Cover Story – February 2017

One day in 2000, brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe were taking golf swings at a driving range in North London, England.

Bored with the usual routine at the range, a bit of sibling rivalry emerged as the two wanted to find out who hits his ball the farthest and exactly how far, as well as how close to the pin they landed their shots. But there was no way to know this on the standard driving range.

The brothers began thinking of ways to fix that problem, leading to brainstorming about making the driving range experience much more fun and entertaining. They fancied a place where players could hit RFID-microchipped golf balls at targets on the range, which would instantly score each shot for accuracy and distance, sort of like a dartboard. There was nothing like this in the marketplace, and the inspiration for Topgolf was born.

The Jolliffes, backed by a group of investors, proceeded to open their first Topgolf in Watford, England. Though conceived as a premium place to practice the sport, it became a rousing success because the technology and accompanying entertainment created an experience many found appealing. In short, it was just plain fun. The success of Topgolf Watford led to the opening of two more locations in England—in Chigwell in 2004 and Surrey in 2005.

The Jolliffe brothers then began to look internationally. They were introduced to Rick Grogan, executive chairman of Golf Entertainment International, and he brought together a team of investors to open the first Topgolf venue in the United States. Erik Anderson, president of WestRiver Group, took leadership of the pool of investors and became co-chairman and CEO of Topgolf International Inc. It focused on creating an upscale and compelling entertainment experience that included signature food and beverage offerings, and Topgolf opened its first U.S. location in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2005. 

Callaway Golf Company became an investor in Topgolf in 2006, which allowed for new venues in Dallas and Chicago. The company fine tuned the layout with more entertainment and private event space, and the U.S. company purchased the UK locations and the RFID technology rights. Today, Topgolf enjoys phenomenal success and has swelled to 30 locations, including the original three in England, with eight more stateside locations opening soon.

How Does It Work?

Susan Walmesley, vice president of sales and marketing for Topgolf International, talks about why Topgolf is such a captivating entertainment experience: “Topgolf is the evolution of play. We have changed not only the way people think about golf, but also how they think about entertainment. It’s become a go-to destination for entertainment and is the only entertainment experience of its kind, offering fun golfing games for all ages and skill levels, paired with an outstanding chef-driven menu, top-shelf drinks, big-screen TVs, and music.” 

This combination of entertainment elements has lofted Topgolf skyward, but its unique approach to golf is what started the craze and is still at its core. So how does it work?

Imagine a grass outfield 240 yards in depth embedded with six to 11 targets of varying sizes, ranging from 15 feet to 70 feet in diameter. For scoring purposes, the targets are sectionalized, like a dartboard. The targets are red, yellow, green, brown, blue, and white, and their distances from the hitting bays are in that order, with red being the closest and white the farthest away.

Then picture a huge, multi-tiered structure with three or four levels of climate-controlled hitting bays from which players launch their golf balls. Each target’s many sections contain a sensor that registers where the microchipped balls come to rest. The closer the balls come to the hole flags—the “bull’s-eyes”—and the farther out the targets, the more points the players receive. Unlike playing on a golf course, there are no pencils and paper here, as scores are registered on displays in the bays. But Topgolf stresses this is not a virtual game—players use real golf clubs to hit regular golf balls into the state-of-the-art outfield.

There are half a dozen different scoring games on which guests can challenge themselves. “We have a number of games that will put a guest’s golf skills to the test,” says Walmesley. “From chipping to driving, they will be able to improve every aspect of their game.”

Perhaps Topgolf’s greatest asset is its broad-ranging appeal. For the avid golfer, the various games reward skill with better scores, and players are free to use their own golf clubs. For casual players or even non-golfers, the games are fun, engaging, and, most of all, not intimidating. Even if players completely miss the target at which they’re aiming, the balls may well land in another target, and the Topgolf system doesn’t care—they still score points. Plus, for players who want to improve their games, there are golf pros walking the tee line offering tips.

Additionally, even lousy players don’t affect or delay other golfers (as would occur on a regular course), so it’s enjoyable for all. Kids also find the games fun, since some targets are relatively close to the bays. If a guest wants to hang out with golfing friends but doesn’t want to play, well that’s fine, too: Topgolf allows a certain number of non-players into each bay. In fact, more than half of Topgolf guests describe themselves as non-golfers.

The cost to play varies somewhat by location. But to provide a reference, many locations charge $25 for an hour of golf in a hitting bay from opening time until noon; $35 from noon until 5 p.m.; and $45 from 5 p.m. until closing. It’s important to note up to six guests can play in each bay, making the per-player rate quite reasonable. Plus, four non-players can come along and watch for no additional charge. “We serve food and drinks right there in the bays, so those who are not playing get to enjoy some great food with the players while they’re watching,” says Rachael Keshishian, marketing manager at Topgolf Virginia Beach.

There is a minimal one-time $5 cost to each player for a member playing card. This card includes free club rentals and is accepted at all but two locations in the United States. The card holds the value of guest purchases to play the games, and it also tracks the scoring history of all games the guest has ever played at any Topgolf location. Those who like to do things spontaneously will be happy to know that reservations aren’t needed to play, though at times on certain days, there may be a wait for hitting bays. Guests who wish to shorten their wait can purchase VIP Priority Passes.

