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Topgolf on a Friday night: One part golf, one hundred times fun
04 Feb 2016
by Pete Wlodkowski of AmateurGolf.com

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TAMPA, Florida (February 1, 2016) – I’m not sure I can adequately describe Topgolf in a one-line catch phrase.

Is it golf meets bowling? That doesn’t do it justice -- not even close. Or how about a golf party where everyone’s invited, and fun is mandatory? I think that’s a little closer to the truth. But it still doesn’t begin to describe your first experience at Topgolf, especially if you go on a bustling Friday night in the one year old Tampa, Florida location.

How I convinced two friends to go 90-minutes away from the PGA Show in Orlando on a Friday night to visit Topgolf is testimony to the magnetic force created around any of their locations. The day prior I had attended an announcement about Topgolf's acquisition of online golf gaming site World Golf Tour, and had an opportunity to interview their dynamic CEO Ken May.

A light bulb went off, to the point where I knew, without a doubt, that I needed to go now or wait until Topgolf comes to California. (Which won’t be long; they open this spring in Roseville.) I didn’t really think of the impact of attending on the busiest night of the week, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

My friends Matt Fisher (aka YouTube's "The Golf Matt") and Pete Davison, who I played high school golf with in Connecticut, didn’t blink before saying yes to my idea, so we made the straight shot on I4 across Florida. An obligatory warm up nine on an old-school Florida course called Bloomingdale Golfer’s Club helped us break up the trip, and by 7:00pm our golfing lives had been changed forever. Really.

Let’s start with my friend Pete D., who has been to thirty-straight PGA Shows. Each year he asks us for “best of the day” after we walk the show floor to get some conversation going. The morning after we played Topgolf I asked him if Topgolf was the best in show for him (and technically they were part of the show, so Tampa counts).

His reply?

“Best in thirty years.”

OUR TAMPA EXPERIENCE

All sorts of games can be played and scored

Just 12 hours prior to that comment we approached the Tampa facility -- a monstrous triple- decker entertainment complex with 102 hitting bays -- at peak Friday evening party time. The parking lot was full. Valets were outside to park our car. It felt like the premier of Star Wars.

The entire side of the building entrance is lit up in blue with the Topgolf logo. People are coming out laughing, and a hub of ordered chaos unfolded right in front of us. (I think we might have caused a bit of that, because Matt’s awesome video setup tends to attract attention.) Our hearts pounded as we ran up the stairs with dance music in the air replacing the normal “tink-tink-tink” of golf balls hitting metal that you normally hear when you pull up to a busy driving range at night.

The staff danced a hybrid of a line dance and Benihana birthday celebration. The staff’s smiles and greetings -- “welcome to Topgolf!” -- were contagious – notching our night up to another level. If you come to Topgolf with the blahs, I doubt you’ll have them when you leave.

It didn’t take more than a minute before our bay server (I think that was his title) Brian introduced himself. The games are very easy to understand, and clubs are provided if you don’t feel like lugging yours around. For our first try I just wore the spikeless shoes I had on for golf that day – but sneakers are fine too. Remembering a glove helps – I had one in my pocket already so that was good.

We played from the top level, which is really fun with all the lighted targets below.

The food at Topgolf is really good

Brian took our drink order when we arrived, then got our food going after our first game. Everything is really tasty—it’s hard to argue with a menu that goes from sliders and burgers to Banh Mi sandwiches, fancy salads, and baskets of gourmet fries. An hour later, my in-laws in Tampa arrived to say hello, and pretty soon there were seven of us yucking it up. Even my mother-in-law Sally -- who has golfed at Seminole with President Eisenhower -- couldn’t resist the temptation to try and hit the targets. (She smiled ear-to-ear when she did.)

HOW TOPGOLF WORKS

I won't bore you with all the technical details of how Topgolf works suffice to say the golf balls are embedded with computer chips that register when you hit towards the coded targets that are staggered throughout the range below at various yardages. You select from a number of different "games" on the flat screen above each hitting bay prompt you to hit. Or just select “practice” to settle in for some focused range work. (Friday night might not be the best time for that though!)

There is a combination of a number of scoring systems at play as the targets are lined with concentric circles (like darts), each segmented to show you exactly where your ball wound up. The closer to the middle, the more points you earn, and the more opportunity to earn double on the next shot (like bowling).

The next day, on a fancy golf course with cart- mounted GPS screens, I couldn’t help thinking that the GPS companies really missed an opportunity to have their devices more widely adopted in scoring mode as opposed to just yardage. How cool would it be if everyone entered their scores and the cart showed you the average score for a hole you just birdied, so you would know how you compare with other golfers?

That’s what works about Topgolf. There are no casual shots – each ball is coded to a player and they only come out of the machine one at a time. When it’s your turn, you simply wave a club in front of a sensor and a ball rolls out. There aren’t a lot of bugs in their technology. It just works, like a computerized bowling scoresheet.

WRAPPING UP THE FIRST VISIT

Two hours of golf seemed to be the point where we felt like we should make room for other waiting parties. There was no pressure from our server, but he told us that the wait had ballooned to over three hours since we first arrived. As good as the waiting options are (full restaurant or bar area) I’m not sure that I would want to wait that long, and my mother-in-law, who lives in Tampa, told me that her other visits have been during the day, when parking spaces are open, and waiting times are minimal if any.

But at least once, and I say for the first time you play Topgolf, do it on a Friday or Saturday night. Because if you live anywhere near a major metropolitan area, Topgolf is probably coming your way.

Topgolf's official tagline (in case you were wondering after the way I started the story) is "Let's Play," but Topgolf CEO Ken May defined the company's long term plans this way:

"Our vision statement is, 'Topgolf is a global sports entertainment community creating the best times of your life.' One day, years from now, we'll find it hard to believe that we were ever just Topgolf."

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