Photo:Topgolf locations include bars, TVs and pool tables.
Florida Statewide Roundup
Driving for dough: Jazzed-up golf driving ranges are growing
A chain of jazzed-up driving ranges is seeing the kind of growth in traffic that traditional golf courses envy.
In a state with more than 1,250 golf courses — the largest number of any in the country — the hottest thing in golf these days may be a business that combines a kind of high-tech driving range with a flashy sports bar/restaurant.
The original concept behind Topgolf was the brainstorm of two Englishmen, brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe, who in 2000 thought of putting microchips inside driving range balls to give golfers a more accurate measure of how far they hit and how close they came to their targets.
They started a firm, World Golf Systems, that attempted to license the technology and concept. In the mid-2000s, a Dallas company, Topgolf, bought World Golf outright and jazzed up the concept to appeal to a young, general audience more interested in partying than practicing their golf swings.
Topgolf facilities typically feature about 100 hitting bays, arrayed in a two-story configuration, facing a colorful outdoor driving range with targets extending up to 250 yards away. Microchips inside the balls can be linked to specific players, who can play in teams or as individuals, choosing from among seven games with different objectives involving length of shot and accuracy. Each bay contains a high-tech gaming system that keeps score.
Groups — whether friends or corporate — pay $20 per hour on a weekday and $40 on weekends to rent the bays, with access to an array of bars, Tvs, pool tables, piped-in music, a variety of seating areas and an in-house restaurant.
Those actually interested in improving their golf skills can get 20-minute lessons from Topgolf “golf pros.” But the company is upfront about its intention to provide an entertainment experience rather than a practice venue: “Golf skills are not required to have fun at Topgolf,” reads the top line on the company’s website.
The company, which has grown to 22 locations, including the original three in the U.K., expects about 8 million customers in 2015.
Early last year, the company opened its first Florida facility in Tampa. That outlet, says Zach Shor, Topgolf vice president of real estate, “has already broken company records for attendance, and we see a lot of potential for our concept to grow” elsewhere in the state.
A location in Jacksonville, expected to open by mid-2016, will be typical of the other Topgolf locations — occupying 15 acres, the facility will be about 65,000 square feet and employ 450 full- and part-time workers, the company says.
The traditional golf industry, meanwhile, continues to face headwinds. The game remains a $70-billion industry, and the number of young golfers has grown somewhat, with rounds played increasing slightly this past year.
But more than 300 golf courses have closed since 2011, and the number of players has fallen from 30 million in 2006 to 25 million currently.
The traditional golf industry has taken notice of Topgolf’s growth, hoping to convert some of those attracted by Topgolf’s glitz into actual golfers.
Early this year, Orlando-based Golf Channel reached a cross-promotional deal with Topgolf that gives the Golf Channel and affiliate GolfNow extensive exposure to Topgolf customers through Topgolf’s on-site and online marketing programs.
“Topgolf has quickly stepped in as a leader in expanding golf’s footprint beyond its traditional platform by providing a new direction to propel the game forward,” says Mike McCarley, president of Golf Channel.
“The collaboration possibilities between our brands, including Golf- Now, will help attract both new and avid golfers to underscore our effort to encourage more golfers to play more golf.”