Some old guy once said, the times, they are a-changin’.
Never, perhaps, has that been truer than in the game of golf today.
This weekend’s opening of Topgolf Fort Worth, just east of downtown, is a 65,000-square-foot sign of the new times. With the connected nature of our lives, both options and pulls on our time are at an all-time high. This renders, for some, a five-hour game too time-consuming.
Is there an app for that, we ask? To others, the barriers to entry seem too tall to even bother getting started with the painstaking pastoral pleasure of green-grass golf.
But we’re still golf-crazy around these parts. North Texas is still the only spot in the professional golf world that sustains two PGA Tour tournaments a mere 40 miles apart on back-to-back weeks. With the AT&T Byron Nelson and the Dean & DeLuca Invitational just two and three weeks away, respectively, it’s like a new golf holiday popped up right before Christmas and New Year’s.
Since Steve and Dave Jolliffe came up with the idea for “the driving range of the future, a bigger-than-life dartboard, but for golf” in 2000, Topgolf has been all about disrupting the golf market. It makes a party of what can be one of the most frustrating parts of learning golf: the hours spent at traditional driving ranges, monotonously hacking shots (hopefully) toward a flagstick in the distance, without ever being sure how close the ball actually came to it.
In doing so, it has provided a place where hackers can be hackers, the only sightly golf-y can remain slightly golf-y without putting on airs, and the totally uninitiated can pick up a club for the first time without the intimidation of the foursome behind them or a $100 green fee.
“I’m as traditional a golfer as they come,” said Jon Drago, tournament director for the AT&T Byron Nelson. “And I’m fortunate that one of my daughters has a real love for the game. She plays at her high school. But my youngest daughter could care less about playing golf, and my wife could care less about playing golf. But we love going to Topgolf as a family. It brings in those who don’t want to go through what it takes to play golf.”
The idea has, as evidenced by the ambitious construction schedule of the Dallas-based company, taken off like so many Titleists off the head of a driver. Topgolf Fort Worth is the company’s fourth North Texas location and ninth in the state, with an El Paso location one of 13 currently in the works, including two in Mexico and one in Australia set to open next year. Golf equipment company Callaway came on as an investor in 2006.
Topgolf plans to open seven to 10 new venues per year for the next few years, according to Morgan Wallace, a member of Topgolf’s communications team.
To build something the size of what Fort Worth has watched go up for the past year, nestled between the Trinity River, Interstate 35 and Highway 121, seven times over in each of the next few years requires a market expanding at a pretty substantial rate.
According to Topgolf numbers, 2,281,893 people visited a Topgolf in 2013, which was itself a 52 percent increase from 2012. In 2016, the number of guests went over 10.5 million as the number of locations swelled to 31.
But the disruption doesn’t seem to be concerning to traditional golf, at least on the largest stage. As golf participation levels nationally are going through something of a self-correction from levels of play at the time of Tiger Woods’ rise to fame, green-grass golf and Topgolf seem to be embracing each other with open arms.
“Absolutely, it’s good for golf,” Dean & DeLuca Invitational tournament manager Dennis Roberson said of Topgolf’s meteoric rise. “It’s the next big thing in recreational golf. Certainly PGA Tour golf is still popular and still a great avenue for businesses to promote their services, using professional golf to grow their businesses.”
Topgolf is a partner with the PGA Tour, and has typically had a presence at the AT&T Byron Nelson in the years since it arrived in the Dallas area. Topgolf moved its headquarters from Chicago to Dallas in 2012.
Roberson said Topgolf was in talks with the Dean & DeLuca Invitational sales team for a possible presence at the Fort Worth PGA Tour stop as well.
Golf participation in general was down slightly (1.2 percent) in the U.S. in 2016, continuing the trend of the last few years, according to National Golf Foundation data.
But there are also numbers that say reports of golf’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Beginning golfers, or golfers who played on a golf course for the first time, was up to 2.5 million last year, surpassing the previous record of 2.4 million.
That record was set in 2000, when Woods’ dominance brought more new players to the game than it had ever seen.
Off-course participation, fueled in large part by the rapid growth of Topgolf, was up 11 percent in 2016. The NGF started keeping track of Topgolf’s participation numbers three years ago, but ascribing Topgolf’s effect on the overall game is a little more muddy.
Drago’s family points to a common theme in the Topgolf dynamic. If his wife and his youngest daughter don’t care to play golf on a golf course, but embrace Topgolf, where the lights flash and there’s music in the background and everybody can eat (or drink) at the same time, the game of green-grass golf isn’t necessarily getting those conversions.
Wallace said about half of Topgolf visitors have never played before. For themthose Topgolfers, it’s the first time they’ve picked up a club, probably the first time they’ve whiffed on a swing, and eventually the first time they’ve gripped it and ripped it, as the saying goes.
“What’s good for golf is good for Topgolf,” Wallace said. “We aren’t looking to take people away from green-grass golf by any means. We are really introducing the sport to new people in a social way, taking some of the initial intimidation out of it.”
While they’re young
Sure, somewhere along the way, people have probably discovered the game at Topgolf and gone on to play their local course as much as possible. Topgolf even offers lessons and team experiences akin to a videogame-style version of after-work kickball or softball leagues.
But it’s hard to credit Topgolf for any growth in the game, because the game is not growing at the moment, and because of the number of people who play at Topgolf but have no intention of converting to green-grass golf, which is tricky to quantify.
Hope, though, lies in something called the latent demand for golf and in youth participation levels. Nationally, latent demand, or the number of nongolfers who say they are “very interested in playing golf now,” has doubled in the last five years to 12.8 million, growing at a rate of nearly 15 percent per year, according to the NGF. Put that bar graph up next to one detailing Topgolf visitors per year in the same span, and you get a very telling picture.
As Topgolf visitors have increased from 2.3 million to 10.5 million in four years, the latent interest has doubled in the last five. So rather than saying that Topgolf brings people to the golf course or takes golf dollars away from it, it might be more accurate to say that people’s experience at Topgolf generates interest in the greater game.
Besides, something mostly unrelated to Topgolf will have to be a big player in the continued health of the sport as the years turn into generations: the game at the youth level.
Brian Harris, director of development and public relations at the First Tee of Fort Worth, said if his programs are any indicator, the game isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. His program serves 35,000 youth in the area with lessons and programs, with the goal of growing that figure to 100,000.
He said that the First Tee and programs like it have trouble keeping up with demand, especially for ages 6-10. The First Tee will add capacity for 4,000-5,000 more participants with the grand opening this month of a practice facility at Briscoe Elementary School in the Morningside neighborhood.
To keep interest levels up and make golf lessons fun, Harris said the First Tee is taking a page from Topgolf’s book.
“The neat thing about Topgolf is the flashing lights, the TVs and the social atmosphere,” Harris said. “That model is really similar to what we use when we teach our kids. We use games. We use visual stimulation in our coaching model to get the kids interested and keep them interested.
“The last thing you want is for them to associate golf with being boring.”
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667; @MCTinez817