April 21, 2014

Not Your Grandfather's Driving Range

With bright lights, thumping music and a smoking-hot bar scene, fast-growing TopGolf might be just what this stuffy game needs

BIG TIME: At TopGolf Austin, the waiting list to use its hitting bays often stretches to four hours. Happily, the people-watching is first-rate.

'That's right. Call your shot'

Four 20-something men sit as a fifth stands, stone-faced, pointing his golf club like Babe Ruth at a large, circular target 160 yards away.

A violent motion ensues as he begins a golf swing. Now the club comes barreling back toward the earth, his feet sliding away from the ball. Suddenly, a crack. The ball starts way left of its intended target but begins drifting back to the right.

"Yeah, baby!"

His friends are on their feet now, silent, their mouths slightly open. I watch from a few yards away as the ball slams into the target. "Boom! That's what I'm talkin' about!" says the golfer. He spins and points at a friend who taunted him earlier.

"Suck it!" he says, laughing.

It's 4 p.m. on a typical Thursday in February, and the TopGolf Austin driving range is packed. All of its more than 100 hitting bays are full. If you want to hit balls today, put your name on the nearly two-hour wait list and head to the bar.

Most people aren't used to waiting to hit balls on a range, but for the people of Austin, a few hours spent in line for one of the city's hottest social spots is expected.

Here golfers don't simply bash balls into the distance. They aim at various targets around the range. Hit into one and you're automatically assigned points that appear on the television screen at your bay. The farther the target and the closer you hit to its center, the more points you get. Think darts. (See sidebar above, "Fun & Games")

Add loud Top-40 music, a menu that wouldn't seem out of place in a New York City gastropub, a sleek design, and out pops TopGolf—a self-styled "sports-entertainment facility" that's ascending through the golf industry unlike anything in recent history.

Here for a visit, I quickly become consumed with competing against myself in the series of games. Pretty soon one hour turns into two, and then to three, then I join a group of guys about my age in the bay next to mine. "This is my first time here, and I was skeptical because I wasn't sure how this would be different from a regular range," says Adrian Frasca, a 25-year-old software developer from Austin.

"But it is. This would be a great place to take a date. Well, not if I'm trying to show off. Maybe for a third date or something."

As the music grows louder and the sun inches lower, the beers start flowing more freely. It doesn't take long for things to get a little fuzzy.

Different-colored lights start to illuminate the 11 targets scattered across the range. And the weather is perfect. I remember a Miley Cyrus song, and something about duck hooks. Wait, how many points for hitting the third-closest circle in the burgundy target? Whatever. One more round for everyone.

THE MORNING AFTER

I wake the next morning to find my golf clubs strewn across my hotel-room floor, and a receipt in my pocket for what I later learned was TopGolf's "Chip 'N' Fluff": five chocolate-chip cookies and three cotton candies. I don't see any leftovers. I'm sure it was delicious.

This scene, one of me stumbling out of bed pitifully grasping for water and aspirin, probably wasn't what Steve and Dave Jolliffe envisioned when they conceived TopGolf in the late 1990s. The identical twins from England were sitting at a range one day, bored and wondering why they weren't getting answers to what they considered fairly simple questions: How far is the ball going? How close to the hole is it landing? How can we make this more fun?

Isn't there a computer chip, or something, that we can put in the balls to tell us this stuff? In 2000, the Jolliffe brothers opened the first TopGolf location in Watford, just outside London. By 2007, they had opened two more in England and three in the United States (Chicago, Dallas and Alexandria, Va.). What followed was a change in ownership and an era of rapid expansion.

"I never played golf before [joining TopGolf], and always thought of it as a bit of a stuffy sport that took a lot of time," says Susan Walmesley, TopGolf's director of marketing since 2007. "Once the new ownership came in, we wanted to tear down that image."

The menu, the music, the design, even the lighting—all of it was reimagined to cater to a younger, more vibrant, more diverse demographic. The management team introduced "X Factor"-style hiring auditions, telling applicants to construct potential menus, events and even business strategies on the spot.

The hiring auditions include solo performances, where applicants have a set time to impress a panel of judges. One applicant rapped the entire theme song from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Another talked about her hopes and dreams. A third belly-danced with a samurai sword that she brought with her to the audition. All were hired.

"That sword-waving belly dancer exemplifies exactly what TopGolf is about," says Tom Leverton, a former FedEx executive who has been TopGolf's CEO since last year. "We want to hire people who are creative, energetic and often quirky, because all of that results in great ideas."

Less than a year after changing ownership, the TopGolf in Allen, just outside of Dallas, generated more than $1 million in revenue in four weeks, the first time any of the sites had hit that level. The continuing spike in sales is directly correlated to a shift in the business model: Under the Jolliffe brothers, TopGolf generated the majority of its revenue from the games. Today, food and beverage drive about 60 percent of the business.

From 2011 to 2013, TopGolf opened four more locations, including the one in Austin. It has six more planned for 2014. By 2017, TopGolf plans to have 50 U.S. locations. That would bring its total yearly attendance to more than 18 million people—a million more than those attending NFL games each year, and about four million more than the number of golfers who play at least eight rounds each year, according to a 2013 National Golf Foundation study.

