U.S. Open

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (Course No. 2)

Golf Digest Logo lucky break

How an automated teeing system elevated the range game

July 11, 2023

Illustration by Micha Huigen

Never underestimate the power of potential embarrassment. English engineer Martin Wyeth was on a project with some golfer colleagues who promised him a round at the prestigious Wentworth Club outside London at the end of the assignment. Wyeth was psyched to play, but there was a problem: He had never played golf before. He went to bang some balls at the range. Basketfuls of slices and tops later, he hit the one majestic shot that gets a beginner hooked. “It looked like it had wings and kept going up,” Wyeth says. “The engineer in me couldn’t figure out what the difference was between that one and the terrible one before. In engineering terms, you change one variable at a time and see if things get better or worse.”

Unlike most new golfers, Wyeth had the skills to build a prototype that would help him in that study. The contraption he devised to do it was the Power Tee—a sturdy, elevated metal and synthetic-turf platform that overlays a standard driving range stall and automatically presents a ball teed at the perfect height for the shot you want to hit. A hidden hopper below the platform holds 100 balls, and a small control stalk shows players how many balls they have left to hit and lets them adjust the tee to 40 different heights. It was a smash.

Wyeth marketed his invention across the United Kingdom and saw substantial success. Ranges at St. Andrews, the Belfry and Wentworth—where Wyeth took so many shots he lost count a few years earlier—added the system. “In the beginning, we put it in three facilities for free to see how they would do, and the ranges reported that customers were coming from a 50-mile radius to use it,” Wyeth says. “From an engineering standpoint, lifting a ball in the air isn’t rocket science, but golfers loved it. They just loved seeing the ball magically come out of the ground and hitting ball after ball.”

Power Tee’s success prompted Wyeth to try to jump into the American range market. “We had had a record year, and we had just been to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen as one of the fastest growing companies in the country,” Wyeth says. “We just thought if we don’t try America, we’ll regret it the rest of our lives.”

It didn’t take nearly that long. Power Tee arrived just as the financial collapse of 2009 was unfolding—as the banking and golf industries were rolling up the sidewalks and locking the doors. The original plan was to secure leases with big resort properties that installed dozens of units and use a finance company to borrow off that lease revenue to expand. “We placed 250 machines at some great facilities and signed them up to leases,” Wyeth says. “We generated $2.5 million in lease paper, and not a single contract got funded. Our first step in America was a $2 million hit to cash flow.”

Wyeth figured independent ranges might flourish as cheaper alternatives during a down period, but thousands of them ended up going out of business. They couldn’t compete in the race golf course operators were in to lower their prices. “What we didn’t see coming was this insane, cutthroat competition between courses to give away a round of golf and a beer for $20,” says Wyeth. “That just killed stand-alone ranges. It was a devastating period of seven or eight years.”

‘[Golfers] just loved seeing the ball magically come out of the ground.’

Positive word-of-mouth from top instructors like Rick Smith kept Power Tee percolating with new range and teaching academy accounts year after year until marketing help came from an unlikely source. Topgolf is a direct competitor to many of the ranges and facilities that are candidates to use Power Tee, but the exploding popularity of the entertainment-range category in the past three years has spurred many high-end ranges and courses to add amenities and technology to avoid losing market share to the flashy bar-slash-ranges. “Topgolf is unequivocally showing the entire golf industry what you can do if you market a product that appeals to non-golfers as well as golfers,” Wyeth says. “It makes the whole business of learning a lot more fun, a lot less embarrassing and a lot less frustrating.”

For range operators, a lot more lucrative, too. The typical Power Tee customer has 20 or 30 bays, nighttime lighting and family-friendly policies that make the range experience almost like a live video game. One recent client nearly doubled monthly revenue from $50,000 to $90,000 for a less than $3,000 outlay. “We don’t charge anything up front, and the rental fee includes all maintenance and replacement,” Wyeth says. “If a client has room to keep a spare, we give them one, so they’re never out of operation.”

Now, more than 400 facilities have the platforms worldwide, and players use them to hit more than six million balls per day. Although that much practice doesn’t make perfect, Wyeth makes a good case for his own product. He now plays to a 10.6 Handicap Index.