Golf's participation statistics are a real cause for concern. Golf has lost 13% of its regular players in the last four years. That's worrying enough, but another stat troubles us even more: participation amongst 16 to 25-year-olds has dropped 45% in the same period. There are currently only around 50,000 regular golfers in that age range. That means, as older golfers are eventually forced to give up the game, there is a lack of new blood ready to replace them.
Perhaps that's where Topgolf comes in. Opened in Watford in 2000, the first Topgolf site attracted 156,500 visitors in its first year. Golfers and non-golfers alike were taken by the relaxed atmosphere with the focus firmly on fun. There are now 15 sites across the UK and America, with 10 more under construction, and more planned for the future.
Topgolf is essentially a two-tier, 240-yard driving range, with 10 dartboard-like targets in the ground at various distances. Each ball you hit has a chip in it, which records which target you hit, and how close you were to the centre of that target. The closer you get to the flag, the more points you score. Your points are automatically displayed on a digital screen in your bay – similar to 10-pin bowling.
As keen golfers, it would be easy to dismiss Topgolf as a fancy driving range with a few coloured lights. But the numbers show that it warrants further attention. Of Topgolf’s 650,000 annual visitors, two thirds are under 25, and 79% are aged 18-34, the exact demographic golf needs to attract. Over a third of Topgolfers are female, compared to around 15% of “proper golfers”. Gareth Bale is a member, while One Direction’s Niall Horan and former X Factor runner-up Olly Murs are both regular visitors. It’s easy to see why Topgolf is attracting new players far easier than golf in its traditional form.
“We estimate that 65-70% of visitors would class themselves as non-golfers,” says Topgolf Marketing Manager Michael Angelides. “That’s a lot of people trying a sport that traditionally has a number of barriers to entry: high start-up costs, level of ability, time and understanding."
“Topgolf is fun, regardless of ability," adds Angelides. "Clubs are provided to those who don’t have equipment, free of charge, and you can wear whatever you like. Our coaching team are on-site to provide guests with a simple guide to stance, grip and swing. There is no charge for this; we simply want them to have as good an experience as possible.”
Golf simply cannot afford to turn its nose up at anything that is bringing new people into the game. “Everything’s so instant now and everyone doesn’t have as much time as they used to,” said McIlroy. “So you maybe try some way of speeding the game up. Gone are the days when you could spend five or six hours on a golf course.” A game of Topgolf takes under an hour, and it doesn’t take months of practice before you can begin posting semi-respectable scores.
The atmosphere at Topgolf is a stark contrast to a golf clubhouse. The resident DJ spins tracks in a packed bar on a Friday and Saturday night while groups of people enjoy drinks, food, and golf in equal measure. There are no lone golfers with towels tucked under their armpits to be found here.
That’s not to say it’s no use to keen golfers. The balls are better quality than most ranges, and having specific targets to aim for and get instant feedback from is a vast improvement over kidding yourself you cleared the back of the local range with that roofed drive.
There’s simply no question that Topgolf is more fun than your average driving range. Whether you choose to visit with friends on a Friday or Saturday night, where the music and drinks continue to flow until 1am, or during the week with family, you’ll find that Topgolf offers something for every level of golfer, from a four-handicapper like me to someone who’s never even held a club before.
We took a group of five people, with little or no golf experience, to find out what they thought of Topgolf...
James Perry, 28
“I like how you can put beginners with good golfers and still have close games. In my mind it doesn’t replace a nine-hole round of pitch and putt, but it certainly beats bashing balls on the driving range, especially as you can get beer and burgers brought to you! It does a good job in bringing golfers and non-golfers together for an enjoyable night out.”
Samantha Perry, 28
“I’m sure it’s very different to a normal game of golf, but you still get rewarded for hitting good shots. I’ve never considered playing ‘proper’ golf before, but I really enjoyed this. There were a couple of times my ball didn’t register my points, which was a bit annoying, but you can go into it manually and add it in, as long as the rest of your group agree!”
Adam Holdgate, 28
“I really enjoyed the whole experience. It’s a good night out, certainly a potential first date venue, and I’d definitely come again. The Topgolf branded woods in the rental sets aren’t the best, so I’d recommend bringing your own clubs if you can. That said, it's good that you can borrow clubs for free, as most ranges charge you or simply don't lend clubs.”
Kerry Walker, 39
“The main positive for me was the social aspect of the evening. You could try and hit a few golf balls into big targets while enjoying a few drinks. I hadn’t played golf before so it was handy they could supply me with a set of clubs. You don’t have to have played golf before to enjoy a night at Topgolf. I would consider having lessons there to get a bit better before trying my luck on a real golf course.”
Stephanie Smith, 26
“Topgolf makes golf accessible for everyone. Even if you have no knowledge of how to hit the ball, like me, you can still score some points. I didn’t think golf would be a sport I would enjoy, but I had fun and so don’t see why I wouldn’t enjoy the real thing... I’d need some lessons though! With Topgolf you get to try it without the commitment of buying clubs or taking out a pricey membership.”
“Some golfers will dismiss Topgolf as a gimmick, but it’s more than that. Having specific targets and a score on the line creates an element of pressure often lacking from range sessions. If you’ve got a good score going, do you play safe and make sure you find a nearby target, or be brave and go for the big points? That pressure is similar to the final holes of a medal, it tests your nerve.”