ORLANDO, FLORIDA | It has become a ubiquitous element of the game, its trajectory, literally and figuratively, mesmerizing to watch both on a screen and within the golf industry.
For a time Toptracer – originally called Protracer prior to the entertainment company Topgolf purchasing the technology in May 2016 – was purely a curiosity. A Swedish entrepreneur, Daniel Forsgren, had quit his IT job in 2003 and spent several years building a prototype of an innovation that would revolutionize the way golf is consumed. His system utilized a special camera with a custom-built sensor, both of which were connected to a computer that searched for the ball and continually identified it in flight.
Those who first saw the string of ribbon thrown across their television screens shortly after Toptracer officially launched in 2006 felt like they were witnessing magic. The viewer went from waiting for the ball to land, without much context at all as to where it was headed, to actively witnessing the flight relative to the target. Suddenly shot shapes and heights were displayed in an uber-engaging way that somehow made professional golfers even more impressive.
Over time, the luxury became a necessity. There are 150 professional events that use the technology to enhance tournament coverage. Even the Masters, forever the most traditional and guarded television broadcast presentation, started using Toptracer technology for select holes in 2018. Tiger Woods’ return to glory at the Masters last year may have been unpredictable, but so was the sight of his final-round approach at the par-4 seventh being perfectly traced to show a hold-off fade descending on the front-right hole location.
That is the story of the broadcast side, the one most golf fans instinctively recognize as if it has always been there. The other story, which isn’t talked about nearly enough, is how Toptracer may have a larger impact when it comes to the recreational game.
On a cold, windy January afternoon at the PGA Merchandise Show Demo Day, Toptracer had nine hitting bays surrounded by people waiting for their opportunity. In two of the bays, PGA Tour veterans William McGirt and Brian Gay took aim at a flag in the distance for a closest-to-the-hole competition. The lifelike graphics above them showed a scene similar to the Golden Tee video game, only a host of different types of play are available for choosing through the Toptracer Range platform. In the next bay, a teenage girl was on practice mode, flipping 60-yard wedges that added another spaghetti noodle onto the screen with each strike. In another bay, a gentleman played an entire virtual golf hole.
“The technology you see here at the range is different from the broadcast technology, because this is designed to track several balls at the same time,” said Anirudh Mehta, Toptracer’s vice president and head of global operations. “The nine bays we have here are only tracked by two cameras, so it’s a very scalable technology. And with that, we think we can make golf more fun and fulfilling.”
Of 58 Topgolf locations, 22 have implemented the technology you see on television. That figure pales in comparison to what is being introduced to practice ranges across the world. Toptracer Range is at more than 230 facilities in 25 countries, and the company anticipates installing the technology at an additional 300 facilities by the end of 2020.
“The business is growing really quickly,” Mehta said. “And we are spending millions each year working to make it better, more precise. We have new cameras coming out later this year that will have a better field of view, so they can track higher shots and shorter shots. There’s a team in Sweden, there’s a team in Dallas, there’s a team in San Francisco, there’s a team in Tokyo; we are all over the world.”
That accelerated growth is set to go into hyper-speed over the next few years. One particular area of interest is Japan, which Mehta says is home to roughly 2,500 covered driving ranges. Right now, only nine of them are using the technology.
“For us, there are a lot more ranges that don’t have covered structures, so you need this type of technology. … We expect to have the mobile technology at dozens of facilities over the next few months.” – Anirudh Mehta
The other area, the part that could drastically change how recreational golfers practice, is new mobile technology that is currently being rolled out at select demo sites. Toptracer recognized that the U.S. has only about 1,000 covered driving ranges that can implement Toptracer Range the way it was initially designed. But there are in excess of 10 times more open-air, grass ranges in the country. With that in mind, the company has built a gaming interface through a smartphone app. That means facilities can purchase the necessary cameras, put them out on their practice tee and golfers can see their shots traced in the palm of their hand.
How different would practice be if you hit 20 balls at a target and knew exactly how far away from the hole your average shot finished? Or if you could compete with several friends in a closest-to-the-pin contest?
“For us, there are a lot more ranges that don’t have covered structures, so you need this type of technology,” Mehta said. “We’ve done a few installs in Austin (Texas), there is one in San Diego, one close by here in Florida … we expect to have the mobile technology at dozens of facilities over the next few months.”
While the recreational golfer can see obvious benefits from practicing with real-time feedback, is it affordable and beneficial for facilities to partner with Toptracer? Mehta cautions facilities that the price tag – for the mobile technology, it currently costs $12,000 annually for 10 bays – should be viewed as a way to stand out from competition rather than an outgoing cost. He cites an example from the Golf Center of Arlington (Texas), where the owner bought his range out of bankruptcy six years ago and then implemented Toptracer Range. The facility has doubled its top-line revenue on three occasions since.
M.G. Orender, the president of course management firm Hampton Golf and a former PGA of America president, explained that the range revenue at Hampton-managed Blue Sky Golf Club in Jacksonville, Fla, increased 40 percent after implementing Toptracer Range two years ago. The club put in family-style tables at each bay with two screens, one on a normal TV channel and the other showing the Toptracer game being played. The range at Blue Sky attracts a relatively young demographic, with more than 50 percent of its players under the age of 40, Orender said.
“This would have never interested me as a golfer,” Orender said. “I went to the range to practice and maybe hit a few balls before I played. But this younger demographic plays differently, they practice differently… the entertainment side is important now. It’s similar to the Super Bowl where you have a lot of parties and in the middle, a football game breaks out.
“We have a sign outside our facility that reads ‘Everyone Welcome,’ and we really mean it.”
If one story can summarize the power of Toptracer, it is this: Orender goes out every morning and plays a few holes on the course with his grandsons. The cue for when the round ends is when one of the grandkids asks about breakfast. During that time, Orender saw an African-American couple who eventually started to bring their daughters to hit balls at the range.
One morning, after Orender had breakfast with his grandsons, he saw the mother and daughters heading out to the golf course to play an actual round.
“That meant the world to me,” Orender said. “We made this woman comfortable enough to where she wanted to bring her daughters. When you see something like that, I believe Toptracer has a role to play in growing golf.”
That role may become bigger than anyone could predict.
Top photo: Courtesy Toptracer
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