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lucky break

Landing Tiger Woods’ cash was just one step toward reinventing miniature golf

January 29, 2024
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Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

We’ve all participated in some iteration of the cocktail party conversation that starts with “If I had my own golf-themed bar, this is what I’d do.” Greg Bartoli did, too. He just had more firepower to make it a reality.

Fifteen years of success on Wall Street had given Bartoli enough cushion to invest in commercial real estate across Florida—and burned him out to the point that he was ready to relocate to South Florida to spend more time with his young family. However, Jupiter wasn’t exactly a hot spot for family-friendly entertainment, so Bartoli started investigating how to expand one of the properties he owned in Port St. Lucie into a sports-themed venue he could franchise.

Bartoli created PopStroke, a modern take on the classic miniature golf course you used to see on the busy road on the edge of every Middle American town. Instead of windmills, clown’s mouths, cheap synthetic turf and vending machines, PopStroke is much more upscale. Bartoli built a sleek clubhouse with a roof deck and sports bar fronting two premium-turfed 18-hole putting courses, added a huge indoor kids playground and emphasized quality in the full kitchen and craft beer and drink menus. Guests can control their entire experience with PopStroke’s app, which handles everything from scoring to delivering food and drinks anywhere on the property.

The Port St. Lucie location opened in 2019 and was an immediate hit with a core family demographic of which one very influential golfer is a member—and he happens to live nearby. “Tiger and I both live in North Palm Beach County, and our kids go to the same school,” Bartoli says. “I’m friendly with some of the people on his team, and when we opened, his CFO came out to take a look. Then, one thing led to another.”

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Mike Mulholland

Woods’ TGR Ventures became an equity partner in PopStroke in late 2019. Woods’ branding muscle and financial investment turbocharged Bartoli’s long-term vision to expand to more than 50 locations across the United States. Eleven venues opened in Florida, Texas and Arizona by late 2023, and PopStroke is continuing to add about one new location per month. TaylorMade, with an eye on Callaway’s booming success with Topgolf, joined as another investor in early 2023.

The Arizona courses play off the desert landscape and theme, and Florida’s are more tropical. “We have our own 40-person team of shapers, and we build these courses from the ground up with a proprietary synthetic turf,” Bartoli says. “Every hole on every course is different, so when guests visit us in different markets, they get a unique experience.”

Players use premium TaylorMade putters instead of the old plastic brick heads of yore, and they get to keep the co-branded PopStroke-TaylorMade ball they use during the round. The technology is as integral to the experience as the equipment, which is why Bartoli invested seven figures in building PopStroke’s app. “It was a giant investment, but to control the entire tech offering, especially as you scale, and not have to worry about integrating with third-party software is a big deal,” he says.

For prices ranging from $20 to $40 depending on location, age and day of the week, players get all-day access—no tee time required—to play a location’s Red and Black courses. The Reds are intentionally diabolical, with crazy contours, and the Blacks are a gentler experience. Player scoring is projected onto a billboard-sized video leaderboard for all to see. You can get a bourbon on the rocks or a scoop of house-made ice cream with a tap on the app. “Depending on the time of day, we’ve got milkshakes and we’ve got cocktails,” Bartoli says. “You’ll see 38-year-old parents with their 8-year-old kids, high school kids that want to come run around with their friends, or a group of young professionals who come at night for a lively bar atmosphere.”

The smaller footprint for these venues—three or four acres, with no towering driving-range nets—make them relatively easy to place. There will be similar corporate neighbors in many of the new locations, which will include Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Orlando and Nashville (among others) in 2024. “You’ll see us in lively entertainment centers where we can surround ourselves with premium brands,” Bartoli says. “There’s an Apple store, a Yard House, a Capital Grille—elevated brands that drive a lot of traffic.” PopStroke’s versatility as a combined sports bar, event space and post-round hangout for upscale American food means green fees make up just a fraction of a location’s revenue.

Bartoli believes PopStroke holds a competitive advantage over conventional golf courses because of the smaller real estate footprint and the recent increase in off-course golfers. “One reason I think PopStroke is resonating is because of where the demographics of the game are going,” Bartoli says. “My kids just had nine soccer games this past weekend. The ability to spend four or five hours playing golf on a weekend day is going to have to evolve. Here, you can get that fix in a way that doesn’t necessarily dictate your entire day. Plus, putting is something anybody can do and have fun with it. What could be a better entry point into the game?”