Take a quick stroll through any Topgolf location — or scroll through its Instagram feed — and you’ll see golf. Sort of.
More denim than Dockers, more sundresses than Scotty Cameron, it’s certainly a different kind of audience than what the sport is used to seeing. And it’s growing.
The participation base for off-course forms of golf increased almost 10% last year to an estimated 23 million people. The year before, the off-course participation number increased 7% to 21.2 million. With its upward trajectory, almost as many people now participate off-course as play traditional, green-grass golf (24.2 million).
So, how much runway is there for these off-course facilities?
That remains to be seen, says ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury, who announced a joint venture with BigShots Golf in December. BigShots is another entrant in the golf-entertainment space, offering free-standing outdoor franchises along with an indoor franchise product that can be installed as a single “tee box” or as multiple units in bars, malls and other retail venues. Like Topgolf, it provides new-age technology (Doppler radar shot-tracking) along with full-service food and beverage options, sports bars, music and televisions, and private event space.
“I don’t think that anybody really knows yet what the demographic formula is that correlates to a saturation point,” says Pillsbury. “We’re going to find out here over the next few years what that looks like. Having said that, I think there’s plenty of room. As long as it’s fun, it’s entertainment, it’s fast, casual dining and an entertainment environment… it’s good for the game.”
Topgolf and BigShots are joined in the golf-entertainment space by Drive Shack, Flying Tee and a growing number of regional imitators. Commercial simulator businesses are popping up in cities around the country and throughout the world – in South Korea, for example, there are more rounds of indoor golf played than outdoor. In a time when land in urban areas is at a premium and free time has more and more competition, these indoor golf facilities are an increasingly-popular form of engagement.
All of these facilities have similar potential – providing a fun, non-intimidating on-ramp to attract people to the game and, hopefully, create more golfers. No matter how they play, the industry is eager for the next generation to carry the torch, drive revenues, and let the game have a positive impact on their lives.
Troon Golf Executive Chairman Dana Garmany, who oversaw the largest golf management company in the world for almost 30 years, counts his wife among those who got intimidated on a real golf course but felt comfortable at Topgolf.
“She went to the first tee at Pebble Beach as a new player, looked around all the people and said, I’m not hitting it.’ She picked it up, walked out in the middle of the fairway and dropped it. That’s the intimidation factor in golf,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure it’s more of a hit-and-giggle thing; like nobody cares. She now plays in a group called ‘Five and Wine.’ That’s all she wants to do. We have to make sure that group of people isn’t looked down on because they’re not playing 18 holes and posting a handicap.
“They’re still paying money and they’re out there enjoying it, so what do we care?”
Among Topgolf’s guests who are non-golfers, 94% say they feel comfortable at a Topgolf venue. Whether it’s kids, women or newcomers who have never swung a golf club before, this type of facility provides a fun, welcoming on-ramp to the game.
NGF research finds that off-course is not cannibalizing on-course, rather the traditional and modern forms of golf are complementing one another. A recent NGF study found that 75% of non-golfers who visited Topgolf said they’re interested in playing on a course. And 29% of golfers say playing at Topgolf leads them to play more traditional golf.
A group that gets together for a weekly foursome might enjoy the food and entertainment option at a place like Topgolf, Drive Shack or BigShots – especially if it’s raining, too cold or the sun is down – while a group more interested in light lagers than lag putting could still find fun at a local nine-hole facility on a Friday afternoon. The question is whether consumers have off-course options near them.
Drive Shack opened three new locations in the past three months: Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia, and West Palm Beach, Florida.
There are currently more than 55 Topgolf locations, most of them in the U.S., along with three in the United Kingdom and one in Australia. More than a dozen others are on the way. While the company has typically targeted bigger markets for its three-level facilities with more than 100 hitting bays, Topgolf earlier this year announced an evolution to its venues: they will now be purpose-built in order to serve smaller and mid-sized cities across the country.
“This will be a smaller footprint and flexible design that allows us to scale the number of bays. The size of the venue will be market- and site-dependent,” says Devin Charon, the director of real estate at Topgolf, who says the first locations will be announced by summertime. “What will remain consistent is market-leading Toptracer technology paired with an environment that delivers memorable guest experiences.”
It’s a similar approach to that taken by ClubCorp, which is targeting underserved markets for its smaller BigShots franchise opportunities. Additionally, ClubCorp is incorporating BigShots technology at its more than 150 U.S. clubs, whether that’s with outdoor technology on the practice range or indoor simulators.
The intent is to not only engage with current golfers, but to introduce more non-golfers to hitting a golf ball with a golf club in an entertaining and non-intimidating format. There are 14.7 million non-golfers who say they’re “very interested” in playing golf on a course, with another 32.7 million who say they’re at least somewhat interested. The popularity of off-course forms of golf has contributed to this growing latent demand pool.
“Topgolf is driving interest in huge numbers for golf. But the challenge from my perspective is that the golf industry, for the most part, hasn’t really done anything differently to convert interest to trials. That’s what we’re trying to change,” Pillsbury says. “We can’t change what everybody else is doing, but we can change what we’re doing. That’s what we’re focused on because we think there is a very unique, unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of surging interest in golf and converting that to trials.”
The U.S. is the best-supplied golf market in the world, with almost 17,000 golf courses. More than 4,000 of them opened during a 20-year building boom from 1986 through 2005 that over-saturated the market. When demand (the number of golfers) couldn’t keep up with supply, course closures began to outweigh openings. The majority of these closures have been value-priced, public properties in competitive markets.
So, will the current off-course building boom eventually outpace the demand for these kinds of alternative golf offerings? It’s still far too early to tell, and the industry overall seems more focused right now on whether off-course participation can boost on-course play.
“We have a mantra – ‘what’s good for Topgolf is good for golf, and vice versa,” says Topgolf executive group executive chairman Erik Anderson. “We’re thrilled to see more people experiencing and enjoying the game.”
The numbers show people are indeed enjoying the game – no matter its form.
Adam is a Canadian-based golf journalist who has written for a multitude of outlets including PGATOUR.com, the Canadian Press, Globe & Mail, Sportsnet.ca, SCOREGolf Magazine, Golf Canada Magazine and the Golf Channel. A golf analyst for CTV News and CBC News, he’s also director of communications for the Golf Journalists Association of Canada.