Manish Goel sought to play golf's exclusive private courses and found out he was not alone. So, the retired tech executive created an app that connects club members with their bucket-list courses
Six years ago, Manish Goel, freshly retired from a high-tech corporate position, essentially started the rest of his life.
He was only 51-years-old.
Naturally, as decompression set in, he queried himself about how he could fill the hourglass instead of watching the sands of time squandered. What could fulfill him structurally and socially while still providing validation?
That question gnawed to the same extent that a deep itch could only be satisfactorily scratched with a mower blade, metaphorically speaking.
An avid golfer who belonged to a couple of private clubs, Goel kept coming back to golf. He always wanted to play other top courses but never had the time.
"So the first thing I did was pick up Golf Digest's [America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses] and realized pretty quickly 81 were private," says Goel from his California home. "The second thing I realized was that I did not know anyone at most of them."
Goel asked one head pro he knew whether he could get him on at certain clubs. After multiple attempts, he kept hearing no. He went through friends who might know a friend of a friend, running into more dead ends than Wiley E. Coyote.
Two things were certain: the process was difficult and time consuming. Additionally, Goel thought there had to be others like him wanting to play other clubs. After all, he had historically hosted others at one of his clubs and always found himself living vicariously through the eyes of his excited guests.
Goel, always resourceful, thought there had to be a way to connect like-minded golfers. Therein lies the tale of how the Thousand Greens app came about in 2017.
"It was really conceived as a LinkedIn for country club golfers," Goel says.
Today, the Thousand Greens app has evolved to showcase 10,000-plus users from 3,100 clubs in 40 countries. Of course, the app's original iteration doesn't resemble the current look. At all. Initially it started as a Google form on a website.
"I was the monkey behind the curtain managing it all," Goel says.
A golfer friend entered with capital, giving Goel the latitude to develop a professional-looking website and app that worked interchangeably. It took two painstaking years to build.
When it relaunched in 2019, Goel was amazed to see more people and clubs coming on board. Amazed because he did no marketing or advertising.
"I really had no intention of starting it with commercial intent," Goel says.
When a user makes a request to join, Goel first vets U.S. residents through the U.S. Golf Association's Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN). He adds that every U.S. private club member is required to have a handicap index number. Canadian users can go through online verification, while those in other regions must provide membership proof.
Once approved, users see a map that illustrates every club represented with a member, or ambassador. Take, for instance, The Olympic Club in San Francisco. If that club had 11 members on the app, a request to play would be received by all 11 ambassadors, opening an opportunity for dialogue.
At some point, if any member accepts, the request is considered fulfilled and a one-on-one connection begins to hash out details.
Ryan Heck of Bend, Oregon, joined in 2019 and belongs to multiple private clubs. He met Goel the same year because of the app.
Heck has been on both sides as a requestor and acceptor. It's led him to be invited to an event at a New York club and play Sleepy Hollow Country Club and Quaker Ridge Golf Club. He has also fulfilled requests for Diamante Cabo San Lucas, where has a restricted membership, and Broken Top Club in Bend.
"If you looked at the map three years ago, there were several hundred clubs available. If you look at the map now, there are thousands," he says. "I definitely see an uptick in engagement. It's an opportunity to make friends."
Says Mark White, who joined through a founder membership and lives in Naples, Florida: "In my case, I’ve used the app in Australia, I’ve used it in New Zealand, I’ve used it in Scotland, I’ve used it in England, and I’ve used it in Ireland. I’ve met great friends through it."
It's clear to Goel that some entities on the level of Augusta National, Cypress Point and Pine Valley likely won't ever be represented. Those courses are so desired to play that ambassadors would be inundated with requests.
It's also why Goel built in a tiering application. When a user joins, they get slotted into one of four tiers based on their home club. The tiers are comprised as the world's top courses, best in the country, best in the state or province, or other private clubs through various golf rating and ranking publications.
"The app lets you see all the clubs in your tier or a lower tier," Goel says. "That is critical in us making sure the app works for members of clubs, both good clubs and those not highly rated. Because imagine you’re a member at Winged Foot, you don’t want to get 10,000 emails a day from people wanting to play the club.
"We developed the tiering system where people can request from other people who are at a club of a similar reputation."
The app is intuitive and streamlined. Heck says his 77-year-old mother had no issues, and he's been hosted by people "in their 60s, 70s and 80s who were on it." Goel adds that the average app user tends to be in their 40s. He also made privacy a hallmark, because he never liked his data being in the public domain.
Going forward, Heck and White see looming potential, such as setting up internal club tournaments or managing events. Incidentally, a few months ago Thousand Greens went through a formal capital round to fund growth the next two to three years.
"The other way I look at this thing is it’s sort of an evolution of people who do want to combine golf with travel, or do love to play golf," says White, a contributor to Top100GolfCourses.com.
Recently Goel instituted a pay model where the app costs $60 for a year subscription, or "less than it would cost to replace a Pro-V," he says.
Coming full circle, it dawned on Goel that post-retirement has been quite busy.
"It’s a hobby that has gone out of hand," he says laughing. "I am 100 percent involved in this. But it's almost like users have found their lonely golfer network."