A comeback for Topgolf and 'golfertainment'?

The pandemic hurt business, but the opening of a Topgolf in San Jose signals a new chapter for the industry leader.
Topgolf San Jose is a flagship facility with 120 bays.

SAN JOSE, Calif. - My favorite part of visiting Topgolf isn't hitting golf shots. It isn't the drinks or the food, although both are pretty good.

It's the opportunity to watch golf swings. Going to Topgolf is an eye-opening reality on why 80 percent of people have never set foot on a golf course. Most of the swings you see would "make Ben Hogan puke", an insult a golfer once tossed at my ugly swing a decade ago. I've seen it all at Topgolf: athletic guys crushing it (often sideways), small kids almost falling over after a mighty lash, half-swings from timid beginners who have never held a club and the occasional Matthew Wolff move that actually does okay.

Every Topgolf is an interesting social experiment on what the real game could be. Should it be inclusive for all no matter the skill level? Should it be easier to play? Should it be only for people who are ready for an actual course? So many questions ...

Pre-pandemic, Topgolf was the darling of the golf industry. But intermittent lockdown closures, social distancing restrictions, concerns over indoor gatherings, a sputtering economy and the rise of traditional golf have stalled the momentum some. Brighter days are ahead as its expansion plans move steadily forward.

COVID-19's impact on "golfertainment"

A new Topgolf opened in San Jose about 20 miles from my house in April. As a flagship facility, along with Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Nashville, it signaled, in a way, the revival of the brand after a year of uncertainty. Topgolf San Jose was supposed to open last April, but California's shutdown and strict rules on indoor gathering spots like restaurants, bars and bowling alleys delayed its debut roughly 12 months.

The pandemic hasn't been kind to the "golfertainment" sector of the industry. Whether it's Topgolf or its upstart competitors, such as Drive Shack Inc. and BigShots Golf, many of these indoor/outdoor facilities faced similar challenges as the one in San Jose. All are now up and running again, but the struggles of the past year have taken a toll.

The biggest shakeup occurred last fall when Topgolf announced a merger with Callaway, a move where the long-term impact remains to be seen. In April alone, Topgolf opened new venues in San Jose; Buford, Ga.; and Waco, Texas.

Elsewhere, Drive Shack's four golf venues, including Orlando, which reopened last December, generated a total revenue of $7.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, a decrease of $5.7 million compared to the fourth quarter 2019, according to yahoo!finance.

Meanwhile, BigShots, which partnered with ClubCorp in 2018, hasn't been able to expand as quickly as hoped. It currently offers two facilities -- in Fort Worth, Texas, and Vero Beach, Fla. -- with Springfield, Mo., and Bryan, Texas, potentially coming online later this year.

OnCore Golf's entry into the competitive fray has been delayed as well. Its first $30-million facility, designed to fit into a smaller urban footprint and including a hotel in Buffalo, N.Y., likely won't open until 2022 at the earliest. Great Shots (Sioux Falls, S.D.) and 4ore! Golf (managed by Troon Golf in Lubbock, Texas) are one-off facilities to keep an eye on regarding future expansion.

PopStroke, the mini-golf concept endorsed by Tiger Woods, is aggressively expanding in 2021, opening locations in Houston, Glendale, Scottsdale, Sarasota, Tampa, Orlando, and Delray Beach.

Despite the short-term setbacks, the numbers of customers/participants these facilities attract remains impressive. The National Golf Foundation believes this is "likely" the year that "off-the-course golfers" will surpass "on-course golfers". According to NGF statistics in 2020,

  • 12.6 million people played only on-course golf (average age 50/29% female)
  • 12.2M played on AND off-course golf (average age 42/21% female)
  • 12.1M played only off-course golf (average age 31/45% female)

"This is good news for golf," writes Joe Beditz, Ph.D., the president and chief executive officer at NGF. "Our research tells us that the approachable, non-intimidating environments of Topgolf, and venues like it, help to cultivate interest in the traditional game."

National Golf Foundation statistics show "off-course" golfers are gaining versus "on-course" golfers.

A flagship in Silicon Valley

In San Jose, only every other bay is open, and seating capacity remains limited. California, as a state, is expected to drop most restrictions on June 15.

Topgolf San Jose Director of Operations Travis Miller is happy to finally be hosting guests. He was supposed to play Pebble Beach on March 10 last year, the day he got the call the facility had to stop construction. He canceled the tee time and hasn't rescheduled it yet.

Travis Miller has worked for a year behind the scenes to get Topgolf San Jose up and running in a pandemic.

"We were two weeks from training all the managers," he said, shaking his head at the timing. "We are definitely happy to be here. The project had a lot of hurdles."

The first: finding land in the most expensive real estate market in the world. When the location in Alviso was chosen, opposition sprung up from an elementary school across the street, leading to a lawsuit. Now that Topgolf is here, Alviso residents look at Topgolf for an economic boost after years of being a "stepchild," according to an article in San Jose Spotlight.

Topgolf is sandwiched between multiple attractions in the region. It is just 2.5 miles north of Levi Stadium, home of the 49ers, sharing a parking lot with California's Great America amusement park. Twin Creeks, a popular youth sports complex, sits 3 miles to the west. The nearest actual golf courses are all roughly 8 miles away: Spring Valley Golf Course in Milpitas (to the east), Moffett Field Golf Club in Sunnyvale (west) and San Jose Municipal Golf Course (south). The SAP Center, a versatile venue for concerts, events and San Jose Sharks games, resides 10 miles south. All in all, its location near the bottom of the San Franciso Bay makes it somewhat accessible from South Bay, East Bay and the Peninsula. Everything is seemingly within 30-45 minutes.

"With the surrounding density of people and businesses, we fit in a great niche," Miller said.

When fully operational, San Jose will feature 120 bays on three different levels. The facility sports some amenities distinct to California. It is LEED-certified with solar panels on the roof and an electrical grid that reduces power consumption. Even the turf field is environmentally friendly because it gives off less heat. In addition to the indoor bars and massive TVs found at other Topgolf venues, an outdoor patio in front will be available for the overflow crowd. Customers can wait for bays to open up by playing cornhole and adult jenga. There's a wine bar on the third level. The menu will be be slightly different, too - "more upscale like Las Vegas," Miller said.

One thing hasn't changed whichever Topgolf you frequent: all those interesting swings.

Are you a fan of Topgolf and other 'golfer-tainment' facilities? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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A comeback for Topgolf and 'golfertainment'?