A Friday evening in Boston. Quincy to be more precise, pronounced with a “z” instead of a “c” for those unfamiliar with the nuances of Massachusetts accents. The skyline of the city flickers to life slowly against a magenta sunset in the distance. Beverages flow. Laughter and chatter compete with the sound of a live local band doing its best Chris Stapleton impression. But when the song ends and a lull settles over the crowd, a different sound echoes back: the unmistakable smack of a club against a ball.
Welcome to the practice range at Granite Links, an exceptional open-to-the-public golf course adjacent to the Blue Hills Reservation, a 7,000-acre nature preserve located a healthy morning run from Beacon Hill. Like most public and semi-private golf operations, Granite Links has always had a range. A top-shelf golf course charging $150 a round has to. Players need to warm up. Some want to just come and practice. Sure, it was an additional revenue source (although a bag of balls is included in the full green fee) but, in the past, nobody was padding their 401K on range-ball profits.
That changed two years ago with one simple addition. According to Walter Hannon, one of the limited partners at Granite Links, “Two years ago we added a 6,000-square-foot patio to our driving range with a bar in the center along with couches and high-top tables. Now, you come in here anytime Thursday to Sunday evenings and it’s jam-packed with people.
“But, oddly enough, the clientele are not really golfers,” Hannon said. “It’s date night. You walk down the line of the driving range and look at the bays and it’s like 10 percent real golfers and the rest are just people having fun. … We have live bands here Thursday through Sunday. We brought fun back into golf. Because of that, food and beverage has exploded. This year it really took off. Our driving range really took off as well.”
Granite Links’ patio, bar and fixtures paid for themselves well within the first two seasons. The range (and the food and beverage that goes with it) is now one of his most popular destinations, a gathering spot, the hangout.
You could call it the Topgolf effect. Since the entertainment complexes have expanded throughout the world at a breakneck pace, making golf more of a nightclub/sports-bar experience than anything approaching actual practice, non-golfers are no longer intimidated going to the range on a date or a family outing.
But there’s a catch: The consumer expects a lot more than just golf balls, a wash bucket and a plot of ground. Today’s under-40 crowd possesses multitasking skills that are off the charts but attention spans that are the shortest in human history. They need and expect stimulation, especially in their recreation. Golf only scratches that itch if it’s accompanied by hospitality, technology, or some combination of both.
Jim Wyffels, the general manager at Spirit Hollow Golf Club in Burlington, Iowa, discovered that in a big way.
“We have a great golf course and a very nice stay-and-play business (in the club’s eight-room lodge and accompanying cabins) but our goal was to increase the food-and-beverage business and also to help our lodging in the offseason since we’re in Iowa (which averages 2 feet of snowfall every winter),” Wyffels said. “We kept looking for ways to do a Topgolf-type of thing, something that would make the driving range more of a destination but it never made sense. Unless you’re spending an exorbitant amount of money (on infrastructure) and you’re next to a large city, those kinds of innovations are cost-prohibitive.”
But as happens in every industry from cellphones to microwave ovens, time and innovation drive costs down. Look no further than the original golf simulators, which cost more than some suburban houses and had all the graphic sophistication of a Pac-Man game. Now you can get an in-home simulator with realistic, hi-def graphics for less than a set of PXGs.
The same is true for launch monitors. In the not-too-distant past, the magic monitors were bulky, required hardwire interfaces and cost north of $30,000. Now you can get one as small as an old pager that syncs with your smartphone, provides far more data than the older models, and costs about $500.
Wyffels and the owners at Spirit Hollow discovered a similar trend in the driving range/entertainment space. They could create an entertainment experience without completely overhauling their existing range. And they could do it in a way that made economic sense in a town of 26,000 in a Midwestern farming state.
They went with the Toptracer Range system – a subsidiary of Topgolf – primarily because it was affordable and any customer who watched golf on television had seen it. PGA Tour telecasts use Toptracer, so consumers of televised golf are accustomed to seeing a tracking line with data points like ball speed, distance and trajectory. When that technology is transferred to clubs, the golfer has an instant connection.
But that isn’t the only product finding its way to ranges around the world. FlightScope, the tracking technology company that provides the tracking and scoring data for all of tennis’ major championships, has a product called Mevo, a miniature launch monitor (about the size of a key fob) that connects through Bluetooth to your phone. The device speaks to golfers, telling them the distance, clubhead speed, ball speed, spin ratio and smash factor of each shot. Customers who want to work on wedges can have Mevo tell them exactly how far each shot flies without ever looking at a screen.
Trackman, the laptop-sized device that tour pros carry with them like luggage, is also being used for club-fitting and instruction at a growing number of facilities as well.
Now, instead of a few serious players practicing when the weather is good, Spirit Hollow Golf Club’s Jim Wyffel has people in his facility all hours of the day and night.
Wyffels was sold the instant he saw what technology could do to his range.
“Once we saw Toptracer and what it could do, we honestly thought we were going to kill it,” he said. “The only word I can use to describe it is addictive. Once you start you don’t want to leave. I had been to Topgolf facilities and seeing the lighting in the field, it’s a visually pleasing experience. So, (as we were putting in Toptracer) I started looking around to install that kind of lighting on a regular range. … We now have LED-lighted targets out in the field.
