Cheaper Than A Therapist
No. 1 on Golf Digest's Hot List this year is not a counterbalanced putter or even an adjustable driver. It's a nightclub-meets-bowling-alley masquerading as a driving range called TopGolf and coming to a metro area near you. So far there are 10 of them worldwide with 2.2 million visitors in 2013, averaging up to 70,000 hits a day at some locations and 2½ hours for the average time spent. That's a lot of Coors Light. And by the way, 52 percent of customers don't call themselves golfers, but there they are in the flesh, beating balls with embedded microchips at lighted targets and having their results recorded on computer screens at each hitting bay, sometimes with live music playing in the background.
The fact that TopGolf collects all this data puts it 1 up on almost every other golf facility in the United States. The company plans to be in 50 U.S. markets by 2017, and judging by the buzz in the golf industry, I'd say there are a lot of believers.
Somebody told me the other day that TopGolf is the hottest bar in Austin, so that's where we parachuted in our editor Luke Kerr-Dineen, 25. He just missed the winter promotion "Suits and Boots Night," when customers wore bathing suits and winter boots between dancing and ball-striking.
He still found a three-hour wait on an average weekday.
"This facility is not meant for older clientele, or maybe it's just geared toward younger people," said Brandon Sheer, a 30-year-old TopGolfer. "They're here because it's fun, hitting balls, having drinks. It's an activity. You're doing something while having fun. A lot of people are seeing this and younger pros on TV, and they're getting interested."
And that's why Callaway Golf, for example, is an investor. You get young people comfortable around golf, and some of them will become players.
"You wouldn't think of me as a golfer," said Landon Wolf, 29. "If you saw me walking down the street, I'm wearing a band T-shirt, I've got shorts on, with my tattoos showing. Then I get out there and start hitting balls, and people are like, 'Oh, man. You can play.' Anybody can do this. It doesn't matter what you look like."
It's all part of this redefinition of what a golfer is today. Yeah, the core golfer plays 18 holes, keeps a handicap and has a regular group, like always. But in our research, we've found a large number of men and women who say, "I'm not good enough to be a golfer. I'm just somebody who plays golf." Those folks are welcome, too.
"I gave up my therapist because of this place," said Robert Fulce, 29, who pays $250 a month for his TopGolf platinum membership. "I started coming here every day. I'm still here probably three or four days a week. Just hitting golf balls all day long. Even the bay hosts walk up and they know, when I've got my earbuds in and I'm listening to music, I'm in a zone, de-stressing, not thinking about anything and just making sure I'm hitting the balls where I want to hit them. It has completely taken my whole stress level down. It's improved every relationship I've had, probably, in the last three months."
TopGolf isn't the only de-stressing mechanism out there. This year I also visited Golf & Body (a high-end exercise place with golf simulators, teaching pros and personal trainers in midtown Manhattan) and Play18 (another indoor practice facility with all the trimmings in the Loop in Chicago). My golf club in New York set up a simulator in the dining room all winter to give us our golf fix.
Indoors or outdoors, golf is the best escape from the spiraling stress of everyday life. And we're gaining converts all the time—both golfers and people who just play golf.