Topgolf more than just a day on the links

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By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

HILLSBORO — A weaving road through construction zones leads to a 4-month-old golf paradise. Settled among undeveloped and industrial lots just off U.S. Highway 26 west of Portland, this is a 65,000-square-foot oasis.

We are golfers (ish), my buddy and I; my mother, who lives in Florida and has never before picked up a golf club, is not. This is my first visit to one of Topgolf’s 30 worldwide locations (one of 27 in the nation) and my buddy’s second; my mother has been twice. My friend and I are here in Hillsboro to challenge (and smack talk) each other’s skills; my mother went to the Topgolf site in Tampa a couple of times as a part of date night. The laid-back, lounge-style, “Oh, there’s golf here, too?” entertainment atmosphere is secondary for us, though it is the primary attraction for my mother.

This kind of oasis — three levels of tee bays, fully loaded with couches and televisions and overhead heaters, all overlooking an array of targets positioned across a vast, green synthetic surface — is where these two dynamics — the avid-golfing challenge-takers and the never-golfed date-nighters — often meet, and why Topgolf thrives. They were also present in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s when two brothers were attempting to liven up their mundane driving range experience. In short, Steve and Dave Jolliffe proposed a simple question that launched a popular, need-to-go golf entertainment venture: Why was there not a place where they could work on their game and also have the best time of their lives?

Sixteen years and some 30 locations later, Texas-based Topgolf stands as a vehicle for scratch golfers to hone their skills and for first-timers to perhaps fall in love with the game of golf.

“A lot of our guests that would never go to a driving range or a golf course — whether it’s an intimidation factor or an expense factor — they’ll come here and get a club in their hand and catch that bug,” says Jay Molinar, the director of operations at Topgolf Hillsboro. “It’s a less intimidating, less expensive way to get a club in your hand and at least have fun doing it.”

That is why Tyler Morrill is here in Hillsboro, on his 30th birthday, even if playing any one of Topgolf’s 10 minigames is, as Morrill puts it, “destroying my swing.” Morrill, from nearby Scappoose, does not classify himself as an “avid golfer.” He is able to squeeze in nine or 18 holes maybe four times a year, if that. This is his third visit to Topgolf Hillsboro, which opened in August.

“It’s a different atmosphere,” Morrill says, looking around the area behind the tee mats, where there are high-top tables, a rooftop terrace on this third level, a bar, and servers rushing to different bays to deliver food and beverage orders. “It’s a different kind of game with different challenges than typical golf.”

Among those various challenges, for example, is the minigame Topgolf, in which shots within any target are awarded points based on proximity to the center (think archery), or TopPressure, during which golfers must hit all nine sections of a given target (think darts). Or, like my mother — and no doubt many of the other 35,000 guests who visit a Topgolf facility each day, on average — firmly grasp a club and whack away at the microchipped golf balls, which, once settled on the dartboard-like driving range, send information to your hitting bay’s computer for each location. This is Topgolf, not a PGA event — though the PGA and the LPGA partnered with Topgolf last spring, part of an industrywide effort to turn around lagging golf participation rates across the country.

“We are passionate about helping grow the game of golf because what is good for golf is good for Topgolf and vice versa,” says Morgan Wallace, a Topgolf senior communications specialist. “We are in conversations with our partners about how we can transition more of our guests to green grass. In addition, we hope to attract more avid golfers to Topgolf as an alternate way to enjoy the game in the winter season or any other time with their nongolfing friends and family.”

That spirit of cooperation is the key. Topgolf is not designed to compete with traditional (or “green-grass”) golf. Molinar emphasizes how he does not attempt to dissuade a golfer from playing a round and instead teeing it up at Topgolf. Which is why, here in Hillsboro, director of instruction Tara Tokonitz roams each level of the facility, providing tips to players along the way; why each Topgolf facility offers individual and group lessons; why Topgolf views itself as a teaching academy as opposed to a different place for golfers who lack the time and/or the means to spend a few hours on a Saturday chasing around a silly white ball. The core of the company’s partnership with the professional associations is that Topgolf, Molinar says, is a “great gateway into the game.”

“I think different people in different areas of the golf industry that you ask would probably have a different response,” explains Barb Trammell, chief executive officer for the Oregon Golf Association, which oversees amateur golf in Oregon. “I think maybe there’s a little hesitation, if you will, on the part of golf course owners with a Topgolf facility coming to town. They may view that as potentially taking business away from a green-grass facility.

“From our standpoint, we kind of see it as … anything that gets a golf club in someone’s hand, and it’s a fun environment — heck, that can’t hurt the game. It can only help the game, in our opinion.”

In fact, in a 2015 survey of Topgolf guests conducted by the National Golf Foundation, 24 percent of respondents who have played golf for less than three years began playing more regularly after first visiting Topgolf. And 82 percent of those guests said Topgolf influenced their decision to play more.

“My wife grew up in a golf household,” Molinar relates. “Her grandpa was a PGA pro (and) her dad’s a scratch golfer. I couldn’t have gotten her on a golf course on a bet. When I started working at Topgolf, this started becoming our date night. It’s progressed to where she’s taking lessons, she has her own set of clubs and goes out on a green-grass course. My son was the same way. I could never get him to go to a golf course with me. He started playing at Topgolf, and now he’s better than I am on a green-grass course.”

Therein lies the beauty of Topgolf — and why the OGA, Trammell says, is looking to develop a partnership with the organization.

“Really, it’s kind of twofold: us helping promote Topgolf, driving business to them, as much as Topgolf, hopefully, helps convert some of those newbies who might be going to Topgolf as their initial introduction into the game itself, to maybe help convert them more into an avid-type golfer who would take those skills they learn at Topgolf and bring it to a green-grass facility and grow into playing the game.

“I just think Topgolf is not going to hurt the game at all. We’re very hopeful it’s going to generate additional excitement, introducing new people to the game who might not otherwise do so, and then if we can convert them into players at green-grass facilities, that will do nothing but help us all.”

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