“Not only do you have the instant gratification and feedback, you can play multiple games on the screens – you can play different golf courses, play points games, long drives, or you can just work on your swing with all the launch monitor data – but also, the lighted targets help us with non-golfers or new golfers. The targets light up with crazy colors so new golfers and non-golfers get instant feedback, not just on the screen but from the lights. And it’s pretty dramatic, especially at night.”
The transformation was immediate. Wyffels installed the technology into seven covered, climate-controlled hitting bays. To add to the experience, he added large windows between the bays and the dining room. Now, instead of a few serious players practicing when the weather is good, he has people in his facility all hours of the day and night.
“In the summer it’s in the 90s (outside) and in the winter it can be minus-22 and the bays are still full,” he said. “It can be snowing outside and people are playing golf in sweatshirts in the (climate-controlled) bays. And they’re hitting balls down our driving range. You can see the ball flight as opposed to hitting into a simulator where the computer is telling you you’re doing one thing but you never really know. At our place, you get the feedback but you can also see your true ball flight.”
Technology is transforming more than just the ranges. It’s revolutionizing how people think of golf. As Wyffels said of Spirit Hollow: “We have 35 TVs and games (indoors) now. We never had that before. Our facility has become a combination of Topgolf and Dave & Buster’s. It’s an entertainment venue. If you’re eating, you can watch people play golf in the bays. What we found is that in the wintertime, 40 percent of our customers are non-golfers. But we also have a lot of low-handicap golfers utilizing the launch-monitor features.
“The most exciting thing is bringing in people we’ve never seen before. Those folks who are not golfers, we’re introducing them (to the game) in some fashion. Hopefully we’ll bring in new golfers.
“Then the food-and-beverage operation has exploded with this. Honestly, I can’t stress enough how important that (range technology) component is to us. Once we get the people in, they don’t want to leave. They eat, drink and have a great time.”
Wyffels sells bays by the hour for $40. Most people stay longer.
“We’ve had people come in at 8 in the morning to try it out and before you know it, they’ve stayed and eaten lunch and hung around until mid-afternoon,” he said. “We sell blocks of times during football season so people can bring their buddies, play different competitions on the system while they watch the (football) game.”
Music, lights, and launch monitors aren’t for everyone. But when you consider the stagnant or shrinking number of golfers and the fact that more courses have closed than opened every year since 2008, the Topgolf effect might be the red pill the game needs.
At the PGA of America annual meeting last week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., officers and executives including PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and LPGA commissioner Mike Whan met to talk about how to grow the game. The subject encompassed several sessions totaling 12 hours (none of the execs hung around that long).
Nobody walked away with concrete answers. Maybe they need to visit places like Quincy, Mass., Burlington, Iowa, and suburban Chicago where Cindy Scardina, who co-owns Green Valley Golf Range in Hanover Park, Ill., with her father and siblings, transformed a staid, old driving range and putt-putt business into a vibrant entertainment venue.
“We were the third range (in the country) to install Toptracer Range in May 2018,” Scardina said. “We started with 10 bays. We’ve now increased to 20 bays. It has transformed our business. You have the good golfers bringing their families out now. The wives and kids used to never come out unless they were playing miniature golf while the husband hit balls and practiced.
“Now they’re all together, playing games and enjoying the range. It’s an event. It’s totally different. We’ve seen our business grow 30 percent. And we don’t have a big food-and-beverage operation, just a small concession. To grow 30 percent in a year is huge for us. And we only see it going up from there.”
Some traditionalists are balking. Music, lights, and launch monitors aren’t for everyone. But when you consider the stagnant or shrinking number of golfers and the fact that more courses have closed than opened every year since 2008, the Topgolf effect might be the red pill the game needs.
“When you sell the entire experience, if you change the entire range, then, absolutely, you have changed the dynamic and you will see the numbers increase,” said Henri Johnson, the founder and CEO of FlightScope. Johnson’s company originally developed 3D Doppler tracking systems for cricket and tennis in 1989. But he has seen 300 percent growth in the business since 2016, largely because of the explosion in golf.
“When we started FlightScope in the golf industry in 2002, we installed the technology on driving ranges in Singapore and two in Thailand,” he said. “But after two years, we abandoned that project. At the time, the technology was way ahead of its time.
“What I have seen is that when you have a Topgolf or a Drive Shack or a similar facility, people go there, rent the space, buy food and drink and it’s an experience. But what we found is that if you only add the technology and nothing else experientially, people will try it once, maybe twice, but then they will go back to normally hitting balls. Given a choice between hitting balls normally and paying extra to hit balls with the technology, if nothing else has changed, they will hit balls normally.
“But if you do change the experience, then you see a real difference. I saw one facility that had a $700,000 increase in alcohol sales in one year after adding the technology and changing the experience. Now, a lot of that is due to the fact that you are accommodating more people in the same bay at the same time. They’re consuming food and drink when they’re not hitting balls. I’m convinced that this business model works.”
Whether the high-tech range is a revolution or a fad remains unanswered, but if it introduces a new generation to golf, it can’t be all bad.
Top photo: Customers gather at the patio bar adjacent to the range at Granite Links. (Walter Hannon, Granite Links)
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?