25,000 to be the live scoring sponsor. With some of these outings, if you walk away with $70,000, you’ve done really well. We can turn that into $110,000, $120,000, $130,000. So the charity is more than happy to pay the club an extra $2,500 for our system. Guess what, that’s all we charge for the entire season if you’re a USGA club – for the high‑end product. It’s a win‑win situation, which is why we’ve been able to scale the business.”
You obviously have had a lot of success in building and helping manage successful companies in the software space, so how different was getting Golf Genius started? What have been the challenges along the way and where do you see it going?
“I tell people and they don’t believe me – I’ve built a lot of software in my life; I ran Lotus, a billion‑dollar business, I ran the storage business at IBM, I ran my own company – and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done because it’s so unstructured. In the world of golf, there’s an infinite number of tournament formats. Some of them make little sense, some of them make a lot of sense, but it’s really unstructured.
It’s a very interesting market and for me, one of the noteworthy things about the company is that out of our 52 employees, 21 of them are PGA Professionals. Everyone who touches the customer is a PGA Professional — all the sales people, the account managers, almost all support people. You need people who know golf.
This year, we’ll do just under nine million rounds. On our peak day this year, there was 60,000 rounds. It’s being used all over the world, literally. If you compare us to GolfNow, one of the most disruptive forces in the industry, they’ll do about 16 million rounds this year. That’s about where we’ll be next year. On the other hand, in the U.S. there will about 465 million rounds of golf played. With nine million, we’ve only scratched the surface, so there’s a lot of opportunity.”
(Note: starting January 1, 2018, the WSGA will be going exclusively with Tournament Management, powered by Golf Genius Software. All WSGA championships will use this program, and all WSGA member clubs will be required to use this program for their events because the old TPP program will no longer be supported or in existence. For questions, contact Kevin Jones, the WSGA manager of IT and GHIN Services at 253-214-2917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)