For nearly 25 years, Gary Lisbon has been traveling the world, playing great golf courses and snapping pictures of them. Such are the burdens of a golf photographer and tour operator, and Lisbon has never found them hard to bear.
But since mid-March, when his home country of Australia initiated lockdowns, he has had no tours to lead and no courses to shoot.
Like many others, he’s been left to piece things together.
The difference is that Lisbon has done so literally, pivoting from taking pictures to producing jigsaw puzzles, based on his own course photographs.
“It’s not something I ever imagined myself doing,” Lisbon says. “But you’ve got to adapt. And it’s been good to be putting money in the door as opposed to just sending money out.”
The turnabout began in April, when a longtime client sent Lisbon a message. She was seeking a distraction as she sheltered in place. A golf-themed jigsaw puzzle sounded nice.
Lisbon’s website already contained links to coffee mugs, canvases and other products that lent themselves to imagery. A customer could even purchase puzzles, but they were basic-issue, 250-piece affairs, the jigsaw equivalent of a pitch-and-putt.
Lisbon’s client wanted a more challenging home project, which got Lisbon thinking of a project of his own: an online business built exclusively on boutique jigsaw puzzles, customizable one-offs, inspired by some of the most beloved courses in the world.
It was, for many reasons, an opportune idea.
Ever since the shutdown, puzzles had become a hot commodity in many countries, the Chia Pets of the pandemic age. The demand was especially robust Down Under, where Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested early on that jigsaw puzzles should be an essential business.
That Morrison was only sort of joking added to the puzzle-buying frenzy. You had a better chance finding toilet paper.
Lisbon sensed an ample target audience. Among the bored and homebound were restless golfers, craving something, anything, related to the game. To say nothing of all those shuttered courses, keen to stay engaged with their customer base.
“I saw enormous opportunity,” Lisbon says.
Though Lisbon didn’t have the tools to produce jigsaw puzzles, a quick Google search turned up a list of those who did. One puzzle-maker was based in Latvia — “bit impractical,” Lisbon says — but another operated in Australia, roughly 90 minutes north of Lisbon’s Melbourne home.
A small facility, it was backlogged with orders, so Lisbon and his wife, Maureen, paid the place a visit and offered to pitch in on the production line, helping to press images onto cardboard, assisting with the packaging, shipping and more.
Their first custom puzzle went to the woman who’d originally inquired: a 1,000-piece jigsaw of the Old Course at St. Andrews.
It didn’t take a lot to stir up further interest.
A member of GOLF’s course-rating panel, Lisbon also belongs to Royal Melbourne, the vaunted 36-hole club that hosted the 2019 Presidents Cup. Lisbon put a feeler out to fellow members. Overnight, he received 100 orders for bespoke puzzles, with images of Royal Melbourne’s Alister Mackenzie-designed East and West courses.
Demand soon radiated across the Sandbelt, and then to other regions in Australia. Commissions arrived from Kingston Heath, Metropolitan, Royal Adelaide and beyond. Tara Iti touched base. The prestigious New Zealand club wanted puzzles of its own.
“The response has been incredible,” Lisbon says.
Lisbon doesn’t have permission to turn just any club into a puzzle (Augusta National and Cypress Point, among other top-shelf U.S. courses, aren’t exactly relaxed about copyrights). But since 1996, when he started taking photos for a living, Lisbon has captured more than 115,000 images of 525 courses in 22 countries. And all of those designs are fair game, available in 500- and 1,000-piece formats, at $75 and $95 Australian, or roughly $50 and $62 in U.S. currency. (Use voucher code GOLFMAG20 for 20% off of all Lisbon’s offerings.)
When he first launched the website, Lisbon wasn’t sure if its appeal would last after the shutdown lifted. He now believes it’s destined to have longer legs.
“There could be customized prizes for corporate outings, personalized greetings, hole-in-one recognitions,” Lisbon says. “The opportunities are there.”
At some point, when his tours and photo-taking ramp back up, Lisbon will have to find a way to juggle all of that with his jigsaw business.
Talk about a puzzle he would love the opportunity to solve.