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Raleigh entrepreneurs win with Operation 36 golf program

Raleigh entrepreneurs behind the iGrow Golf academies are finding success one country club at a time with their Operation 36 game aimed at junior golfers and adults.
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Raleigh entrepreneurs behind the iGrow Golf academies are finding success one country club at a time with their Operation 36 game aimed at junior golfers and adults.

Two Raleigh entrepreneurs are making it easier to play golf — and along the way they're changing how young people are taught to play the game.

PGA professionals Ryan Dailey and Matt Reagan are the driving forces behind Operation 36, a coaching program used at more than 325 golf clubs worldwide, including Pinehurst Country Club, the Dallas Athletic Club and the historic Baltusrol Country Club in New Jersey.

Operation 36 is basically a challenge course where golfers begin 25 yards from the hole on the green and every time they score 36 on nine holes they move back closer to the tee.

The program actually grew out of the iGrow Golf Academy the two started in 2010 at Keith Hills Golf Club near Raleigh. They were on a mission, at the time, to change junior golf education.

“The whole idea was, just like gymnastics, karate, soccer, and everything else out there, you can do those year-round,” Reagan said during a recent interview at their offices at The Frontier in Research Triangle Park. “But for golf, if you called a golf facility, they usually would say, ‘We can maybe do a private lesson with your kid or we can do a camp or clinic in the summer.’ We wanted to change that.”

Patrick Stephenson was an early student, joining the first iGrow academy while still in middle school.

His plan was to become a competitive junior golfer. Then, he would play Division 1 golf. The last step: be a golf professional.

Stephenson, a rising junior at East Carolina University, is more than halfway there. He was the first golfer from South Johnston High School to sign a Division 1 scholarship and was chosen for The American Men’s Golf All-Conference Team after his sophomore year at ECU.

He credits his success to the training he received through iGrow Golf.

How Operation 36 works

Reagan said golfers like Tiger Woods have publicly supported the idea of shooting closer to the hole as a training tactic. What sets Operation 36 apart is its curriculum, support and challenges. Here's how it works.

The program has six levels. To move up each level, golfers have to shoot par or better for nine holes. The trick: Players start closer to the hole.

Operation 36 starts golfers 25 yards from the hole for the first level. They are challenged to shoot 36 for nine holes, that means averaging four strokes per hole. Then, golfers move back to 50 yards for the second level. Each time a player gets par, they move back an additional 50 yards.

The end goal is to shoot from the full tee.

“Golf is a sport that you’re not going to be good at when you start out no matter who you are,” Stephenson said. “It’s really easy to get discouraged. If a kid starts out from 25 yards, you can shoot a decent short from 25 yards, even if you’re not good at all. It helps them to see that they’re getting better instead of starting back at the tee markers and not being able to play good for two or three years.”

Operation 36 golfers can track their progress in a mobile and web app. But in the program’s early stages, players were given a bag tag and booklet to track their progress.

“We had these skills kit,” Reagan said. “My wife and I would package them up in the garage. We didn’t make any money. We lost money on the whole thing. But it was a good learning experience. That’s what made us start to think, ‘We need to make this more digital.’ ”

The tags, however, proved to do more for Operation 36 than just track each golfer’s progress.

“After about three years, we had a lot of golf pros reaching out, saying ‘Hey, we see these bag tags you’re doing and we see the booklets that you have,’” Reagan said. “They would ask if they could use it.”

Reagan and Dailey now sell the Operation 36 technology to golf clubs. They provide facilities with full access to the program, which includes the curriculum with lesson plans, marketing materials and free access to the app. The golf pros at the club then use the technology to run their own Operation 36 program.

“If a coach wants an 8-week academy, we’ve got all their lesson plans,” Reagan said. “They’ll see the video that they’re teaching for the day. Here’s the drill that they’re going to do with the kids."

Once a golf club has access to the software, it isn’t left to run the program on its own. Reagan said of the five Operation 36 team-members, two are dedicated to advising facilities.

Where it all began

The idea for the program emerged while Reagan was studying golf management at Campbell University. Reagan knew he wanted to coach junior golf. Dailey, who was the assistant director of the program, had a similar idea.

“I thought the way we were teaching kids, felt like a babysitting service,” Reagan said. "On my exit interview with Ryan, who was pretty much my teacher, I said, ‘I think I want to go into junior golf and do a better job of junior golf.’ He said, ‘I really want to build a junior golf program or a long-term academy at Keith Hills here.' He asked if I wanted to team up and test it out.”

The duo still run the iGrow Golf Academies where it all started. The two other academies are held at MacGregor Downs Country Club, near Raleigh and The Hasentree Club in Wake Forest.

As Operation 36 has grown, Reagan took on the role as CEO of Operation 36. Dailey took on the role as CEO of iGrow Golf. But Reagan said the two still have equal roles in both aspects of the company.

Although Reagan and Dailey created the curriculum for juniors, golf clubs also use the program for adults. Ryan Keefe, golf professional at Pinehurst Country Club, said Operation 36 has been successful for juniors and adults.

“If your significant other or your parents plays golf a lot, you want to be able to share that experience with them,” Keefe said. “Their whole goal is, ‘I want to get good enough to not embarrass myself on the course.’ There’s a lot that goes into that because you have to keep up with pace of play, keeping up with the group in front of you, there’s etiquette. It teaches all the things so somebody’s husband or wife or kids can go out and be able to play on the weekend and not disrupt the entire golf course.”

Chris Shaw, golf pro at Pinehurst Country Club, said other companies have tried to create programs like Operation 36, but were unsuccessful because their programs weren't as structured as Operation 36. He said Operation 36 is the most popular player development program among golf clubs.

Kevin Tudor said his son, Karson Tudor, 10, has learned more from Operation 36 than just how to play golf.

“He’s learned the honesty part of it,” Tudor said. “In a tournament one time, I turned around to get him a golf club and he had already grabbed one. He swung at a ball and missed. I said, ‘Alright, this is for three.’ He said, ‘No, daddy. I just missed. This is for four.’ Nobody saw it. I was like, that stinks, but that’s great.”

Just like Stephenson, Karson Tudor started with iGrow Golf at Keith Hills in the program’s early years. Kevin Tudor said his son has always looked up to Stephenson because both Stephenson and Karson are left-handed.

“He was like Karson’s buddy,” Tudor said. “When Patrick left, he gave Karson a signed ECU hat and Karson still has it.”

Stephenson, who comes back to coach at Keith Hills, said he enjoys watching the juniors grow through Operation 36 and the iGrow Golf Academies.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Ryan (Dailey),” Stephenson said. “He’s done a lot to help me be able to play at the level I play at. I probably wouldn’t be as good if I hadn’t seen Ryan and been involved with iGrow, for sure.”

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