"You're seeing a whole new group being introduced to the game, who ordinarily wouldn't go anywhere near a golf course," Leverton says, adding that more than 60 percent of the TopGolf visitors are new to the sport. "We're breaking down all those barriers of entry that surround golf."

So far, because most of its facilities are so new, any evidence that TopGolfers are migrating to "regular" golf is mostly anecdotal. Canvass the range and the general consensus is they will, once they improve.

'LIKE AN ADULT'S PLAYGROUND'

Kelly Anne Johnson is a short, attractive, 24-year-old blonde—the kind of woman you'd expect to see in a television show about Texas. It's Friday night, and she is wearing a tight, black TopGolf shirt as she hops from bay to bay, betting people koozies and Mardi Gras-like beads, Tweeting, Instagramming, laughing and joking, all drumming-up interest for tomorrow's big "holiday"—National Margarita Day.

"It's kind of like an adult's playground," says Johnson, whose official title is "TopGolf Marketing Champion." She has worked at TopGolf Austin since it opened last May. "The best are the really drunk people, because they always bet they can hit every shot."

I catch Johnson as she walks toward the end of the third-floor range, nearing a group who tweeted at TopGolf's handle a few moments earlier. Each of the 102 bays is packed with people in groups of five, six, seven and more. The shortest wait for a bay today is almost three hours.

As she approaches the bay she whips out a flier for National Margarita Day and starts talking to the group.

"How old are y'all?" she asks.

"Seventeen," one of them responds.

She quietly slips the flier back in her bag, moves her hand past a koozie and grabs a few TopGolf key chains.

"All right, first person to get a ball in the green target gets one," she says.

After the key chains are distributed to the happy high schoolers, Johnson heads toward a party in a bay hosted by a platinum member.

Platinum members pay $250 per month for a host of bonus amenities, among them discounted drinks, higher-quality rental clubs, a staff member whose job is to tend to their every need, and, perhaps most important, the ability to skip the line. That means that on a night like tonight, they walk into the first bay that becomes available, waiting behind only other platinum members. That three-hour line suddenly becomes about 15 minutes.

"It's kind of like my generation's bowling," says Cory Brymer, the 32-year-old host of the group, "except it's better because it brings the outside in. There are no smokey alleys or anything." His girlfriend, Andrea Fernandez, jumps in. Like the other members of Brymer's party, she reaps platinum benefits whenever she shows up alongside a member. "It's really socially interactive," Fernandez, 22, says. "Like, I know golf is important to him, so I want to learn, but if I want a break I just relax and drink."

Brymer is a rarer breed of TopGolf golfer, one who frequents TopGolf and actual golf courses on a weekly basis. But what's interesting is that he's happy, like every other platinum member I spoke to, that the two are separate. If he wants a larger group of friends and more of a party vibe, he's heading to TopGolf. For something a little more leisurely, he's off to the golf course.

"I mean, I love golf all the time," Brymer says. "But sometimes, I'm not always in the mood for the same thing."

ENJOYING A FOUR-HOUR WAIT

When National Margarita Day rolls around, TopGolf is busy beyond belief. The more than two-hour wait that persisted on Friday has stretched to nearly four on Saturday, but people don't seem to mind. Oh, it's a four-hour wait today? I'll grab a few extra beers. Maybe find myself a date (a common theme among TopGolfers).

As the day turns to night and people keep flowing in, I faintly hear what sounds like Chopin's ominous "Funeral March" playing in the background. Intrigued by what seems so out of place in an otherwise joyous setting, I head toward the music. I pass Kelly Anne Johnson along the way. She's not working today but decided to spend her Saturday with friends here.

In Bay 326, I face the music. There's a mariachi band surrounding Glenda Garcia, a 27-year-old who's roaring with laughter as the band plays on. Draped on her shoulder I see it: a pink sash emblazoned with the word "Bachelorette." It's her party tonight.

"Oh, no!" she says, laughing and feigning despair that these are, indeed, her final moments of freedom. The table outside the bay is filled with empty margarita glasses from Glenda and her friends.

Well, if this is where it all ends, I guess it's the perfect place.

Editor's Note: Topgolf has clarified an earlier version of this tree that discussed the company's ownership. Below is their account of the company's history. The Jolliffe brothers and a licensee developed the first three locations in the United Kingdom beginning in 2000.

The U.S. licensee with WestRiver Management as the lead investor brought Topgolf to the U.S. in 2005 with the opening of Topgolf Alexandria. WestRiver Management was founded and is run by Erik Anderson, chairman of Topgolf International, Inc.

As the company expanded, Callaway Golf Company (NYSE: ELY) became an investor in 2006 and Thomas Dundon in 2011. Also in 2011, the company was incorporated as Topgolf International, Inc.

Today, WestRiver Management, Callaway and Tom Dundon are the three lead investors in Topgolf International, Inc. (The Jolliffes continue to hold a minority interest.)