Golf is in the midst of a renaissance period, and not just because Tiger Woods is good again.
The business of golf is booming, supporting nearly 2 million jobs and driving more than $84 billion in economic activity in the U.S. alone. Front and center in the sport’s re-emergence: young professionals who are upping the ante on the traditional 18-hole golf experience, creating facilities that function like resorts, and introducing off-course options — think Topgolf — that bring the game to new audiences.
This is where UNLV comes in.
UNLV operates one of only 18 PGA-accredited professional golf management programs in the nation. It’s the only one housed within a College of Hospitality. And it's the only one in the Entertainment Capital of the World.
Here, as part of a unique undergraduate program, nearly 100 students are learning the art, science, and business of golf each day alongside some of the top innovators in the hospitality industry. These students are landing internships at the nation’s most sought-after golf destinations, and an impressive 100 percent of UNLV’s PGA golf-management graduates secure jobs in the industry.
“Golf is a powerful business tool and a vital part of the hospitality mix,” says Stowe Shoemaker, dean of UNLV’s Harrah College of Hospitality. “As hospitality and golf continue to evolve, our students have a chance to learn tomorrow’s trends today through a world-class program in a city that created and constantly redefines the industry. This sets them up for success wherever they go.”
This convergence of resort and sport is on full display in Hospitality Hall, the new home for the Harrah College of Hospitality. The impressive building’s balconies offer picturesque views of the Las Vegas Strip, and it has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from the world’s top hospitality college. But it may also be the only academic building in America with its own putting green, which welcomes everyone passing by and sits just outside the doors to the Dwaine Knight Center for Golf Management.
A Golfer’s Paradise
PGA golf management has been at UNLV since 2002, but never before has the program occupied such a prominent physical space within the college or on campus. The program’s facility, which is named after legendary UNLV men’s golf coach Dwaine Knight, is much more than an outdoor putting green. There’s also a spacious, green-carpeted first-floor classroom that doubles as another putting green, as well as a state-of-the-art 3D motion-capture swing lab, a golf simulator room loaded with 60 of the world’s top courses, a club design and repair facility, and a student-operated golf shop.
For program director Christopher Cain, who joined the university in 2004, the facility is a 15-year dream come true. “This center is an opportunity to engage the campus and the community, to introduce them to our program, and to get them to UNLV,” he says.
So far, so good. In just a few months since opening, the facility has hosted top PGA officials, current and future students, countless local golfers — including tour professionals and members of UNLV’s nationally ranked men’s and women’s golf teams—and potential research partners.
“We’re already engaged with students and faculty in kinesiology, and we’re working with instructors who don’t have access to this type of technology,” Cain says. “We want to work with researchers and teachers in the industry to create a bridge between our college, our center, and practitioners who can benefit.”
The entire facility is a microcosm of modern technology, starting with the 3D motion-capture swing lab, a full-fledged research space about the size of a two-car garage that resembles a movie or video-game production facility. Golfers are surrounded by 10 elevated cameras and don a suit covered with motion-capture markers. Standing on force plates disguised as a standard golf tee box or fairway, golfers swing into a panoramic screen that projects a scenic desert golf course.
After each swing, a 3D model of the golfer appears on a separate diagnostics screen, along with a massive amount of ground force, swing, and ball data — all of it accurate to within a millimeter.
“We’re able to isolate a number of variables in a controlled environment to see how small position changes can make a big impact on a golfer’s swing — essentially finding the optimal swing for the desired result,” Cain says. “We can use data to answer the question most people have when they watch PGA Tour golfers: ‘How are they doing that?’”
UNLV’s PGA golf management students are working with golfers of all ages and skill levels — from elite tour pros all the way down to the author of this article — to build a robust database that will advance both research and teaching within the industry.
“For any golfer who wants to take the next step, we can see where they are, learn where they want to go, and help them get there,” says Cain, who is also exploring multisport partnerships for the lab space. “The potential for this technology, and our university and students, to plug into emerging sports here in Las Vegas is high, and it’s going to be a fun challenge.”
In Full Swing
Adjacent to the swing lab is a smaller room packed with piles of golf clubs. It’s a space less tech-enhanced but every bit as important to the art and science of the game. Here, students learn how to check the specs on golf clubs and make alterations to properly fit equipment to individual golfers.
“When you play a lot, your clubs change,” Cain says. “In a sport where millimeters matter, club fit is crucial.”
He sees this club-repair lab not just as essential to the program’s curriculum, but also as a future connection point where students can hone their craft while giving local golfers a resource to get their clubs adjusted and re-gripped.
“It’s not just a club-repair lab; we see it as a service,” Cain says, referencing both the business potential for the space and the community impact it can have. To the latter point, the program regularly receives donations of used golf clubs, which students alter then donate to junior golfers who are just getting started in the game.
“We’re constantly working with the local golf community on ways to grow the game and remove barriers, and access and affordability are key,” Cain says.
Tucked between the two swing labs and the club-repair facility is a retail space reminiscent of a functioning pro shop at a local golf course. It’s where the art, science, and business of golf come together. The space, which is open to the public, gives students hands-on experience in inventory management, sales, marketing, and purchasing. They’re also working on a reservation-management system that will soon allow students to make tee times for UNLV staff and students at local courses.
The new facility is impressive and no doubt passes the eye test, but what’s happening in that green-carpeted classroom away from the swing labs and pro shop is every bit as impactful to the sport’s — and the students’ — success. This is where innovation in golf and hospitality converge, where students are not just training for careers in golf management, they’re learning to become leaders.
“Trends show that successful golf operations are pairing with hospitality to create social experiences,” Shoemaker says. “Hospitality and golf work really well together, and it’s a statement we’re making here at UNLV.”
Cain concurs that hospitality is the perfect place for golf-management education. “It truly is about experience, both for the core golfer and recreational fan,” he says. “As the market for golf shifted, we went from a program that focused on managing demand to one that requires both managing and creating new ways to engage.”
The demand for the traditional golf experience is steady, but off-course experiences are exploding. So while career opportunities in instruction and facility management are as strong as ever, Cain points to Topgolf, a hybrid driving range and nightclub-like lounge, as a great example of the industry’s future.
“How do we capitalize on new trends and prepare our students to push the boundaries in research and teaching, and to understand all the revenue stream possibilities? Hospitality — and our new golf center — is the perfect place for that,” he says. “You talk about golf’s renaissance period — we’re in it.”