HOUSTON -- Five years ago, when some friends invited M.J. Pence - a non-golfer - to come with them to a Topgolf location in Katy, Texas, he agreed. After all, it wasn't an intimidating golf course, and there was plenty more to do there than just hit balls. It had good food, drinks, and plenty of screens to watch sports and hang out with his friends.
"There were three decks of people hitting balls," recalled Pence, who makes his living as a certified investment management analyst and financial planner in the Houston area. "The whole environment seemed very interesting."
That first night, Pence, now 46, didn't hit any balls; he just watched. But he soon returned and hit his first golf shot toward a Topgolf target. "It didn't go very far, but it did go straight," said Pence, who quickly became hooked.
Fast forward to 2018, and Pence not only goes to Topgolf regularly, where he also takes lessons, but he's now playing golf on regulation golf courses with his friends. In fact, the first time he played "real" golf a couple of years ago, he made a par on his second hole.
For Pence, who would like to shoot regularly in the 80s, his introduction to golf bucks tradition, but might represent a new trend. Topgolf is introducing the game to countless novices through its non-intimidating platform. And it may be redefining golf as we know at as well.
Numbers don't lie
Topgolf developed the concept of chip-embedded balls and targets with sensors in England in the late-1990s. They opened the first U.S. location in Alexandria, Va. in 2005 and have grown to 41 locations and counting.
Topgolf Orlando is one of the newer venues.
Topgolf - which combines the elements of a technologically advanced driving range, sports bar, restaurant and entertainment complex - now serves more than 13 million guests annually. The venues combined rack up more than 42 million games, and have given more than a quarter-million golf lessons.
Not only is Topgolf continuing to grow, but it's now spurring copycat businesses that are similar to Topgolf, such as Drive Shack (owned by New York-based Fortress Investment Group LLC and backed by TaylorMade), which is opening its first location in Orlando; 4ORE! Golf, which is run by Troon Golf and recently opened its first location in Lubbock, Texas; and Flying Tee, located just outside of Tulsa, Okla.
Topgolf is growing in other ways, too. For example, it's adding Toptracer (formerly Protracer) technology to the experience. Much like what you see on TV broadcasts, Toptracer provides instant data on ball speed, distance, curvature and height of each shot. There are Topgolf leagues, tournaments and most recently, a new show featured on the Golf Channel called "Shotmakers," which premiered April 9, 2018.
Video: From Topgolf to the golf course
Golf is being redefined
While the majority of people who visit Topgolf aren't avid golfers, Topgolf is certainly having an impact on the game. In fact, according to a fall 2017 survey conducted by the National Golf Foundation among Topgolf users, 23 percent of those who identified themselves as new golfers who now play on green grass golf courses, said that their first golf experiences came at Topgolf. And of those who graduated from Topgolf to golf courses, 75 percent of those said that Topgolf influenced their decision to start playing "real" golf. Considering the millions who come to Topgolf venues every year, those numbers are certainly significant.
But Topgolf isn't just growing the game, it's changing the definition. Just as you don't have to play stroke play to be playing golf, match play, Stableford or simply not keep score at a green grass facility certainly still qualifies as golf. So who's to say the games at Topgolf (which is scored more like bowling than golf) isn't golf? Not the World Golf Foundation, which oversees the World Golf Hall of Fame and also spearheads growth and sustainability initiatives for the game. They now count non-course activities like Topgolf in their participation data.
"We've focused a lot of attention in this area," said Steve Mona, CEO for the World Golf Foundation. "The way we're viewing participation now is more broadly than we have in the past when participation was viewed strictly by how many people are playing green grass golf courses. "
While green grass golf (24 million) is still the largest component of the 32 million people who golf participants in the United States, 20 million of that overall number participate in golf either at driving ranges, Topgolf or simulators. Of that 20 million, eight million don't play regulation golf, for whatever reason. In other words, they just hit balls at driving ranges, Topgolf or in simulators. For them, it could be that 18 holes of golf takes too much time to play, or it's too expensive, or the hours aren't convenient, and it can certainly be intimidating for beginners.
Topgolf isn't intimidating — since you're never holding anybody up and you don't have to look for your errant shots — and it doesn't take that much time. On average, customers spend about two hours at a bay, and they can play day or night.
So is Topgolf – and ranges and simulators, for that matter – golf? Mona says it is.
"Our definition of participation is you have a regulation golf club in your hand, you're striking at a regulation golf ball, and you're getting some measure of feedback from your shots," said Mona.
Mona points out that golf has always been unique in how it defines itself. If you go to the range, you're not likely to report back to your friends that you played golf, but rather that you "hit balls."
