By Luke Kerr-Dineen
Growing up in England, it wasn't called TopGolf. Well, technically it was, but my coach preferred a different name for it: The Happy Place.
It was more than 10 years ago that my coach would bring me and a group of other junior golfers out to Watford, a town on the outskirts of London, for our TopGolf fill. I since moved to America and became an adult (ugh) but so, it turns out, did TopGolf.
The idea for the business blossomed out of boredom: Twin brothers Steve and Dave Joliffe were on the range one day growing increasingly more annoyed at their lack of answers to a series of simple questions. How far was their ball going? Where was it landing? And most importantly: how can we make this more fun?
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The solution they came up with was TopGolf. Each golf ball was fitted with a microchip to track all the technical stuff. The ten pins scattered around the range, meanwhile, which range from 20 to about 240 yards, were surrounded by sections like a dartboard. The closer you hit it to the pin, the more points you were awarded, which increase the further out you go. Beer? Food? Music? A mini-golf course? Sure, throw them in there, too.
In 2000 they opened their first facility in the Watford location, which proved so popular they opened two more outside London. In 2005, they set their sights on America.
"Over time we realized that we really appealed to a wide audience, not just avid golfers," said Adrienne Browne, the communications manager at TopGolf. "It became known as a place you can bring the whole family and everyone can enjoy."
Their first facility in the U.S. opened just outside of Washington D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia, and not long after launched another outside Chicago.
At first glace, with prices per 20 golf balls (the number of golf balls in a game) varying from $4.80 to $7.00, depending on the time of day, and facilities expensive to build, TopGolf looked in trouble when the economic recession rolled around, but people just kept flocking to its ranges -- about 1,600 on an average weekend night, most between the ages of 18 and 38.
While companies across the country were tightening their belts and holding on, TopGolf again expanded -- this time into Texas. They opened two facilities near Dallas, where they also moved their corporate headquarters, one in Austin, and one in Houston.
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"After Alexandria and Chicago, the success in Dallas was just astronomical," Browne said. "The economic climate was right for us and it was more of a year-round golfing environment."
So what's next for TopGolf?
More facilities, for starters. They have four more due to open soon: one in Alpharetta, Georgia, by Atlanta, one in Scottsdale, and one more outside both Dallas and Houston. They want to add another 11 in 2014, which would bring their total to 21, and if they keep up with their current rate of growth, by 2017, they'll exceed the NFL's average yearly attendance.
And they might, along they way, change the game.
That's what Gavin Grenville-Wood, the coach who taught me the game, thinks anyway. He's the one who first brought me to Top Golf, and has continued bringing batches of junior golfers every year since.
"TopGolf makes the driving range less boring," says Grenville-Wood. "Which is good, because let's face it: practicing at the driving range is really freaking boring."