Don't have a Topgolf near you?
Don't worry. More than likely, a similar technology - Toptracer Range - will be coming soon, providing you and your friends a Topgolf experience on a smaller scale.
I discovered a Toptracer Range in Campbell River, a small logging/fishing town on Vancouver Island. Places like Le Golf National, the recent Ryder Cup venue in France, and the Mistwood Golf Dome outside Chicago are installing the technology as well. Mistwood will be the first golf dome in America with Toptracer Range.
Toptracer Range will be at more than 100 golf course driving ranges and standalone ranges in 16 countries by the end of the year, according to President Ben Sharpe. He predicts 300 total facilities in 25 countries by the end of 2019. It is, without a doubt, the future of the driving range. You can play games, practice with a launch monitor and even play Pebble Beach Golf Links without the $525 green fee.
"The gameification of sports is real and it is growing everywhere," Sharpe said. "This is the tech we expect to be adopted by all facilities over the world the next couple of years. There is a lot of wide space to go after. The screens help people get better and want to play more golf. The biggest question about golf is how do you grow the game. We have a solution in a mass way."
What is Toptracer Range?
Toptracer's technology started as "Protracer," invented by Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Forsgren in 2006 to enhance televised golf coverage. Topgolf bought the camera-based system in 2016 and started rolling out its range-friendly version only last year. Much larger Topgolf facilities - currently there are 43 in the United States with more under construction - use chips inserted into the golf balls not cameras to track shots.
Toptracer Range installation typically takes just two to four days. Every target on the range is measured with cameras set up at key points to monitor where the balls fly. There are no upfront charges for owners/operators and hardware installation usually includes a monitor that the player can see on the range while hitting shots and a larger TV screen that friends/spectators can watch, creating a more social and entertaining experience. Range operators/owners pay a monthly license fee per bay. Sharpe said contracts to use the technology tend to be for three years.
Players download and create an account on the app, so they can start charting how and when they use the technology. For example, the "What's in My Bag?" game allows players to hit shots with any or every club in their bag. The data collected includes distance (carry and total), ball speed, launch angle, height, side deviation, landing angle, hang time and more. Over time, you can chart whether you're gaining or losing distance with age and/or swing or equipment changes.
Sharpe believes Toptracer Range differs greatly from Topgolf because of who tends to visit each facility. Topgolf is known to attract beginners and those who are just looking for a night out on the town. “Topgolf is the entertainment side of the industry, Toptracer is more for the discerning golfer," Sharpe said.
My personal experience
My night out at the newly constructed Velocity Lounge at the Campbell River Golf & Country Club was all about fun. My foursome wasn't there to grind practicing or figuring out our games. We wanted to hit shots and have a good time. We played the "Closest to the Pin" and the "Longest Drive" games. It's always humbling to see how your best drivers never go as far as you think they do. We didn't have time to play full rounds on the famous courses offered in the system, so we just took on several well-known holes - the 18th at Harbour Town Golf Links and the 7th at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
I've never enjoyed going to the range to work on my swing. It's just not in my DNA to grind and tinker. I could see that changing with Toptracer Range. These range sessions are actually enjoyable. Sharpe said early feedback from range owners/operators who have installed Toptracer Range is that people are staying longer and revenue is up. Like Topgolf, customers pay for the amount of time they use the bays, not how many balls they hit. Test sites have showed that, on average, Toptracer Range-enhanced bays nearly doubled the monthly revenue of non-Toptracer bays. In one instance, at the Golf Center of Arlington in Arlington, Texas, Toptracer Range bays brought in 205% more revenue than regular stalls.
I saw the proof first hand. One player in our foursome was obsessed with getting a long drive onto the facility and national leaderboard available through the app and on a monitor in the lounge. That pursuit led to more swings long after the rest of us were done. If a range can add a festive bar-like atmosphere like Campbell River or Topgolf with food, music and drinks, it opens up a whole new source of revenue and a more diverse - and likely younger - clientele.
The only complaint I have about Toptracer Range involves the playing of a virtual round. After players hit the green, instead of putting, they must execute a perfect short game shot to a specific target. Wedge shots hit close enough to the target would "make" the putt. Misses would result in a two-putt. Sharpe said there's no way to simulate putting at most ranges.
“Many of the ranges we have are multiple tiers. You can’t putt to different terrains," he said. "The range solution is to use short game talent to get the final score on the hole."
What's next for Toptracer Range?
A big breakthrough for Toptracer Range could be coming in January at the PGA Merchandise Show. Sharpe said that's where the company will unveil a solution for non-covered, grass-only ranges. He declined to reveal details, but if the solution makes sense, that brings warm-weather, golf-mad states like Florida, California, Arizona and others into play. It could be another game-changer.
Sharpe promises the technology will evolve over time.
“There will continue to be new games and new courses and finding ways we can engage people away from the ranges," he said. "We will continue to develop a community app. There is a lot more we are doing over the course of many years to bring new fun."