To the purists, it’s not really golf. And to those who don’t know which end of the club to hold, it’s not just golf. To those in between, it’s the hottest thing going.
Topgolf has taken the country by storm since it arrived from England in 2005. In June, the company opened its newest location in Charlotte and there are plans to more than double the current number of locations (33) over the next five years.
Topgolf is not a driving range even though it is, with three levels, plenty of golf clubs and hitting bays. And it’s not a bar, although there are two huge bars and more than 250 flatscreen televisions. And it’s not a restaurant, but the food that comes out of a Topgolf kitchen rivals some of the best eateries in town. And calling it a nightspot is a misnomer, even if there’s a live band on weekends.
The fact is, Topgolf is all those things and you wonder how that’s even possible.
The concept came from the lively imaginations of brothers Dave and Steve Jolliffe, who were noodling in 2000 about how to make the driving range experience a little livelier in their hometown of Watford, England.
They took a microchip from a dog collar and put it inside a golf ball. They found that they could track the ball in flight and know exactly where it landed. From there, Topgolf was off and flying.
The first location was built in Watford and two more were built in the UK. The first U.S. Topgolf location was in Alexandria, Va. In 2005. The Watford location has 48 hitting bays – 44 inside and four outside. At Alexandria, there are 74 bays on two levels. The newer locations have three levels and 102 hitting bays.
Completely encompassed by poles and netting, it looks like some kind of video game come to life on a scale that’s difficult to wrap your head around.
From the outside, the edifice has the look of a huge shopping mall, with plenty of brick, glass and chrome. Once inside, you are immediately greeted by one of the Topgolf personnel and what looks like a dozen people are waiting to help you and only you.
Each hitting bay has two sofas that can accommodate six to eight people and is supplied with a wide range of golf clubs to use. The targets in the outfield resemble a giant dartboard and a computer screen keeps up with each player in a number of games that are available to play. And there are TV screens so guests can keep up with their favorite sporting event.
Food and drink servers attend to each bay, which are rented by the hour, anywhere from $25 to $45 an hour, depending on the time of day.
As you might imagine, the demographic of Topgolf’s customers skews young. According to company research, 53 percent of the players are between ages 18-34. And it shows. You don’t have to play golf to have a good time at Topgolf. There is no penalty for a bad shot and, in fact, as long as the ball gets airborne, there are no bad shots.
“It’s fun to come out on a Saturday night and watch people who have never swung a club before,” says Madison Martin, the marketing manager for the Charlotte location. “They have absolutely no cares about it and they have so much fun.”
In fact, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was spotted one Saturday night at the Charlotte location, entertaining a few of the team’s rookies.
According to the company, 37 percent of Topgolf customers are non-golfers. And 35 percent play eight or more rounds a year. The party atmosphere attracts the non-golfers and the skills challenges attract the avid players.
Recently, the National Golf Foundation recorded an 11 percent increase in off-course participation in golf in 2016. It attributed nearly all of that increase to Topgolf.
“Anyone who hits a golf ball to a target is in some way appreciating golf,” Topgolf co-chairman and CEO Erik Anderson told the National Golf Foundation. “I’ve told people, golf is a 30-minute game with a four-hour walk if you unbundle what you’re doing. A part of golf that’s so fun, in addition to playing, is the social interaction you get with your friends. We’ve just put that together in a different form.”
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.