I visited Topgolf in Charlotte, NC the day before the 2017 PGA Championship. Madison Martin gave me a tour of one of the most happening places in all of golf. [The action video following this golf conversation reveals whether I topped a ball at Topgolf.]
Golf Conversations: How did Topgolf get its start?
Madison Martin: It was founded in the UK in 2000. Two brothers were at a driving range practicing their golf game. They thought, “There’s got to be something better than this to work on your golf game.”
A typical driving range … some of them are nice, some of them are not so nice. Some of them you can get a drink at, some of them you can’t. So they came up with the idea of golf balls having microchips in them. A golf ball that actually tracks how far the ball goes. They ended up taking a microchip from a dog collar and putting it in a golf ball.
GC: What were the founders’ names?
MM: Steve and Dave Jolliffe.
GC: They had the scientific background to put a chip inside a golf ball? That takes some doing.
MM: I believe they got investors to help them take their idea to a working model.
GC: This was 2000 in the UK. Was there one location?
MM: There are two locations there and then they came to Alexandria, VA in 2008. From there they moved to Dallas. Now we have three locations in Dallas and I believe two in Fort Worth. Texas is our home base. There’s one in Houston as well. But we’re expanding; we’re looking at putting ten Topgolfs in different places every year for the next 5-10 years.
GC: That’s a lot of microchips.
I heard about the Topgolf in Vegas. It has a swimming pool?
MM: In all of my marketing outreach efforts, people constantly tell me they’ve been to the Vegas location. Vegas was kind of a special breed of the Topgolf family because it’s four stories instead of three; the fourth story has that pool. There are waitresses that wear bathing suits versus the normal caddie outfit that we have here in Charlotte.
GC: Do they have men and women serving in bathing suits?
MM: I haven’t been to Vegas but I’m pretty sure it’s male and female.
GC: I should hope so!
MM: I haven’t been to that one yet; I hope to get there.
GC: Well, there’s a flight from Charlotte leaving around 3:00 this afternoon.
MM: Are you paying?
GC: Am I paying? Next question! When did you open here in Charlotte?
MM: Our hard opening date was June 9th.
GC: What was it like on opening day?
MM: It was crazy. It still is crazy. In a good way. We have many private events booked with the PGA Championship in town this week.
GC: There’ve been stories in the media about how Topgolf is too video game-like … you’re not going to get people to actually play golf at a real golf course.
MM: I know which article you read.
GC: Does Topgolf have any statistics on creating bona fide golfers?
MM: Yes, over 20% of the people that come here that have never played golf before actually make the investment to buy clubs or try the game of golf after visiting us.
GC: That’s pretty good. If a beginner comes here and knows nothing about swinging a golf club, are there instructors here who give lessons?
MM: Yes. We’ll have two PGA professionals on site; right now we have one, but we just hired our second. One of them will be here every day. They give lessons. You can book our PGA professional to be part of your group event. So if you’re booking a private event, everybody at your event can get time with him.
We just launched a series on our Facebook page here in Charlotte. We’re going to do “Tuesday Tricks and Tips at 2.” Our professional will go over some things that you can work on to improve your game.
GC: Do you provide clubs to beginners?
MM: We do. We provide clubs for everyone; all ages. We even have clubs for three- or four-year olds.
GC: Do you have clubs for me with senior shafts?
MM: We have clubs for everybody. You can still bring your clubs, but you don’t have to. We’re corporate partners with Callaway, so the clubs we have here are really nice. They’re nicer than the ones I have in my bag right now!
GC: Ok, I’m coming to Topgolf for the first time. Walk me through the process.
MM: Everyone that comes to Topgolf becomes a lifetime member. It’s a one-time fee of $5 to give you the membership card that allows you access to swipe into the bay. That card, too, tracks all of your scores for every game that you play with us. We have different leader boards for the different games you can play. Depending on how you do, your name could be on the leader board at a different venue within the U.S.
So you get the membership card … then go to a bay attendant who will take you to your bay.
GC: If they open a Topgolf in Cuba, they should locate it at the Bay of Pigs.
