One day late in the 1990s, twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe headed out to the driving range in a suburb of London to work on their swings. Looking for a way to make the driving range experience more exciting and also more competitive, the brothers birthed the idea to install a microchip in the golf ball in order to track the accuracy and distance of their shots.
In 1997, the Jolliffes united business efforts with friend Jeff Emerson, and World Golf Systems was born with the goal of developing that perfect microchipped golf ball. After about two years of testing and perfecting, WGS fine-tuned its I.D. Ball System, which allowed for golf balls to be tracked using radio-frequency identification while still performing to the same high standards as non-chipped balls. Committed to the Jolliffes’ desire to make the driving range experience more entertaining, WGS combined its I.D. Ball System with sensor targets to fully develop the Topgolf game concept, and the first Topgolf location opened in 2000 in Watford, England.
Five years later, Topgolf made its way to North America with the opening of Topgolf Alexandria in Virginia. Additional investors became involved as the business expanded. Today, WestRiver Group, Callaway, Dundon and Providence Equity are the lead investors.
“Topgolf was born out of innovation when the Joliffe brothers invented a micro-chipped golf ball to track the distance of their shots; however, it wasn’t until Topgolf expanded to the U.S. in 2005 when our strategy broadened to reach beyond the traditional golf community,” said Topgolf Chief Operating Officer Craig Kessler. “Today, we see Topgolf as a place for everyone. The experience encompasses play, food, music and community, which appeal to all.”
Part driving range, part arcade game, Topgolf marries the competitiveness of golf to the comforts of a high-class entertainment destination. Topgolf now has 31 locations, 28 in the U.S., with at least 12 more U.S. locations planned. More than 10.5 million visitors participated at Topgolf locations in 2016.
While little or no golf skill is required for someone to enjoy Topgolf, the games offered at each stall are designed to be competitive enough for even the most skilled golfers. The multitude of games available will challenge any golf skill level and ability.
“We have made golf accessible to all ages and skill levels, eliminating some of the traditional barriers to entry for the game,” Kessler said. “Some people are intimidated to play on a traditional course, but at Topgolf, it’s all about having fun. You can wear what you want, cheer as loudly as you want or play as long or as little as you want. You don’t have to invest in equipment because we provide everything you need.”
Topgolf offers more than just golf games. Additional attractions at the Oklahoma City location, for example, include a restaurant, multiple lounges, bar areas, complimentary pool tables, shuffleboard, foosball, Xbox Kinect, and a rooftop terrace with a stage for bands or a DJ. At Topgolf Las Vegas, two swimming pools are available for guests to enjoy, along with VIP cabanas, a private suite, and a 900-guest concert venue.
Fees vary by location, but Topgolf requires everyone to purchase a membership in order to play, with prices starting at $5. Your membership card can be used at any Topgolf location and serves as your personal identification for scoring in Topgolf’s system. The next step is bay rental, which is charged as an hourly fee. The typical Topgolf visit lasts one to two hours, and each bay can accommodate up to six people. Prices for bay rentals vary based on time of day as well as day of the week, with higher rates charged on evenings and weekends.
Topgolf adds wealth to the community beyond providing entertainment.
“Each Topgolf venue has a significant impact on the local economy,” Kessler said. “On average, a venue creates $264.5 million in economic output to the local community over a 10-year period. In addition, 500 new jobs are created per venue, including 125 full-time positions.”
The December 2016 opening of the Edison, New Jersey, location marked the beginning of Topgolf’s emergence in the northeast U.S.
“It is our hope that Topgolf Edison will establish our brand presence throughout New Jersey and New York City, and build brand recognition for future openings in the tri-state area,” Kessler said. Another New Jersey location is planned for Mount Laurel and planned to open in late 2017.
For those cities without a permanent Topgolf location, there’s Topgolf Crush, a traveling tour set up “pop-up” style in stadiums. The inaugural Crush launch site was at Safeco Field in Seattle in February, and the tour visited Orlando’s Camping World Stadium in March.
A new location planned for Charlotte, North Carolina, is expected to open this summer and projected to serve approximately 450,000 guests in the first year of operation. The Charlotte Topgolf is one of 12 new locations scheduled to open in the coming months.
Topgolf has attracted the attention of the traditional golf world, including both the PGA Tour and the LPGA.
“We’ve teamed up with PGA Tour and LPGA to create new golf fans, participants and enthusiasts as we work toward the common goal of growing the game,” Kessler said. “Our partnership has enabled us to reach audiences we might not reach or connect with otherwise. By working with Topgolf, the Tour has a new avenue to reach millennials – an audience that is extremely important for the future of golf. Likewise, the Tour is helping Topgolf reach more traditional golfers and provide unique programming that helps non-golfers transition to green grass.”
Ty Votaw, PGA Tour executive vice president and chief marketing officer, spoke about the strategic alliance in an emailed statement.
“Over a year ago the PGA Tour, LPGA and Topgolf formed a strategic alliance that is focused on developing initiatives to help grow the game,” Votaw said in the statement. “Topgolf is having tremendous success attracting golfers and non-golfers alike by providing a fun, casual atmosphere at its venues. Through the alliance, Topgolf recently announced free game play at their facilities for charitable organizations committed to youth leadership and mentorship, in addition to any high school golf team. Collectively this speaks to the commitment of our respective organizations to grow our sport.”