In the early days of GolfTec, the indoor golf-lesson company that now has 215 locations and almost 1,000 employees worldwide, Joe Assell was the lone member of the staff.
Having just graduated from the PGA Golf Management program at Mississippi State University, Assell had an idea he was in the midst of creating. It has become one of the most influential golf companies of the 21st century. It all started in April 1995, in a strip mall near Denver, Colo., with Assell taking on every conceivable operation of the business.
“I taught golf lessons, cleaned the bathrooms, put ads in the newspaper,” Assell said. “I remember going back home at night around 8 p.m. and getting my checkbook out and paying the bills. I was literally booked all day, every day.”
Assell’s path to reach that position – and the rapid development of GolfTec that transpired soon after as he became the company’s CEO – is one of the great modern success stories in the industry.
The first building block of Assell’s golf career was placed when he was a child in Oswego, Illinois., a small town some 40 miles west of Chicago. As a 12-year-old, Assell worked at Fox Bend Golf Course for Leon McNair, an innovative PGA professional who spent 38 years as director of golf at the facility and served as president of the Illinois PGA. McNair developed a program called “Work For Golf” that allowed kids to help in the operation of the course in exchange for a small wage and playing privileges.
Assell’s entrepreneurial spirit can be traced to those days, when he took on each small task. He vacuumed, swept, dusted, straightened out merchandise, loaded soda machines – anything to be a part of the team and spend time with McNair and the assistant professionals. When kids in the program got older, they transitioned to washing carts and eventually found themselves in the golf shop as junior golf professionals helping the assistant pros.
“Because of that program that Leon McNair created, that really put the hooks in me to want to pursue a career in golf further,” Assell said. “I was an OK, decent junior golf player so the combination of that and my interest in starting early in the golf shop led me to Mississippi State.”
There are currently 18 universities with PGA Golf Management programs. They are schools where aspiring golf professionals can earn a degree and Class-A status in the PGA of America. However, in the early 1990s, only a few schools offered the program – Ferris State, New Mexico State, Penn State and Mississippi State. Assell didn’t want to be in cold weather at Ferris State (in Michigan) and he didn’t want to be one of the first students through the fledgling programs at New Mexico State and Penn State, so he went to Starkville, Miss., to launch his career in the game. It turned out to be an ideal match, with year-round golf and tremendous internship possibilities.
“There have been plenty of ups and downs, but it all just started with an idea. We’ve never looked back.”
Assell had designs on working at a private club, so for his first internship he went to Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora, Illinois, close to his home. For his second stint he went to the Golf Club of Tennessee, near Nashville.
But GolfTec likely would not exist today if not for Assell’s final stop before graduation.
“I had a goal of trying to get to the highest-ranked private club in the top 100 list that Mississippi State had available in its opportunities, and that happened to be Cherry Hills (just outside) Denver,” Assell said. “They were only taking one intern from Mississippi State every year, so I called the guy who had it the year before and he put in a good word for me.”
Assell got the internship and was at Cherry Hills as it hosted the 1993 U.S. Senior Open. Back then, facilities owned the merchandise, so the club’s basement was essentially a storage room. That basement full of boxes became incredibly important to the founding of GolfTec.
At that time, Mike McGetrick led instruction at Cherry Hills and was on most lists of top teachers in the game. Among the players in his stable was Meg Mallon, who had won two majors in 1991, and Juli Inkster, a three-time major champ to that point. At the end of 1993, McGetrick chose to open his own academy in another location, one at which he could generate business well beyond Cherry Hills members and select tour pros.
During that winter, then-Cherry Hills head professional Clayton Cole contemplated how to replace his star teacher. At that year’s PGA Merchandise Show, Cole attended a Teaching & Coaching summit and found himself in awe of an instructional computer that could precisely measure a golf swing – a foreign concept at a time when personal computer ownership still was just beginning to grow.
Cole installed a computer in the basement at Cherry Hills. And in 1994 the teaching program at the revered club revolved around a new-fangled machine that represented a completely new way to improve a golf swing.
Assell had no hand in the teaching program that year because he returned to Mississippi State, where he would graduate in December 1994. The following year, he found a teaching pro job in Chicago, but then received a call saying the course had been sold. He hadn’t even started his career, and the offer had been retracted.
