The Golfer’s Journal Movement: Defying the So-Called “Death of Print” This Magazine is Thriving
Is it a magazine or a movement?
Perhaps the answer rests with an apostrophe.
San Clemente-based The Golfer’s Journal has reached its sixth year of publishing and 25th issue, all while challenging the conventions of the modern-day print industry and cultivating a membership that has taken the publication far beyond the limits of its aesthetically pleasing pages. Such a wave of momentum may be traced to, well, waves.
Preceding his position as founder and publisher of The Golfer’s Journal (TGJ), Brendon Thomas served as editor-and-chief of Surfer Magazine before segueing to the publisher’s post at The Surfer’s Journal. Between barrels and breaks, Thomas began to recognize a void in the sport played on turf.
“The idea and impetus started back [in 2013] when I was at Surfer Magazine, and I was deep in my golf obsession during that time,” recalls Thomas, a native of South Africa. “So much golf editorial was focused on how to get better, what equipment to buy. I pitched the idea of a golf publication to the owners of Surfer, but they shot it down.”
Amid the declination, Thomas continued to appreciate the parallels between his passions.
“Golf and surfing, they’re far more similar than they would appear at first glance,” he continues. “Basically, in both sports, you’re responsible for yourself, for your own performance; and then there’s all the influences of luck and nature having their say. Surfing can be more physically demanding, but once you’re up on the wave, there are so many similarities to golf in the thinking about the movements, your shoulders and hips; a perfectly executed cutback feels like a perfectly executed golf swing.”
A carve back toward his golf publication concept enjoyed new juice when Thomas was hired in 2014 to run the cult favorite pages of The Surfer’s Journal, which first debuted in 1992. After a few years in those editorial waters, he pitched ownership his golf idea anew and, this time, found an audience stoked.
As the pages of TGJ took shape over an 18-month window, Thomas refined the ideas and ideals of the new quarterly pub. Along with a coffee-table-quality aesthetic, premier photographer spreads, spot varnish printing and a storytelling lens endeavored by a short list of golf magazines, the publisher wanted to make a print pivot from New Millennium trends.
“We started in a different way than most modern media, which sees people and followers connected through social media; building an audience first and then launching the product thereafter,” explains Thomas. “We came out with the product first, and that was partly by design, but also something that was in our wheelhouse and we knew how to do well.”
A “commercially quiet” book with 90 percent editorial and content available only to subscribers proved to be an approach that leaned heavy on handsome (and costly) presentation.
“There are a lot of online voices and that, of course, dates back way before 2017,” Thomas continues, “but adding another voice to that mix and hoping to gain traction was a gamble at best. So, part of our strategy was to create a book that was so beautiful you couldn’t ignore it.”
A lineup of like-minded supporters also proved key. After signing up luminary putter craftsman Scotty Cameron as the magazine’s first sponsor, Thomas soon approached SoCal legend/golf iconoclast/entrepreneur John Ashworth. The co-founder of Oceanside-based Linksoul apparel and operator/lead savior at same-citied Goat Hill Park GC didn’t hesitate to join the roster.
“We needed something like that in the golf community to really elevate what the game’s all about,” says Ashworth, a longtime reader of The Surfer’s Journal. “I was just like, ‘How can I help you? What do you need? We’re in.’”
From the outset, Ashworth recognized the TGJ vision. “It’s near-and-dear to my heart, that whole super-cerebral, beautiful, artsy and thoughtful golf stuff,” Ashworth says. “I love it, and that’s why we’ve supported it from the get-go. So much of it (golf publishing) is surface stuff or instructional or blah blah blah, but golf is so much deeper than any of that. Golf is a theater for humanity, and the Journal has captured that in a really artful way. And I don’t think that ever goes out of style.
BEYOND THE PAGES
In the half-dozen years since its print unveil, The Golfer’s Journal has done more than defy 2020’s popular opinion that print is dead. Through an evolution organic, inclusive and diverse, the seeds have sprouted far beyond the pages.