Yet, two friends can go play H-O-R-S-E on a playground basketball court, and when someone asks what they did that afternoon, they'll most likely reply, "We played basketball," Mona said.
But no matter how golf is defined, Topgolf is certainly doing its process to help novices discover the game.
"There's a process that people go through to become a lifelong golfer, and that begins with interest at some level," Mona said. "Generally it starts as a fan. Then you have what's called 'trial,' where you try the game. Then ultimately, you progress to commitment.
"But how you go from interest to trial to commitment, there's not this one pathway you have to take."
An effective pathway for juniors
At Topgolf Katy (Texas) are Lacy and Jeremy Jack with son Ryan, 10.
Of course, one of the best ways to create new golfers is to indoctrinate them as juniors, and Topgolf is taking a significant roll in that as well. Not only does Topgolf offer lessons at its locations, but it also conducts junior camps in the summer and lesson programs throughout the years. At the Katy location, for example, hundreds of kids are getting their introduction to golf through Topgolf.
That's exactly what has happened with Ryan Jack, now 10, who first started coming to Topgolf with his parents, Jeremy and Lacy Jack last year. Almost immediately, he took to it, they said, so they signed him for lessons as well with Director of Instruction Miguel Luna, who not only teaches at Topgolf, but also brings his students to real golf courses to help them transition to playing the game.
"We were searching for that one thing that he might be interested in," said Ryan's mom, Lacy, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology.
Ryan had tried several sports before golf with limited success, but he took to golf almost immediately, his parents said. Much of that had to do with the fun atmosphere at Topgolf.
"It seems to make perfect sense to him," said Jeremy, who is the director of tennis at River Oaks Country Club.
And while Jeremy doesn't play golf (at least not yet), he has caddied for his son playing nine holes on the course to help make that transition as smooth as possible. So far, so good, as Ryan has been able to set a pace of around two hours to play nine holes, which would have certainly been more intimidating without the transition from Topgolf.
Jeremy said even if his son never plays competitive golf, he has a sport for lifetime.
There are more of these kinds of stories, of course.
Also from the Houston area, the Lei family couldn't help but notice the three-tiered Topgolf facility near their home just off I-10 in Katy. They passed by it almost every day, and finally they decided to check it out in 2016. Two of their children were so captivated, parents Eddie and Selina signed boys Matthew, 12, and Timothy, 10, up for junior camps. The next year, their youngest son Elson, then 6 years old, would tag along, and soon, he became jealous. Now all three are receiving instruction and practicing at Topgolf, and they've all made it to the golf course as well with Luna.
The Lei Family at Topgolf: Parents Selina and Eddie with their boys Matthew, Timothy and Elson.
Now, the father Eddie is also learning the game. He hopes it's something he will be able to do with his boys.
"They all have the desire to get better," Eddie said. "But even if they never play on a golf team, golf is a lifelong sport, fun to play with other people and great socially."
And finally, there's 15-year-old Daniel Bain, a home-schooled teen who lives on a farm with his parents. Daniel was a competitive hockey player, but both he and his father, Jeff, were concerned about the physical nature of hockey, which often results in broken bones and concussions.
So one day about a year ago, Jeff, a retired reservoir engineer for the Shell Oil Company, decided to take family and friends out to Topgolf for an outing. They had fun like everyone seems to have at Topgolf, but something else happened that perhaps Topgolf doesn't get enough credit for. Hut Smith, a longtime respected instructor in Houston who was working at Topgolf at the time came over to the table and offered some tips. Two weeks later, Daniel signed up for lessons at Topgolf, and is now being taught by Luna.
Jeff Bain built a driving range for his son, Daniel, who is getting lessons at Topgolf in Katy, Texas.
How much does Daniel like the sport? If the fact that his father built a driving range on the farm is any indication, the answer is that he's passionate about it. He hits balls every day at home now and comes to Topgolf almost weekly for his lessons. After just a year, Daniel's swing is solid (he even had a chance to accompany Luna for a visit with top teacher Chris O'Connell in Dallas). And though he doesn't play high school golf and probably won't play in college, he's working hard at his game.
"I haven't played in any tournaments yet," Daniel said, "But I'm hoping that maybe I will."
From Topgolf to tournaments, it's a transition that may become more and more common. What is golf? Not everyone agrees exactly, but one thing is for sure: golf is evolving.
"Golf used to mean 8 a.m. on the first tee in steel spikes at a golf course," Mona said. "Now it can be 8 p.m. in flip-flops with your hat on backwards at a Topgolf. It's still a golf experience.