The Company That Made Us Love Golf
The creators of a new kind of driving range are betting that loud music, tons of booze, and an addictive point system will make golf cool again
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On a warm, clear Sunday afternoon last April, Atlanta Hawks swing man Kent Bazemore stepped up to a turf-covered platform brandishing a five-iron. With Pitbull blaring in the background, Bazemore set his feet and purposefully unwound his six-foot-five frame to send a perfect shot downrange. “Best ball of the day,” he said, stepping back to admire the arc as it dropped, nearly 200 yards away, into a 15-foot-wide, spider-web-shaped target. As groups of golfers on either side of him plowed through pitchers of beer, a nearby screen flashed congratulations and awarded Bazemore nine points.
Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s good walk spoiled—it’s the Midtown Atlanta site of Topgolf, which has 23 locations across the country. The company transported the driving range into a three-story building, ditched the dress code, and added free-flowing drinks, hundreds of TVs, and pounding music.
Topgolf was invented in 2000 in England by twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe, who were bored stiff with the usual bucket-of-balls approach to perfecting their golf swing. So they created an experience that was more like a video game. They equipped the balls with electronic tags, similar to a marathoner’s timing chip, and devised a point system based on shot distance and accuracy. When the ball hits one of the targets on the 215-yard range, sensors scan it and the score is added to a running tally.
The company opened its first U.S. location in Virginia in 2005 and has since brought on investors including Callaway. Topgolf has done something that traditional golf, as Topgolf employees call it, has struggled to do: attract new players, particularly young ones. This year’s Tiger-less Masters saw an 11 percent decline in final-round TV viewership, and according to the National Golf Foundation, course closures have outpaced openings for eight years running. Despite the ascendance of fresh faces like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, the game is especially unpopular with young people—participation by those between 18 and 30 has declined 35 percent since 2006.
A fluky couple of bounces had me leading Bazemore after the first round. Then he busted out a fairway wood and the drubbing began.
Of the 13 million people expected to visit Topgolf this year, more than two-thirds are under 35, according to company statistics. Half have never played before. The other half aren’t your typical white country clubbers, either. Though the company doesn’t track such data, the visitors I saw were more racially diverse and included more women than the local links. It’s not hard to see why: with greens fees at some courses reaching well over $100 per person for 18 holes, traditional golf is expensive and stuffy. Topgolf costs between $20 and $40 an hour for your entire group, and on Fridays and Saturdays the place is usually packed late into the night. (It’s open until 2 A.M. on weekends.)
It doesn’t hurt that Topgolf has caught on with celebrities. Rapper Rick Ross recently posted a clip of himself on Snapchat taking some truly ugly swings. And last February, I saw on Twitter that Bazemore had been hitting balls with his former Warriors teammates, including reigning back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry. So I asked him if he wanted to play.
The 26-year-old picked up the game two years ago, he told me, and has since become a Topgolf regular. I hadn’t swung a golf club in a decade before the weekend we met in Atlanta, and I immediately sliced a ball straight into the side netting. Zero points. Bazemore, who over the past four seasons went from an undrafted rookie who couldn’t score to a sought-after free agent by working obsessively on his shot, has applied the same sort of effort to his golf form. He didn’t like what he was seeing of mine. “Tuck your front shoulder in,” he instructed. Slice. “But without moving your front foot.” At one point, Bazemore produced a pointer from his bag to indicate my many flaws.
After some practice cuts, it was game on. A fluky couple of bounces had me leading after the first round. “You’re going to regret all those pointers you gave me,” I said. Then he busted out a fairway wood and the drubbing began. Afterward, shockingly sore but hooked, I Googled the Topgolf nearest my home in Santa Fe.
The good news: an Albuquerque spot may be in the works, and there’s further expansion planned. In 2013, Topgolf was in nine cities around the country. The company aims to have 50 locations in the next three years. As communications chief Adrienne Chance says, “We’re looking forward to growing not only Topgolf, but the game of golf itself.”