With a growing and ardent readership, TGJ has become as much a cultural hub as it is a quarterly magazine. Featuring a pair of podcasts, producing mini-documentary films and introducing its improvement-driven “Index Experiment” have all proved supporting tentacles to the burgeoning “Broken Tee Society,” a global, member-driven base that revels in the opportunity to tee-up with like-minded souls at some of the nation’s most unique courses.
“It’s constantly evolving. The addition of the podcasts, the addition of the films, the addition of our events and the growth of our membership, our community,” Thomas enthuses. “I’d like to say it was part of some grand design, but it’s really just evolved based on what people want.”
While the founder takes no bow for publishing prophesy, Thomas indeed believes that TGJ’s success has proven the power of a counterintuitive approach to much of modern media.
“I can’t claim to know what the audience wants, exactly,” he says, “but I feel like we’ve tried to be taste makers for them, and that we’ve cultivated that trust. But I think there’s a certain respect for the reader, respect for the consumer, respect for the member that doesn’t always exist in traditional media. When things are free, or very cheap — that generally means that you’re the product.”
In a post-COVID golf culture that seems to (finally) have seen much of the game’s milieu of stuffiness crest and recede, TGJ appears to have tapped a well-timed sweet spot between tradition and progression.
“We see our books placed in some of the most private country clubs in the world; but we also see the magazine at lots of munis,” says Thomas. “We have events where we play barefoot and with T-shirts, and others where we play at these famous courses where it’s all about tradition.”
From an events vantage, TGJ’s relationship with its readership has proven mutually beneficial. Not that the tournament schedule, with member gatherings across the country, was debuted with a queue.
“We started the events in 2018, and John Ashworth wanted to give us an event day to celebrate our first birthday. We were hoping for around 100 people,” recalls Tim Woodruff, operations and events director for The Golfer’s Journal. “But we were still pretty small at the time, still growing our membership, and those people were all over the world, so it wasn’t like we had 100 people at our disposal in Southern California to come join us. So, we were literally begging our family and friends to come.”
Woodruff need not beg today.
After debuting with a lone event, the gatherings rose to six the second year and then up to eight play days in year three. In its fourth season, as its member-driven Broken Tee Society took further form, TGJ’s tourney slate ascended to a dozen, then up to 18 the year ensuing before the 2023 calendar featured 27 tournaments, with certain events held at some of the nation’s most posh, popular and en vogue locales.
Looking back, Woodruff says Broken Tee’s opportunities to open the Gil Hanse redesign of Pinehurst No. 4 and then unveil Bandon Dunes’ Sheep Ranch Course the year following both rose the eyebrows of golf nuts.
“We then checked off a few more bucket list events,” he says, “and people started taking notice that we were getting access to places that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to play.”
Between popularity and commodity, the gatherings generally sell out within minutes, and sport waitlists of anywhere from 700-3,000 players. Such demand prompted a 24-hour lottery system for bigger Broken Tee events.
“It’s great to see the progression of how far we’ve come, along with what we’ve been able to do in terms of checking off the Top 100 course list,” Woodruff says. “Some of the places we’ve gone to or are talking to, they wouldn’t even entertain a conversation three years ago. Now, we’ve got some pretty high-end clubs reaching out to us, saying they love what we’re doing and that their membership wants to be connected to what we’re doing.”
And therein would appear to lie the club’s rub, and the concurrent value of the pub’s apostrophe. Whether it occurred with discerning intention or punctuational prescience, the inclusion of the possessive in “Golfer’s” in lieu of “Golfers” was undoubtedly wise. The magazine, much like the movement, belongs to its readers as much as its masthead.
“The Broken Tee Society has kind of become its own thing. It’s something the readers, the subscribers came up with; they named it and we basically just formalized it through our events,” Thomas concludes. “The community is amazing; we’ve now got chapters in every nook and cranny in the United States, and all around the world. Members use it to communicate, to find playing partners, do charitable work, and all kinds of stuff which has emerged from this community, that is incredible. It’s become a big part of what our day-to-day entails. We’re now a golf society as much as we are a print publication.”