Instinctively, Assell reached out to Cole, who already had moved his computer into a local strip mall near Cherry Hills. The assistant pro who was manning it for the winter was scheduled to come back when the spring season started, and plan was for Cole to move the computer back to the club. Instead, he offered Assell a position heading the young business out of the strip-mall location.
“It was a perfect combination for me, because I had already started to think about getting out of being a golf pro because I was much more intrigued by business,” Assell said. “I was thinking about maybe going and getting an MBA and maybe working for TaylorMade or Titleist or something. But when Clayton said I could move to Denver and wear two hats being the business manager and the teaching pro, that’s what got me excited.”
Almost immediately, Assell became successful as a one-man show at what then was called Driving Obsession (the name changed to GolfTec in January 1997). His schedule became so packed he did not have time to return countless messages left on his answering machine. Cole’s wife started coming in two hours a day for that task.
That led to the need for expansion. Mike Clinton, a friend of Assell’s at Mississippi State who interned at Cherry Hills the summer after Assell, had come back to be a full-time assistant pro. In autumn 1995, Cole shifted Clinton over to help Assell.
The problem was that Assell and Clinton each needed a computer and a hitting bay. Assell secured a loan from an uncle, invested in the $35,000 computer and officially become a co-owner. Ultimately, Assell and Clinton built the business side-by-side for two decades until Clinton left his position as chief operating officer in December 2014. He remains a partner alongside Assell for several GolfTec franchises in Minnesota, but now spends much of his time in entrepreneurial endeavors outside golf.
“In the beginning, our dream was to build a business with 10 locations,” Assell said. “I’m from the Chicago area and Mike is from Wisconsin, so we were going to do it in the Midwest. Mike actually moved to Chicago to open the second-ever GolfTec, and we thought that would be the foundation for our future.
“Next thing we know, we opened one in Dallas, one in Atlanta. We were quickly straying from that. I remember one night in the euphoria of having 15 or 20 locations, we probably had a couple beers too many and said, ‘Man, maybe someday we will have 100 of these.’ And we really blew through 100 in no time.”
From 2007 to 2008, they opened 77 GolfTec locations in 24 months. Assell admits the present-day company is far more analytical about when and where to open a location than it was 12 years ago. Armed with data that points to demand for 750 GolfTec locations in the world (500 more than what exists today), Assell is hopeful there eventually will be 350 locations in the United States (up from the current total of 180) and 400 international locations (up from 35).
“It’s a lot more planned and measured,” Assell jokes. “We’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated.”
For teachers in the golf industry, it’s indisputable that GolfTec is one of the most enticing jobs on the market. Each instructor gets two days off a week with one of those always on a weekend, which allows for better work-life balance than an average golf course professional typically enjoys. The company’s technology is among the most innovative in the game, which helps make GolfTec a popular destination for club-fitting. And because it is indoors, employees are not at the mercy of weather for teaching revenue. The connection Assell enjoys with his employees – whom he says have given more than 10 million lessons collectively –is not lost on him.
“They are really the bricks and mortar of the company,” Assell said. “When you see someone build their first house or start a family ... some PGA pros are even franchise owners now … it’s been a great opportunity for a lot of people.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted GolfTec like any other business. The plan called for 30 new locations this year, and that will have to wait for another year. And with social distancing coming into play since March, GolfTec closed all locations for two months before a slow reopening. As of early June, about 80 percent of locations had reopened.
However, Assell says he is certain the company can withstand the harsh business climate moving forward. April was to have been the 25-year anniversary of when Assell opened GolfTec’s first location by himself. In the speech he hoped to give, Assell wanted to tell the story of how GolfTec has overcome adversity in the past, battling through the Great Recession after opening 77 locations that had yet to become profitable.
Another blow came in 2016 when GolfSmith went bankrupt. GolfTec was located inside 51 of the retailer's locations that went out of business.
So this is a third crisis. It is another chance to get to work and find creative solutions, like he did as a recent college graduate in a Colorado strip mall.
“There have been plenty of ups and downs, but it all just started with an idea,” Assell said. “We’ve never looked back.”