MM: We like to call the bay attendants “tee liners” because they take you to the tee line. They’ll walk you through the process of getting set up on the game panel and logged in. When you log in, you put in how much time you want to pay for.
GC: The fee is based on time?
MM: Yes. From 9:00 am to noon, it’s $25 an hour. From noon until 5:00 pm, it’s $35; 5:00 pm to close, it’s $45 an hour. Close is 12:00 am Sunday through Thursday, 2:00 am Friday and Saturday.
You can split that cost among the number of people you bring with you. We allow up to six people to play the games in the bay. Here in Charlotte, we allow ten people to be in the bay at one time.
GC: Are you allowed to stop the meter, so to speak? Let’s say I’ve hit balls for twenty minutes and I have to go powder my nose. It’s gonna take me ten minutes to find the men’s room and come back. Can I stop the clock?
MM: It’s gonna take you ten minutes to go the men’s room?
GC: Please don’t make me tell you about my friend, Mr. Prostate.
MM: The clock is always ticking but if you’re done and you still have two hours left, you can always talk to your bay host and they can make sure that the time that’s left on your card is valid for the next time you come back.
GC: I assume there are people who come here who just want to hit balls; they don’t want to play any of the games.
GC: The ball that you’re hitting has a microchip in it.
MM: It does.
GC: Is this similar to a regular golf ball that you’d get at a conventional driving range?
MM: It’s very similar. The ball flight is not as high as a conventional ball. And the half-inch tees also help to keep the ball flight lower. That’s to prevent anyone from hitting over our nets.
GC: While you’re hitting golf balls, there’s waitress service?
MM: Yes, we call them bay hosts.
GC: Each bay has a host?
MM: One bay host will have two to three bays. We don’t want to overwhelm them. Their primary role is to take care of you in terms of food and beverage. But we also encourage them to be interactive with our guests … to get to know about them, what they like, have fun with them.
We have a bay host named Robbie; he’s really good at acting on the fly and engaging with our guests. He literally will bet guests their next drink if they can hit a certain target. He’ll do magic tricks with the kids. We encourage our hosts to get involved if the guest likes that engagement.
GC: A surly person like me probably wouldn’t like that.
You have all sorts of customers … men, women, children, young, old?
GC: Everyone? Senior citizens? Do you have Early-Bird bays?
MM: We literally have everyone. I think that’s what makes Topgolf so fun and unique; it does appeal to a wide range of people.
GC: Your website has a video clip of Greg Norman and Hunter Mahan singing Topgolf’s praises. Have you heard comments from other touring professionals?
MM: Yes, we had Bubba Watson here yesterday with, of all people, Justin Bieber. They just walked in the door; we had no idea they were coming.
GC: I wouldn’t know Justin Bieber if he hit me with a lob wedge.
Did you sell Bubba a $5 lifetime pass?
MM: I believe he has one.
GC: He does?
MM: Yeah, he’s been to other Topgolfs. Touring professionals are big fans. We know that Jordan Spieth has been to other Topgolfs.
GC: I understand that you have a golf background.
MM: I was captain of my high school boys’ team because we didn’t have a girls’ team. And I played one year at college on the girl’s golf team. I knew I didn’t have a career in golf.
GC: As a touring professional?
GC: Who were some of your favorite golfers?
MM: I was such a Paula Creamer fan. And I had the biggest crush on Adam Scott in high school.
GC: Me too!
I read that Paula was put on the Solheim Cup team. One of the girls – Jessica Korda – was injured so Juli Inkster selected Paula to replace her. Does working here all the time, seeing all these people hitting golf balls, make you want to play golf yourself?
MM: Definitely. Part of what makes it hard is that my fiancé doesn’t golf. He’s very competitive so he never wants to go out and play golf with me.
GC: ‘Cause you’re gonna beat him?
I hit some balls when I have some spare time … but there’s never a lot of spare time!
GC: But this thing with your fiancé … he’s gonna have to get used to you beating him.
In your heyday, what was your handicap?
MM: I was a six.
GC: A six? Let’s go outside now and you can give me a lesson.