For a game that is supposed to be fun, a golf driving range can be an awfully serious place. Quiet as a library.
It seems like people working on their swings don’t want to be bothered by pleasantries. Often, the only chatter you hear is the occasional whispered expletive.
That has changed in the last couple of months at the Del Mar Golf Center, just east of the racetrack.
Particularly in the evening, a sudden roar will go up from one of the hitting bays.
“We’ll be teaching, and we’ll all stop and look up,” said Matt Clay, the facility’s general manager. “People are laughing. They’re having fun. That’s what it is all about.”
And they don’t even have an alcohol license yet, though it’s on its way.
The new attraction at the Del Mar range is a video system that is the first of its kind in San Diego.
The people who began building Topgolf facilities in the United States in 2006 bought the rights to the Protracer ball tracking system that is widely used by the networks who broadcast pro golf.
Topgolf rebranded the system as Toptracer, and it has begun leasing and installing the video system at driving ranges across the country. There are eight open now, with many more on the way.
The Del Mar facility has been operational for about two and a half months. There are six covered bays from which to play and each has its own video screen, as well as another screen that faces a lounge area.
There are numerous ways to use the system, from simply measuring the distance of shots, to closest-to-the-pin and long-drive contests, to simulated rounds on famous courses.
The idea, just as it is with the brick-and-mortar Topgolf facilities, is to bring people of varying golf skills together for entertainment, and not just to grind away at trying to get better.
“We want people to come out and try it just to have some fun,” Clay said. “We want to show that it can be a recreational thing. You don’t have to take five to six hours to play and be frustrated if you don’t play well.
“The potential is that if you don’t play, this is an opportunity to bridge the gap and get people into the game. It’s not going to convert everybody, but the chance to put a club into someone’s hand is a start.”
Founded in the United Kingdom in 2000, Topgolf was lauded when it came to the United States as an answer to some of golf’s biggest problems. It was said to appeal to younger generations who appreciated the video-game nature of the play, with lighted targets and scoring system that gives it a bowling feel. There are comfy couches, food and beverage service, and big-screen TVs showing live sports events.
Topgolf surveys of its customers have supported the approach. The company reports that in 2017, 54 percent of its visitors were in the 18-to-34 age range. Fifty-one percent of Topgolf guests considered themselves non-golfers. Another 27 percent played one to seven rounds per year.
The average group size was four people and they spent two hours playing.
There are more than 40 Topgolf facilities in the U.S., and some of them are doing so well that at peaks hours there are wait lists of a couple hours to play. The company reported having more than 12 million guests last year, while also serving millions of players on its mobile game platform.
“The results are pretty remarkable,” said Ani Mehta, Topgolf’s Yale-educated vice president of corporate development. “If we can get just a fraction of those people playing one or more rounds of golf a year, that moves the needle in a pretty dramatic way.
“We want to make golf more fun, more inclusive. I remember the first time I went to a golf course. Someone is always upset at you. It’s a very tough, intimidating experience for a new golfer. We’re trying to help people get started in a low-pressure, fun environment.”
But Topgolf still has growth issues, especially in California. There is still only one Topgolf site in the state – 520 miles north of San Diego in Roseville, near Sacramento. The Topgolf in Las Vegas is closer than that.
Mehta said real estate costs in the state’s population centers have been a big factor, though markets such as San Diego are very appealing.
“It’s on our radar,” he said.
It may be that they don’t need to ever put a permanent building here if the driving range concept works well. Clay said once other local ranges heard he was using the Toptracer system, they wanted to know how to join in.
The Toptracer system – which is not available yet at most Topgolf facilities – gives Del Mar a big upside. Rather just hit balls at lighted targets, Troptracer allows for numerous games that should appeal to all skill levels.
For serious golfers and instructors, there is a mode that measures every shot’s trajectory, distance and roll. Further, there is a “What’s In My Bag?” mode that compiles yardages for each club. So you can hit five 6-irons and get the average distance.
From there, it gets more game-like. There is a dart-board like mode in which the closer you get to the range targets, the more points you score. Clay pointed out that a 6-year-old could play his dad if they, say, hit to 50-yard target. Dad could use a wedge and the kid a driver.
Closest-to-the-pin features a par-3 hole, and there is a long-drive game with a grid like the pros use.
“The fraternity guys like to come out, hit it as hard as they can and beat each other,” Clay said.
Guests get the closest to real golf with the mode that allows them to play a virtual course, shot by shot. Harbor Town is among the venues, and Clay said St. Andrews and Pebble Beach are in the pipeline. (“Putting” is accomplished by hitting short iron shots to targets.)
Clay said he can play a full 18 holes in about 45 minutes.
The cost to play gets cheaper as a group gets larger. It is $25 per hour to rent a bay, including a very large bucket of balls that normally costs $12. So four people can play for $6.25 apiece.
Toptracer has arrived at a time growing success at the Del Mar Golf Center. They have a Junior Academy of 75 golfers and a waiting list; Clay was named among the top 50 teachers of kids by U.S. Kids Golf; PGA instructor Christopher Lesson was the 2017 SCPGA Clubfitter of the Year; Director of Golf Bob Bellesi has been honored with a lifetime PGA membership; and Milo Bryant was named on Golf Digest’s list of 50 best golf fitness pros.
“It’s been a good run,” Clay said.
--Tod Leonard is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune