Nora Dunnan is a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Five Iron Golf, an indoor golf facility headquartered in New York City that’s on a mission to grow the game and make a previously inaccessible sport available for all. In a handful of years, Five Iron has grown to three locations in NYC and expanded to cities including Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with spaces opening in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C. Dunnan sat down with JWS to talk about Five Iron’s efforts to open up the game and life as a female entrepreneur shaking things up in a male-dominated terrain.
Five Iron is an indoor golf center started in Manhattan in 2017. We have golf simulators that you can come in and practice on so you can get better at golf, improve your game, learn the game. It could be a group of friends coming in to hang out and play socially. We have golf pros who give lessons, we do leagues, we do events both corporate and private, we do kids programming and then we have a full bar, a full menu so you can eat and drink and play golf all at the same time.
We pride ourselves on being very different from standard golf. If you come inside you’ll notice right away we do not look like a country club. We have a very urban feel, a modern feel, we have neon graffiti murals on the wall. Our staff is wearing t-shirts and we try to be a really welcoming and inclusive place. We know golf can be an intimidating sport and we don’t think Five Iron is an intimidating place at all. So if you’re a brand new golfer or an experienced golfer, you know everybody can come into Five Iron and get something out of it.
So there are four of us who co-founded it back in 2017. We opened in 2017, but we started working on it in 2015. Jared, our CEO, used to take golf lessons from Mike who is one of our other founders at another small indoor place in Manhattan, and the two of them always talked about how if they built a bigger place that was open and had event space and games like pool and ping-pong and TVs and music, good food and drinks that a lot of people would show up. After just talking about it for a while, and really wanting to turn it into a reality, they brought me on board.
I knew Jared previously, not from work, just personally, and they brought me on board to sort of figure out if it would be possible and to do some research. After a couple of years of seeing over 70 pieces of real estate in Manhattan, we landed on our Flatiron location and the rest is history.
There were a lot of logistical challenges to opening a business that no one really prepares you for. So things like codes and building inspections and getting different licenses. That was definitely something that was new for all of us, it’s almost like you don’t know what you don’t know. Obviously we learned and we figured it out, but there were definitely some scary moments along the way where we kind of wondered ‘what did we get ourselves into.’
In terms of being a female in the golf world, it’s been interesting. Honestly, a lot of times in the very beginning, people didn’t necessarily realize what role I played at the company and sometimes we’d be out and about and they’d always want to talk to the men. I know this has happened to a couple of women who have worked there. They just kind of assume that the men are in charge or that the women don’t know as much about golf.
It’s definitely a male dominated sport and I don’t think people always assumed when they met me that I was one of the co-founders. But at the end of the day, once I get into a conversation with people, they realize I know what I’m talking about.
Yea there is some competition out there that wants to stay exclusive. You have to be a member, there’s an initiation fee, and we just don’t want that. We actually got advice from somebody who ran a private indoor facility in the city within the first week we opened saying we were doing it wrong because golf is not for everybody, golf is only for people who can afford it. To which we said no, we want to make it affordable and open to everybody. And that is a big part of how our mission has prevailed.
That’s not to say that those places won’t succeed, but we strongly believe that it can be for everybody based on the clientele that we have. We still have people who come in who belong to some of the most private clubs in the country, but they love coming into Five Iron because it just has a great atmosphere with great service. We’ve proven that golf does not have to be a members only sport.
To us, what’s really important is getting more people exposed to Five Iron and to golf. Like I said, golf can be intimidating and golf can be a sport where people think that if they didn’t grow up belonging to a country club or something like that, they can’t play. So one of our big initiatives is to prove them wrong by showing how much fun they can have at Five Iron.
One group that for sure is underserved is women, and we’ve done a lot to get more women in. We do ladies clinics, we have partnerships with a variety of women’s golf groups, we’ll run special deals to get more women in the space and it’s worked. We co-hosted a clinic up in Chicago with Fore the Ladies and there were over 100 women there.
Golf is a sport that I think women would love to pick up, especially if they’re in a relationship with a golfer. It can be really fun to learn and play with your partner rather than have it be an activity they disappear to go play for a whole day. Instead, make it a family activity. It can be a lot of fun playing with your entire family.
We’d love to get more kids into Five Iron, we’d love to get underserved communities into Five Iron, and that’s something we actually have a dedicated employee for. One of her main focuses is the ‘grow the game’ mission and she’s working hard to find different non-profits, schools, and other organizations who are interested in using our resources to learn and enjoy golf.
It’s a great question because I think for a lot of women, if they’re not really close with someone in their life who plays golf, it can be hard. Like for me, my husband taught me how to play, told me where to get my first set of clubs, helped me buy my first set of clubs, gave me his old driver. You know, without that, I would have been totally lost.
But there are so many options out there that I did not know about. So for one, there are groups like Fore the Ladies and Grueter Golf. What they’re both doing is getting women into golf — some who play and some who don’t — and showing that it’s totally fine to not know what you’re doing. They host some of their clinics at Five Iron and our instructors go over everything — basics like, here are the different clubs, here’s how you hold them, here’s what you wear to go play golf.
By finding resources out there like Fore the Ladies and Grueter Golf, you not only provide yourself with an opportunity to ask for help or get research, but you put yourself in a community with other women who are looking to do the same. You have friends who are learning the game and friends who are buying their first sets of clubs and being a part of a community makes it a lot more fun to get into a new sport.
We’re excited to be in new cities and we hope one day down the road there’ll be a Five Iron in every major city and smaller cities and maybe some suburban towns, too.
I think the more and more people get access to the game, whether it’s to come in and really improve or just do something fun rather than sitting at home, the better. We hope that we can keep growing and bringing the Five Iron experience to more and more communities.