Tak­ing a swing

Fast, ar­cadestyle and boozy, a golf ven­ture tar­gets mil­len­ni­als

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALEX SCHIF­FER

On Fri­day nights, mil­len­ni­als are flock­ing to a driv­ing range to play a sport that ex­perts say they have lit­tle in­ter­est in.

Some even say the sport is dy­ing, cit­ing the lag­ging sales of golf equip­ment and ap­parel and steep de­cline in tele­vi­sion rat­ings. In April, the fi­nal round of the Masters drew its low­est rat­ings since 2004, and this month, the U.S. Women’s Open gar­nered just 790,000 view­ers, its worst show­ing on record.

But Top­golf, a high-tech driv­ing range and en­ter­tain­ment com­pany, has set out to prove oth­er­wise. It thinks mil­len­ni­als might well be the key to re­viv­ing in­ter­est in the sport. The com­pany has tapped into the so­cial po­ten­tial for golf, cre­at­ing a space best de­scribed as “where a lounge meets a tee box.”

Top­golf is at once old-fash­ioned (a lit­tle bit like Skee-Ball) and mod­ern (tech­nol­ogy lets you track your per­for­mance shot by shot — and com­pete with your friends). And the set­ting is loud and lively, not your typ­i­cal back-nine fare.

Af­ter launch­ing in Eng­land in 2000, Top­golf came to the states in 2005 when it opened in Alexan­dria, Va. It has 30 U.S. lo­ca­tions and three in­ter­na­tional ones. The Dal­las-based com­pany has plans to add 10 more lo­ca­tions this year. On Thurs­day, the com­pany re­ceived ap­proval to build in Na­tional Har­bor, where it plans to one day re­lo­cate its Alexan­dria lo­ca­tion.

“Our core busi­ness is re­ally nice,” Top­golf chief ex­ec­u­tive Erik An­der­son said. “If you go from 30 to 40 in a year, that’s 33 per­cent. So that’s pretty good.” “Clearly we have struck a chord with mil­len­ni­als,” he added. At Top­golf, cus­tomers can play a num­ber of games, but in the most com­mon one, they hit golf balls with mi­crochips in­side to mea­sure the dis­tance they travel into a field of roughly five tar­gets. The far­ther a ball flies, the more points — if it hits a tar­get. The far­thest tar­get, at the back wall, is about 215 yards from the tee box.

While one per­son is play­ing, the rest of the group can carouse at a ta­ble just be­hind the tee box, or­der­ing food and drinks from wait staff. And Top­golf hopes its guests will down­load its app to track their scores over time — and of course take lots of pho­tos to share on so­cial me­dia.

“The way they pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment is revo­lu­tion­ary,” said Ni­cholas M. Watan­abe, a sports and en­ter­tain­ment man­age­ment pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Carolina. “They have taken the idea of sports en­ter­tain­ment and put it into golf.”

Top­golf also has an el­e­ment of the coun­try club ex­pe­ri­ence, where peo­ple pay up­front for a mem­ber­ship and can bring guests. The com­pany, which is pri­vate, de­clined to pro­vide fi­nan­cial fig­ures. Per per­son, it costs $8 a game. A cheese­burger costs about $12, and the cheap­est pitcher of beer is $15. The com­pany says more than 10 mil­lion peo­ple played at its sites in 2016.

Sameer Gupta, 18 and a fresh­man at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, said that he plays a de­cent amount of golf but that he goes to Top­golf with his friends be­cause of the at­mos­phere.

“It’s a place where a lot of kids just so­cial­ize and hang out, apart from the golf,” he said. It’s also fun, and “gives peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to play with­out judg­ment.”

The com­pany does a Top­golf tour, which con­sists of two-player teams in a bracket-style tour­na­ment, which cul­mi­nates at the com­pany’s Las Vegas lo­ca­tion. The win­ners get $50,000.

Top­golf’s suc­cess doesn’t seem to re­flect the broader for­tunes of the game. Ac­cord­ing to Matt Pow­ell, a sports in­dus­try an­a­lyst at the NPD Group, a mar­ket re­search com­pany, mil­len­ni­als have been slow to pick up golf. Af­ter three rough years, sales are down 20 per­cent this year.

Mil­len­ni­als seem turned away by the ex­pense of the game (which can cost hun­dreds of dol­lars in lessons, clubs, gear and greens fees) and time re­quired to play (four to five hours for a round). It’s also a fussy game with a lot of rules and not par­tic­u­larly suited for large groups.

An­der­son said he saw those ob­sta­cles when he got in­volved with Top­golf, and the com­pany works around a lot of those draw­backs.

“This was an au­then­tic golf that would en­tice a lot of peo­ple and re­move a lot of the bar­ri­ers,” he said.

So can Top­golf en­list mil­len­ni­als to save the sport?

Chad McEvoy, an avid golfer and phys­i­cal education pro­fes­sor at North­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity, sees lin­ger­ing chal­lenges.

“The trick is sort of con­ver­sion,” he said. “Let’s just say some­one has fun at Top­golf and goes to play 18 holes the first time. Will they be turned off by the lack of mu­sic and . . . wait staff? That might be a tough ob­sta­cle to over­come if you think about the in­dus­try try­ing to con-ex­pe­ri­ence vert those peo­ple to reg­u­lar golfers.”

An­der­son said that of the com­pany’s to­tal guests, 53 per­cent were ages 18 to 34 as of June. Also, 32 per­cent were women, and 68 per­cent were men. In 2016, 37 per­cent of guests were non­golfers, and 49 per­cent were ca­sual golfers who play a few rounds a year. Only 14 per­cent of cus­tomers were avid golfers who play over 25 rounds a year.

“We’ve brought mil­lions of peo­ple to the game,” An­der­son said. “If you get started in a fun way and you start to get bet­ter, your mind gets opened up. We’re in­tro­duc­ing and rein­tro­duc­ing mil­lions of peo­ple to golf.”

Dereje Tekle, a Falls Church, Va., na­tive said that Top­golf got him into the sport and that it helped him go from a novice to some­one who plays a cou­ple of rounds of golf a week. As he has im­proved over the years (he says his hand­i­cap is three), he has treated the place more as a reg­u­lar driv­ing range.

“I don’t put it in the sen­sor. I just want to work on my swing,” he said. With Top­golf’s games, “you can hit a bad shot and get a good score. So most of the time, if you’re fo­cus­ing on the score, it doesn’t mean that you’re im­prov­ing. You just know how to score.”

An­der­son said that like reg­u­lar golf, the ob­jec­tive of Top­golf is to get the ball in the hole. A shot can go straight and far, but if it doesn’t get in the hole, it might not be a great shot.

McEvoy looks at the com­pany’s suc­cess as pos­i­tive.

“Any­thing the golf in­dus­try can do to get peo­ple play­ing golf, even if it’s Top­golf and not a 18-hole round, is great,” he said. “Will that re­sult in more peo­ple play­ing more rounds? I think the jury is still out on that.”

MARK GAIL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Top­golf has 30 U.S. lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing one in Alexan­dria.

RANDY PENCH/SACRA­MENTO BEE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Ni­cole Schroeder, 17, left, and Edda Ashe, 74, hit balls at Top­golf in Ro­seville, Calif. “We’ve brought mil­lions of peo­ple to the game,” says Top­golf chief ex­ec­u­tive Erik An­der­son, who noted that of the com­pany’s to­tal guests, 53 per­cent were ages 18 to 34 as of June.

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