Long-Range Planning

The next big thing in driving ranges could be a computerized system that makes practice anything but boring
September 25, 2005

Eight years ago, identical twins David and Steve Jolliffe were discussing--over drinks at a golf club in their native England--the worst thing about trying to lower their 18 handicaps: having to spend time at the driving range. "We were talking about how boring the range is, with bad balls and nothing to do but blast shots," says Steve, 47. The brothers, who had just sold their market-research firm for $10 million, thought they could make an improvement.

The Jolliffes dreamed of a range with targets and scoring. Key to their plan was a ball that could be embedded with a microchip and still fly normally. It took two years and, they say, more than $5 million to develop such a sphere, but in 2000 they unveiled what they call TopGolf at a range in Watford, England. At TopGolf, players hit at targets that resemble large bull's-eyes. A sensor in the target reads the chip in the ball and awards the golfer up to 10 points. That data is relayed wirelessly to a computer, which tabulates the scores and posts them on a screen in the player's bay. (The cost of a 20-ball game ranges from $3.80 to $5.80 at the first and so far only U.S. TopGolf range--in Alexandria, Va.)

By livening up a trip to the range, the Jolliffes hope to do what Tiger Woods once seemed poised to do but hasn't: Grow and diversify the game of golf. Steve Jolliffe says that since TopGolf is proving popular with families and couples on dates, more than half of his customers are newcomers--many of whom don't fit the pleated slacks and polo shirt profile. On a recent sunny afternoon, players were wearing jeans, do-rags, football jerseys and work boots as they whooped and hollered and high-fived their teammates. "It's like the brotherhood we used to have in bowling leagues," says Jim Stallings, a 62-year-old postal worker who was playing for the first time.

Players can compete as individuals or on teams, and choose from four games, including TopPractice (a golfer hits at any target) and TopShot (golfers hit at different targets in a specific order). In the covered bays, which have a table and five chairs, waiters buzz about. "I played only contact sports growing up and never gave golf a look," says Stallings's son Marcus, a 28-year-old Army satellite communications specialist who was wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey as he took his drives. "But I hit the first shot of my life playing TopGolf a few weeks ago, and now I'm addicted."

The cost of building a range is about $8 million, and the Jolliffes say TopGolf has raised $50 million in venture capital and plan to open more ranges in the U.S. (Besides the one in Virginia, there are now three in England and one in Thailand.)

"This game is so competitive that it makes you want to come back--I've been here six times since my first visit," says Marcus, who first visited the facility for a party. "I just wish it had been around when I was growing up in Baltimore, because I might've been Tiger Woods."

THREE PHOTOSSIMON BRUTY (TOPGOLF)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)