Thursday, July 18, 2024

The most popular way to play golf no longer includes fairways and greens

The most popular way to play golf is now indoors. 

Of a record 41.1 million golfers who participated in 2022, about 15.5 million played indoors, while 13.2 million played on green grass, says David Lorentz, head of research at the National Golf Foundation. The remaining 12.4 million played in both venues. 

It was the first year that more people played golf indoors than outdoors. 

Sure, purists will say hitting balls while enjoying a beer at Topgolf isn’t “playing golf.” But with off-the-course golf doubling since 2014, there’s no doubt that the game is forever changed.

“You couldn’t possibly overstate the importance of (off-course golf) in creating demand for golf,” Lorentz said during a speech at the annual PGA Show in Orlando in January. “This is the drug that hooks people to the game. Those in the green grass business should feel very fortunate to have these experiences that are administering the golf drug to now millions more people.”

Demand for nontraditional forms of golf has escalated so rapidly that indoor golf entertainment facilities, not including miniature golf, are now the industry’s fastest-growing sector. Then there’s the simulator and launch monitor market, which is expected to soar to $244 million in 2028, from $178 million in 2021. What began as hitting off a mat into a net in the basement has made its way to more than 50,000 family rooms and living spaces nationally, along with many commercial settings.

Andy Allen, vice president of revenue and partnerships for Winston-Salem-based SkyTrak, has enjoyed an inside-the-ropes view of indoor golf for more than a decade. SkyTrak has sold more than 70,000 units since 2015, making it the leading seller of consumer simulators and launch monitors. The company reached record sales in 2021 as overall simulator sales surged around the world.

“[Simulators] introduce people to the game,” he says. “Not everybody becomes an avid golfer or a single-digit handicap, but nontraditional forms of golf are a fun introduction to the game. Many then aspire to add a golf simulator to their available space and enjoy practicing, improving and playing simulated courses with friends on their own schedule from the convenience of home.”

Last August, Colorado-based GolfTec bought SkyTrak for undisclosed terms. GolfTec has about 250 locations and 1,000 coaches who provide lessons and services using video analysis and motion measurement sensors. The company provided nearly 2 million lessons last year. Its North Carolina locations include Cary, Greensboro and Raleigh with plans for a Winston-Salem site.

The acquisition paired “two companies that understand how data and personalized coaching can truly accelerate a person’s journey to better golf,” says Joe Assell, GolfTec co-founder and CEO. 

The appeal of indoor golf is multifaceted. Simulators allow dedicated golfers to hone their craft 24/7, regardless of the weather. Working professionals enjoy not having to carve out four or five hours to play 18 holes. 

Most important, indoor golf carries generational cache. Younger people, who might prefer to stay indoors, can get started in golf by playing games on a simulator. They are attracted to the technology that projects lifelike images of golf courses onto a screen, and also tracks the flight path of the ball, measures spin, and provides accurate distance and shot data.

“I think (young people) are really intrigued with the data,” Allen says. “They want to know, ‘how do I compare it to an LPGA tour player? How do I compare to a PGA Tour player?’ And they easily embrace technology. We’ve seen a large increase in the number of younger golfers, junior golfers that use the system and that are very familiar with the data.”

Research also shows that indoor golf is stimulating interest in traditional play. A survey by the foundation and Topgolf suggests that people who come into golf via indoor play are generally more emotionally prepared and confident for green-grass play. 

The most recognizable indoor golf brand is Dallas-based Topgolf, which offers a driving range experience using microchipped golf balls that allow players to track their shots and compete with friends in climate-controlled hitting bays. Food and drink flow freely at the company’s 80-plus locations. 

Carlsbad, California-based Callaway Golf bought TopGolf for $2.6 billion in 2021. One of the seller’s major investors was Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, who is now on Calloway’s board of directors.

Topgolf opened its first North Carolina site in Charlotte in 2017, then added a second location in the region in 2021. Construction is underway on a Topgolf in Durham, while a three-story location is being planned in Greensboro. The city council there approved a resolution to reimburse for sewer improvements for an unnamed attraction that council members confirmed was Topgolf. 

Topgolf’s chief competitor, Dallas-based Drive Shack, opened one of its core venues, a three-story, 65,000-square-foot facility, near Raleigh’s PNC Arena in 2019. Drive Shack’s ranges are equipped with radar-based TrackMan Range technology that provides precision ball tracking in real time. 

Drive Shack debuted its first Urban Box concept in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood, called “The Puttery.” It features multiple nine-hole miniature golf courses that surround a cocktail bar with food with outdoor patios. 

Other venues offer play on simulators. X-Golf America opened its first Charlotte-area site last summer, called X-Golf South Charlotte. In nearby Tega Cay, South Carolina, X-Golf offers virtual golf competitions, leagues and lessons for all skill levels with systems that perform more than 6,000 calculations per second. The simulator replicates golf shots, including short games and putting, through camera systems, infrared lasers, impact sensors and advanced gaming software. Atlanta-based Intown Golf Club has said it plans to open a virtual golf venue with private membership this year in Charlotte’s SouthPark neighborhood.

Two Winston-Salem-area venues have also recently opened with simulators as their centerpiece. Downtown, Roar has a Roaring 20s theme with casual dining, a food hall, and an abundance of games and entertainment on four floors, including four simulators. Just west of Winston-Salem, in Clemmons, The Playground Golf and Sports
Bar opened last year and offers three large simulators where patrons tee it up on virtual
courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach. The simulators, which are booked for $30 to
$75 an hour depending on the day and time, can also be used to play soccer, cricket and even Zombie Dodgeball. 

Now, indoor golf is going back outdoors. Talamore Golf Resort in Southern Pines recently renovated its driving range and added eight bays of a Toptracer Range, which uses the same high-speed cameras, coupled with sophisticated computer algorithms, to provide instantaneous ball tracking information that is seen on televised PGA Tour coverage. 

“The primary goal was to create a fun atmosphere for our guests to gather and continue playing golf utilizing the Toptracer range technology,” says Talamore General Manager Matt Hausser. “They can practice, play other courses, participate in weekly closest to the pin contests or enjoy many of the other games Toptracer has to offer. We added lighting so we could extend the hours into the evening and food and beverage services are being added. We offer an experience that no one else in our area currently offers.”

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