Golf’s Virtual Reality

AUBURN HILLS, Michigan — The ball sails high through the cold January air, the perfect trajectory, the perfect line, hitting smack-dab in the center ring by the flagstick, 185 yards away. 

Yes! That’s 120 points!

I retreat to my heated couch and refill my glass from the pitcher on the table, and watch the flatscreen above me for the recap of my turn. I’m at the new Topgolf in the Metro Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, and I immediately know two things: 

This is the future of the game. And I’m completely hooked.

Started nearly 20 years ago by twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe in Watford, England, Topgolf has quickly evolved into a worldwide phenomenon and growing multimedia empire. The brothers’ idea started simply enough, trying to make the humdrum driving range experience more exciting, turning to technology to help track players’ shots. The idea grew from there, and today Topgolf is essentially your daddy’s driving range — on a boatload of steroids and neon. These massive entertainment hubs come complete with multiple levels and high-end bars, heated hitting bays and pulsing beats. The company’s Las Vegas location even has four swimming pools! (And cabanas.) 

If you’re one of the few people who’ve never heard of Topgolf, Topgolf spokesperson Caroline Jerome sums up the concept nicely.

“Topgolf is like a larger-than-life playground with massive colorful targets in an outfield where guests hit golf balls in hopes of earning points and beating their friends,” Jerome told Golftime. “The balls are micro-chipped and guests can earn points based on accuracy and distance.”

Since its humble days on dusty British driving ranges, the Topgolf empire has exploded to more than 50 locations in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. This Auburn Hills location is one of the newest, and the sold-out crowds practically line out the door of the massive, 65,000-square-foot facility. One Saturday night in January the wait time for a hitting bay was a laughable five hours. Like everywhere else Topgolf has been, the crowd is squarely set in the coveted 18-34 demographic marketers everywhere salivate over. 

How? Why? The “secret sauce” to Topgolf really boils down to this: It’s an absolute riot. 

Like some kind of cyberpunk sports fantasy, Topgolf offers tons of modern architecture, entertainment options, and neon.

“The concept is simple: Topgolf is everyone’s game,” Jerome explained. “Whether you’re an avid golfer or someone who has never picked up a golf club before, anyone can have a great time at Topgolf and create special memories.”

With most players staying at Topgolf for two hours, with plenty of music, food and drink and comfortable couches to lounge on, cool bars and dozens of TVs everywhere you look, Topgolf is golf’s cooler cousin. Topgolf succeeds by improving on all the sticking points for the game of golf itself — namely, that it’s too hard, too time-intensive and too expensive. The result is a game that transcends the traditional sport, one that attracts and appeals to the masses in ways golf itself has struggled to do in recent years.

“More than half of Topgolf’s guests identify as ‘non-golfers’ so it isn’t uncommon that Topgolf is the very first interaction that individuals have with the game of golf,” Jerome said. “It’s a low-pressure environment that encourages friendly competition with friends and family.”

A casual glance around the Auburn Hills facility confirms this, with groups of friends, couples, and clearly non-golfers dominating the clientele this visit. Topgolf is affiliated with Callaway Golf, and provides clubs at every bay, or players can bring their own bags, too (most don’t). And while purists might scoff at the idea of Topgolf providing a path to greater participation for the game itself, the proof is pretty clear in some National Golf Foundation statistics.

The NGF’s 2017 study found that not only is Topgolf driving players to the game, but a whopping 23 percent of all new players got their first experience with the game at a Topgolf. And a full 75 percent of non-golfing Topgolf players said they wanted to try the sport on a real course after playing Topgolf. Additionally, according to the NGF, the number of people who played on a golf course for the first time in 2017 increased for the fourth straight year. Add those stunning stats to Topgolf’s treasure-trove of Millennials (70 percent of its 12.75 million players in 2017 were 35 or younger), and you can see why the game’s top brass is positively giddy over the game’s cooler cousin.

“Topgolf’s success is proof that interest in the traditional game is massive, and Topgolf is an approachable place where golf’s ‘latent demand’ activates that interest,” NGF’s Chief Business Officer Greg Nathan said in a release. “The golf industry is incredibly fortunate to have Topgolf and other approachable off-course options as a bridge to help turn non-golfers into passionate golfers.”

Topgolf’s fare makes it not just the best driving range you’ve been to, but maybe the best bar, too.

But Topgolf’s growth is far from limited to the golf courses themselves. The brand is growing in seemingly every direction, from the multimedia (including cooking, music, variety and the Topgolf Tour shows on its Youtube channel), as well as apps and other avenues to get into the game. The Golf Channel even features Topgolf with its popular Shotmakers show.

“Topgolf has evolved into a brand that can be touched by a variety of consumers,” Jerome said. “We recently acquired World Golf Tour which is the most popular golf app in the world where guests can literally play Topgolf 24/7 along with other well-known courses around the world. Other brand extensions include the Swing Suite and Toptracer — both allowing Topgolf to expand in markets that don’t have a venue just yet.”

Topgolf’s Swing Suites are indoor Topgolf simulators designed with the full experience in mind, which the Toptracer retrofits existing driving ranges with aspects of the Topgolf technology and gameplay. 

Like every successful business, maybe the best indicator of Topgolf’s growing success — besides the nearly 13 million visitors in 2017 alone — is the number of imitators that have sprung up to challenge its market share. The past few years have seen the massive Drive Shack open in Orlando, with five more locations planned by 2020, and the Jack Nicklaus-affiliated The Flying Tee open in Oklahoma, and more on the way. 

With all that in mind, don’t look for Topgolf to take its foot off the gas just yet, Jerome says.

Topgolf is having an enormous impact on growing the game, with youth programs and instruction, too.

“The sky really is the limit on where Topgolf will be next! We have some exciting content coming out this year for our guests, along with expansion into countries like Canada, Mexico and Dubai,” she said. “2018 was a big year for the brand and we are excited for all that is to come this next year.”

 Whatever the future brings for the company, it’s clear golf’s future is a little brighter thanks to Topgolf’s irresistible neon glow. 

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