News & Opinion

Topgolf scores few points for golf savvy

BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. – I know that Topgolf is our game’s hottest phenomenon. The golf-entertainment facilities are opening everywhere, it seems.

There are 51 in the U.S., including one that opened last year in the Pittsburgh area, sort of near where I live.

My first experience at Topgolf was a bad one. That was five years ago, so I decided it was time to give Topgolf a second chance.

Another reason to visit was that my son, Mike, who has been on and off the Korn Ferry Tour, signed up (with a fellow mini-tour pro) to compete in Topgolf Tour. The winners of 19 regional events advance to a finale in Las Vegas, all expenses paid, with a shot at a $50,000 first prize for the winning team. Mike never has been to a Topgolf, so he figured he’d better scout it out before the shootout this weekend.

Topgolf's location in Bridgeville, Pa.
Topgolf's location in Bridgeville, Pa.

We checked in and were assigned a hitting bay. Mike asked about the upcoming event – which scoring format will be used, and what level of the multi-story facility will the players hit from? All four guys at the counter had no clue. “I’m not playing in it,” one employee said, “so I don’t know.”

Uh, think you could find out? Nope.

As for how general Topgolf scoring works, all that we were told by the front-desk staff was that points increase for hitting targets at longer distances, but hitting it close to closer targets might be a better way to accrue points.

That’s all. No details, no point totals, no charts. It was vague.

At our bay, another attendant set up our computer screen. He asked how much range time we wanted to purchase. We wanted one hour. That’ll be $35.

He set us up for the basic Topgolf game: we each got 20 balls to hit, and it was up to us to pick our targets. The farthest one was 215 yards. You earn points for hitting inside the electronic circles built around each different-colored flagstick; the closer to the center of each target, the more points earned. The computer keeps score. Just wave a clubhead over an electronic eye and a ball rolls onto the mat.

Topgolf's hitting bays and target areas
Topgolf's hitting bays and target areas

I thought our attendant would explain the point values, and when he didn’t, we asked him. He repeated the same vague generalities that we heard at the front desk.

Well, he’d just used up our first minute. Here are some highlights from the next 59 minutes:

* Mike hit two balls that we watched land in the target areas that never registered. No points showed on the screen. It was like putting money into a vending machine and your candy bar doesn’t come out, then you can’t get your quarters back. Huh? How are they going to resolve that if it happens during the Topgolf Tour competition?

* Topgolf balls are flighted. That means they don’t go as far as a normal golf ball. Or as a real golfer would say, “They don’t go anywhere.” I found that I had to hit about a club-and-a-half more to make the ball go as far as my shots on a real golf course. And hitting them feels like hitting rocks.

* Our first game was hitting 20 balls each at any targets we wanted. In the second game, we hit 20 balls and after every five shots, the computer assigned us a different (and farther) target.

* Topgolf balls are used and abused, just like balls at a traditional range. The problem with that is, some balls get whacked out of round. Mike had a handful of shots that veered off in strange, un-golfy directions. He compared it to hitting mud balls in traditional golf. The farther the shot and the more club Mike hit, the more likely the reduced-flight ball flew oddly. That made hitting the farthest target problematic.

* Our server dutifully returned every 10 minutes or so to make sure that we really didn’t want to order drinks. Once, he blurted his cheery, “How are you guys doing?” right as Mike was in his takeaway. All right, there’s rock music blaring over the speakers – I like that, by the way – and there’s ambient noise from players hitting in other bays. There are even the occasional dribblers, balls from the level above us that toppled off the end of the mat and landed 5 feet in front of us, sometimes in mid-swing. Those were OK.

But shouldn’t Topgolf attendants know not to interrupt a customer in mid-swing? Our guy server tagged off halfway through our session and passed us on to a girl server, who seemed nice. But she did the same thing on her first return visit, loudly asking us whether we needed anything as I was starting my takeaway. No biggie, but they really ought to know better at a “golf” facility.

* With 11 minutes left, our server returned to cash us out. Mike was about to swing at a ball when she waltzed over to the computer screen and stood on the hitting side of the red warning line, preventing Mike from swinging. She easily could have caught a backswing to the side of her head if she hadn’t been looking.

OK, so we owed $35 for the hour. We also had to pay a $5 membership fee to join Topgolf. Mike was ticked off. “The guys up front didn’t say anything about that,” he told the server. Well, I’d paid that $5 lifetime membership in Scottsdale, Ariz., on my first visit five years earlier and remembered to bring my card. No good, I was told. I had to pay for another $5 lifetime membership. I guess “lifetime” means five years or less in Topgolf-speak. Lame.

So, our bill was $45. I left a $5 tip. “For what?” Mike asked, noting that we didn’t order anything, plus she used up two minutes checking us out when we could have been hitting balls. He had a point. Our total was $50 for hitting flighted balls for 57 minutes (we lost three minutes to attendant interference) off mats so firm that my elbows were whining.

My first experience in Scottsdale was worse. At that time, all I wanted to do was practice and hit a bucket of balls in mid-winter to try to remember how to swing. I settled for a $17.50 half-hour session. At check-in, they removed the woods and hybrids from my bag because that Topgolf center borders a casino parking lot. That rule added to the sucking quotient.

I quickly discovered the balls were reduced-flight. No matter how well I hit them, they just didn’t jump up in the air and fly. For a real golfer, that’s a waste of time. Plus, the electric-eye ball dispenser was slower than AOL. I was paying by the minute and wasting time waiting for the next ball.

An attendant arrived, having heard of my discontent, and pointed to a stand of motley metal woods that resembled the mandatory rubber-coated putters at miniature golf courses. “You can hit these woods,” he offered cheerfully.

I turned and said, “Why would I want to hit someone else’s clubs?” He gave me a blank stare and backed away. He had no idea what I was talking about. Club-fitting was a concept beyond him because he obviously didn’t play golf. Topgolf couldn’t have made a worse first impression.

I get why Topgolf is successful. It’s the equivalent of bowling alleys with gutter guards that allow everyone to play. At Topgolf, you don’t have to know how to play golf or be any good. You don’t have to chase errant shots. You don’t waste time chipping or seven-putting. You can whiff. You’re not in anyone’s way. You can hit shots or drink shots. They’ve got food. It’s great for a party or date night or family time for non-golfers or barely-golfers.

Topgolf doesn’t offer much for real golfers. As Mike said on the drive home, “For being about golf, Topgolf is about as far from golf as you can get.”

I’m sure that Topgolf will continue to be a huge success, even without me.