Golf 2.0

Published on Wednesday, November 7th, 2018 in Features

In 2004, the golf building boom of the latter 20th century had already started to slow. Savvy investors could see the real estate bubble building, and investors looking five, 10 or 15 years down the road were starting to suggest that golf infrastructure might not be the best place to put one’s money.

It was against this backdrop that one of Anderson’s investment colleagues from New York picked up the phone and asked Anderson if he’d be interested in a new venture being developed just north of London. In the months since Grogan had first visited the Jolliffe’s range, he had helped transition the business from a driving range with a social aspect, to a vibrant place to eat, drink and spend time with friends — that just also happened to be centered around a high-tech golf experience.

“There had been some challenges in the past with building driving range businesses,” Anderson recalls of his early thoughts. “But, the difference was that instead of just getting one person in a stall, you had four in a bay. And, instead of just hitting balls, they were also eating and drinking. So, the revenue per bay was like eight times what you’d normally get. It was just a much better real-estate proposition.

“Also, as a golfer, it was an authentic experience. It was fun,” he adds. “We definitely saw what it could be.”

Anderson’s firm became the first institutional investor in the United States, and a year later, the company — now called Topgolf — opened its first facility in the U.S. at a retro-fitted driving range in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. It had two levels and 76 bays — double the size of its U.K. predecessors — and, from practically the minute the doors opened, every bay was jam-packed.

“You could tell that there was a little bit of magic in the air, if you will,” Anderson recalls.

By 2007, Topgolf had opened two more U.S. locations — one each in Dallas and Chicago — minimized its retail sales (“It was clear early on that people didn’t really want to buy clubs there,”Anderson says) and pushed all-in on the social component, with expanded food and beverage options, and an early recognition of the power of social media.

By 2011 — with Anderson now serving as the company’s Executive Chairman — Topgolf had expanded to seven locations, then eight in 2012, then 10 in 2013, including a three-story, 102-bay venue just outside of Dallas. By the end of that year, Inc. magazine called Topgolf “one of America’s fastest-growing companies” — not golf companies, but companies, period — and Topgolf had expanded beyond the walls of each center to include an app for iPhones and Androids that allowed golfers to play Topgolf-style games on their mobile device.

After adding 14 more venues over the next two years — a period of stunning growth that saw Anderson named the No. 1 innovator in golf by Golf Inc. magazine — Topgolf was the toast of the golf world, welcoming more than 8 million golfers a year.

Anderson, though, was thinking bigger.

In 2016, Topgolf acquired World Golf Tour, a mobile game with more than 14 million users, and the burgeoning Protracer technology, which could track not only a ball’s distance and accuracy with relation to a target, but its exact flight, in real time. Renamed Toptracer, the technology was not only put to use enhancing the entertainment experience at Topgolf centers, but was licensed to every professional Tour in the world, and became a staple of golf broadcasting.

“That,” Anderson recalls, “is when we really started to become a very large sports entertainment community.”

Topgolf Crush events, like this one at SAFECO Field in 2017, helped Topgolf expand its brand to new markets.

In 2017, Topgolf partnered with Full Swing, the simulator company, to build Topgolf Swing Suites in smaller venues like hotels and conference centers; licensed its Toptracer Range technology to driving ranges around the world (including Puetz Golf’s Seattle range); debuted original Golf Channel programming like “Shotmakers” (shot on-site at Topgolf Las Vegas), “The Hook,” “Chef Showdown,” “In Focus” and “Topgolf Tour;” produced pop-up “Topgolf Crush” events in cities nationwide (including one at SAFECO Field); and launched youth golf and charitable initiatives that immediately made Topgolf one of the industry’s biggest charitable donors.

“The addition of Toptracer technology has transformed our basic range into a fun, entertaining, challenging golf range,” says Dave Sanders of Puetz Golf. “Our newly enhanced Toptracer range has the same shot-tracking technology you’ve seen on the PGA TOUR, and experienced at Topgolf locations around the country. Golfers can practice their skills and improve their game on Launch Monitor or What’s In The Bag mode, compete in a long drive or KP contests, play an entire round of virtual golf, test their skills in the the popular points game, or simply come for some fun and entertainment. We’ve definitely witnessed enthusiasm for our Toptracer range and look forward to the opportunity to add golf leagues, contests, food trucks and special events.”

Today, there are more than 40 Topgolf venues across the U.S. — the company having nearly tripled its infrastructure growth over the last three-plus years — not counting the numerous Swing Suites and Toptracer Ranges in use at venues around the world. The PGA TOUR, European Tour and, indeed, all of the world’s tours use Toptracer technology to showcase their events. PGA TOUR commissioner Jay Monahan, European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley and PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua all have Anderson on speed dial. Topgolf coaches give hundreds of lessons each day, and the company’s KidZone, Summer Academy and Youth Play It Forward programs draw in thousands of young golfers each year.

On any given day in 2017 (a year in which Topgolf reported more than $300 million in revenues) more than 35,000 people, most of them in the U.S., walked into a Topgolf facility — more than most individual golf courses see in an entire year.

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