There are also golf lessons offered by certified pros for players wanting to improve their skills. The price is around $29 per lesson or $125 for five lessons, and, like the hitting bays, the lessons can include up to six players.

More than Hitting Golf Balls

In the spirit of the fun time the Jolliffe brothers dreamed about that day years ago, Topgolf aims to make golfing a festive experience. In addition to golf games featured in the hitting bays, the venues offer an extensive entertainment experience. 

There’s an enormous number of large flat-screen televisions spread throughout each facility—around 220 of them at the Virginia Beach location, for example—showing not just golf, but other sports and non-sports programming. Every hitting bay has its own TV, and guests can choose the programming shown. There are also recreation rooms offering pool and video games.

You don’t have to be at a Topgolf location for long to realize the company places a significant emphasis on top-quality food and beverages. Each location has an executive chef and offers a large and wide-ranging menu of great cuisine. There are full-service bars and restaurants, but all food and beverage can also be served in the hitting bays if guests desire.

Each site offers packages for parties and corporate gatherings, and has large event rooms available. Capacity varies by location, but Topgolf Virginia Beach has an event room that accommodates up to 200 people or can be subdivided into 100 per side. The location’s total capacity is 1,380 guests.

The very nature of the Topgolf experience is conducive to social media—a reality not lost on the company. Guests can tag photos of their venue experiences on Twitter or Instagram, and Topgolf will post them on the location’s website.  “We are fortunate that Topgolf is an inherently social and shareable experience,” says Walmesley. “We endeavor to engage fans in personal, innovative, and surprising new ways, both inside and outside the venue. Guests can share their photos on the social wall that appears in all our venues.”

Kids are usually a big encumbrance on a golf course, but not at Topgolf. Not only are children welcome to play in the hitting bays, but each location has a kids zone offering activities like interactive video games, pool tables, and giant Jenga.

Ideal Locations, Lofty Future

When it comes to potential new markets and sites, “real estate and land availability is an important consideration,” Walmesley says. “We need the physical space for a 65,000-square-foot venue and an outfield that spans 215 yards in length—and, of course, plenty of parking spaces.”

The future of Topgolf appears bright. The company plans to open seven to 10 new venues annually over the next several years. In 2016, Topgolf International Inc. created three new divisions: Topgolf, for the sites in the United States and United Kingdom; Topgolf International, which will focus on international expansion; and Topgolf Media, tasked with enhancing the Topgolf experience through advanced digital media, strategic partnerships, and sponsorships. The company is currently not franchising.

In the United States, where all but three of the Topgolfs are located, the attraction is bucking golf’s lagging popularity. The National Golf Foundation reports the number of participating U.S. golfers has decreased from a high of 30.7 million in 2003 to 24.1 million in 2015. But a 2015 story in Men’s Journal magazine referenced Topgolf as the sport’s “potential savior.”

“We believe what’s good for golf is good for Topgolf and vice versa,” says Walmesley. “We are expanding the definition of golf. Twenty years ago, would anyone have envisioned that golf would be an alternative to dinner and a movie, bowling, or shopping?” 

The Games You Play

Topgolf offers a host of different games guests can play to test and improve their skills, challenge their friends, or just have some good ol’ fun:

Top Pressure: Tests touch and accuracy by hitting all nine sections within the yellow target. Close out level one, then see point values multiply during levels two and three.

Top Pressure Advanced: Score at least 30 points in Top Pressure and have access to play Top Pressure in the harder green target on the next visit. The point challenges increase.

TopDrive: Take aim at the farthest targets. This game challenges even the most experienced and powerful drivers.

TopScore: This high-scoring version of Topgolf rewards distance and accuracy. The farther the target and the closer the ball lands to the center flag, the higher multiple of points received.

TopChip: For fans of the short game, TopChip uses just the red, yellow, and green targets. Hit the correct target and score points, but hit the wrong one and points disappear.

TopShot: Similar to TopChip, this game challenges player to hit the targets at four consecutive distances. The starting target chosen determines the game’s level of difficulty.

TopScramble: Beginner and experienced golfers compete on a level playing field. Players are split into teams and the best score on each ball is used as the score for the team.

Vegas Wild

Just about everything in Las Vegas seems over the top and built on a grand scale, and the Topgolf venue is no exception. Opened in May 2016, the attraction is located at the MGM Grand and boasts features found at no other Topgolf:

  • Four levels of hitting bays instead of the standard three
  • Five fully stocked bars
  • The only Topgolf retail store selling apparel and other merchandise
  • A Callaway Golf Studio offering club-fitting ­sessions

But perhaps most surprising are the site’s two­swimming pools. Situated on the third and fourth ­levels, each features a swim-up bar and provides views of the driving range as well as big-screen televisions.

Keith Miller is the news editor of Funworld. Contact him at kmiller@IAAPA.org.