Eddy Lui founded mobile golf technology company 18Birdies in 2011 after a successful career building and growing technology startups.
The platform is one of the fastest-growing tech companies in golf, seeking to enhance the experience between golfers and the courses they play through technology, social engagement and gaming. The 18Birdies community has doubled in the past year and is now up to 1.5 million users, comprising a growing chunk of the almost 24 million on-course golfers in the U.S.
An avid golfer, Lui recently spoke with the NGF about his late introduction to the game, creating a “one-stop shop” for golfers, technology’s place in a traditional game, and his outlook on the industry overall.
What is your background in golf and how did you get involved in the game?
“I started golf late. One of my best friends in college used to play on the golf team in high school, and at a random New Year’s party, he bet me that if I started playing golf right away there’s no way I could beat him in the next five years. I took the bet and actually beat him the first year. I got really addicted and it became a lifestyle choice – Family, work, golf. It’s been 20 years now and along the way golf has become a journey of fun and frustration. As my own golf evolved, doing things to make golf more fun really became an addiction. There was all kinds of games and wagering; just distracting you from the fact that you’re not breaking 90 or 80 all the time. All in all, golf is a big part of my DNA. I should have a better handicap, but other than that, it’s a true love.”
How did you decide to start a golf business with 18Birdies?
“As I played golf, I pretty much used every single app that’s ever been pushed out there. I would be the first to get it, pay for it, use it and, for the most part, get disappointed by it. Because it does certain things, but it doesn’t really create real value. In the back of mind, it’s always been – if I could do something, what would it be? I’m for the most part a tech investor/builder and had the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do something ourselves?’ In the beginning, it was almost like a personal pet project. Could I build something for myself that fits the style of golf that my friends and I play – a lot of it relating to scoring, tournaments, betting, that sort of thing. In the process of looking to do that, one thing that came across was that this was a pretty serious matter. It’s not something you get a couple guys together and say, ‘Build something.’ As the mobile experience gets better and better in general, you have to match up to it. So, then it became a question of whether this is a hobby or a business? Obviously, we took it very seriously as a business opportunity and really just dived in to understand golf, not just as a player but as an industry.”
What is the mission of 18Birdies?
“We are building a one-stop shop for golfers — a digital home for all golfers. At the same time, an end-to-end platform for the entire industry. We are treating this as a vertical that has the ability to connect everybody. As a result, we believe we can make golf more fun, make golf more convenient and more accessible, it can allow the industry to really grow. Deep down, golf is such an amazing lifestyle; it has so much about it, whether you’re in the competitive level or just going with friends, the quality of time being outdoors during a craft together is amazing. It’s just not being perceived the way it should, but technology can really change that.”
Technology is becoming a bigger part of golf. How do you see it continuing to evolve in the coming years?
There’s a lot of technology going into clubs, balls, but really maybe because of behavior, golf hasn’t really adopted how we can collectively take advantage of technology to improve. It’s all about connectivity and integration. You have that connectivity to support the flow of information and knowledge, about connected relationships, whether people to people, people to businesses. There’s incredible access to information – like ‘Where do I find an instructor? At the same time, technology can also create a lot more personalization and flexibility for optimization. All those things can definitely make a massive impact. As golf looks to the future, it needs to embrace technology. It needs to embrace the future generation of golfer. Technology is a big world, but our view is that there’s a big void here.
Going forward, it should be more about democratizing information. Some courses, based on the data we can provide them, might consider starting a Tuesday morning ladies’ round. And then there’s matching the data and access so golf can be more fitting to the modern lifestyle and your schedule. Maybe at lunchtime, instead of spending an hour lunch, I can spend 45 minutes to play three holes. Whatever that is, really finding and matching the needs of these courses and their business and their players.”
You’ve talked about creating a community. What engagement are you seeing there?
“At this stage, the dominant engagement experience is the on-course experience where people use scoring, GPS, stats or tracking their shots. Our engagement level year-to-year, the on-course experience is almost up 500%. What that really means is that not only do we have a lot more people playing rounds, but we have more people doing a lot more while they’re playing. That’s spurring a lot of engagement beyond the round – a lot of people share their tracked shots on social media. We’re working a lot to improve that. People like to share their golf stories, whether a live round or a shot. It’s stirring engagements. We’re creating the opportunity to use golf as a toolset to generate content and stories.
The other side of it is, 50 percent of our users are under 40. Especially in the younger demographics you can see people are using the player matching. Look, people want to find other people to play golf. One area we thought is really cool is that we’re seeing women are growing 30% faster than men in our ecosystem right now. The social, the content experience we’re providing is appealing to these women. They’re coming in, probably not as much about competition or hitting their drive 300 yards, but they still love golf. We’re providing an interesting environment for them to say, ‘This could be my home, this could be the place where I come whenever I think about golf.’”
What is your outlook on the golf industry as a whole?
“I’m an absolute bull when it comes to where golf is going. People have been talking about growing the game of golf for a long time. But there are some easy opportunities. Women are such a small percentage of golfers right now. If you look at tennis, it used to be 15%, now it’s almost 45% women. In our studies, we look at a lot of non-golfers who want to try, especially among the Millennials who say, ‘If someone would take me, I’d try.’ Golf is so fragmented. How do you get everybody behind the same kind of movement? The way to do it is build a platform. What we see is that particularly using technology to make the game of golf more accessible, a more flexible experience. Our approach of building a full digital home for golf – that’s the future of golf. Providing that experience of community content, a golf tool and marketplace; basically, become the consumer portal for all golfers.”
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.