The business of golf is suffering.
Consider that according to the National Golf Association, the number of golfers fell about 3% nationally in 2008 from 2007, while the number of “core golfers” — those who play eight or more rounds a year — fell 4.5%. Private club memberships have also dwindled, now at 2.1 million — 900,000 below the peak of 3 million in the early 1990s. (According to the NGF, there are 27.1 million golfers in the U.S. now, down from 30 million in 2005.)
And today I read of yet another city looking to get out of the golf business. And another.
It’s enough to make a golfer pull out their towel and start sobbing.
So with all of the gloom and doom, why is Top Golf, a driving range with a social twist, exploding in popularity and set to expand operations in the next two years? And what the heck is Top Golf?
Think of a cross between a driving range and a bowling alley. Players come in and pay for a bucket of twenty balls. There are ten targets on the range. Each one of those golf balls has a tiny microchip embedded in them so when they’re smacked, the player can view its trajectory and landing spot on the nifty electronic tracking screen in front of them. Points are given for distance and accuracy to those targets.
The driving range is tiered, so there’s plenty of room for players. Comfy chairs and couches are scattered throughout the area, allowing people to sit and relax while they wait their turn. A food bar is on site, serving up pub-grub such as guacamole and chips, wings, and club sandwiches; plus alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
You can perhaps already see the attraction. On the other hand, here are the challenges to the golfing industry:
1) It’s expensive.
- Even plunking down $26 for a municipal course on the weekends for 18 holes isn’t cheap when you add a bucket of balls, cart fee, and some grub after the game and a beer. You’re looking at shelling out between $70-$100, depending on the type of course and location.
2) It’s time-consuming. I know I looked forward to playing 18 holes with my dad, but we also did it on the weekend and I knew it would take up a good chunk of our day. Most people don’t have that kind of time anymore. Or maybe they simply don’t want to scoot around a 6,700 yard course in a tiny golf cart, no matter how cool they look.
3) It isn’t appealing to the younger generation. Those in their twenties and thirties aren’t making a beeline for the golf course. They’re working hard and in their limited free time, prefer to hang out with friends at a spa or fitness center — both with significantly lower price-tags than a membership at a private club. Younger people like to socialize and enjoy digital toys. Golf on the other hand is outdoors and requires great effort to master.
Enter Top Golf.
Here’s what Top Golf is getting right and why it’s marketing genius:
- A “game” (a bucket of 20 balls) is $4.80 during “matinee hours” (before 3 PM Monday-Friday and before 12:00 PM on the weekends) and $6 after. The fourth game is $3. So at peak hours, for four games, you’re spending $21. Throw in some snacks and drinks and you’re probably looking at another $20. So for a lot of fun, you could spend around $40 or less, depending on your eating and drinking costs.
2) Time. You’re not going to spend five hours at Top Golf, unless you get so hooked and your friends insist on closing out the joint. A driving range is traditionally a place to improve your swing and even going through a large bucket of balls on a regular driving range can be done within an hour or so.
3) Social fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around with friends, watching each other either nail their shot or duff it for the fifteenth time? Even non-golfers can have fun, which is a great way to pull in the whole gang for some social time and relaxation.
Top Golf has facilities in Virginia, Texas, and Illinois. As more golf fans discover them, I have a feeling they’re going to be clamoring for one to open in their own town. I know I’m intrigued.
So congratulations, Top Golf. You overcame what I call “The Golfing Triple Threat” to fly high with a cool concept that is irresistible. Good luck on future openings and yes, I want you to come to Columbus, Ohio. We need you!