Following the news that Topgolf are looking to expand into more venues in the UK, Andy Brown went to meet Paul Williams, director of golf, to find out more about the business and how the plans for the future might affect the industry.
Since it first launched in 2000 Topgolf has experienced rapid success although, it should be mentioned, that most of this has occurred outside the UK. That’s not to say that the three venues in the UK haven’t been successful, far from it; last year almost 800,000 people visited the sites. It’s just that most of the company’s expansions have been in America, with 23 sites there. This is set to change though, with the recent news that the business venture is looking to expand into at least ten locations throughout the UK.
What’s impressive about the facilities is how they attract people to try golf who wouldn’t have otherwise thought that the game was for them. Paul Williams, director of golf across the three UK facilities, estimates that around 85 per cent of those who visit them would classify themselves as non-golfers and that the average age of players is between 25-26 – fairly different from the normal average age demographic of a golf club. “People who come are getting a nice relaxed environment where there are no barriers to entry, you can come as you are. The clubs are free to hire so it is readily accessible to everyone,” says Williams.
There are some in the industry who view Topgolf as a competitor to golf clubs and pros and think that the company could take business away from them, an opinion that Williams disagrees with. “I don’t really think that we compete with the golf courses in this country; we are so different in terms of what we offer that I don’t think we compete directly,” he states. “It is a totally different experience. People go there to play 18 holes, here it is more about entertainment, to hit a few balls and have some drinks and some food. It is more about enjoyment rather than being fixated on the end score.”
One thing that isn’t in question is that the ‘premier entertainment and event venue’ as the company calls itself on its website, is bringing people into the game who would be unlikely to try it in a traditional golf club setting and, if just 10 per cent of the 800,000 people who visited last year transition to becoming golf club members then that has to be a good thing for the industry. “You only need a small percentage of those to get that light bulb moment of hitting a good shot and then they will think about taking it further,” confirms Williams. “We have coaching teams at all three sites who can facilitate that journey.”
Topgolf have put PGA pros at the heart of their offering, with each location having two or three coaches who are either qualified PGA Pros or very late in their training, as well as other trainees. There is an emphasis on engagement, on the Pros and trainees walking up and down the range to say hello to people and to offer practical advice. This helps to create relationships and can also lead to one on one lessons for the pros, but Williams says that the philosophy is that, “Whether they have physically paid for a lesson doesn’t matter; if they are here they should be given some advice on how to play better golf.”
As a PGA pro himself Williams certainly knows a thing or two about coaching. He started his golfing career in salubrious surroundings at the Belfry where he completed his PGA training and was there for the Ryder Cup in 2002 when Europe triumphed by three points, which he understandably describes as a highlight. After the Belfry he joined a small private golf course called the Little Aston before moving to Topgolf where he is focused on developing the coaching team and creating a blend between traditional one on one coaching with a more open and inclusive style that fits complete novices to the game. As we all know, golf is a difficult game to learn and making it enjoyable for someone is key to them coming back and trying it again.
“If you play golf and hit those top shots and bad shots consistently then it is not fun and you will stop coming back. Our goal with the coaching team is to try and get as many people as possible to take that experience away so that they get the golf bug and want to come back and do it again as they feel that sense of success,” says Williams. “It’s amazing the amount of people I have seen that, after getting that initial interaction with a coach to take them through the pain, have then taken their golf onto the next level.” The company also cater for more elite players, and Williams proudly tells the story of a player who is coached at their Chigwell site who became the youngest ever girl to win the Fairhaven trophy and she didn’t just win it; she romped home by eight shots.
Technology is at the forefront of what the company does – the balls used have Microchip technology which provides information to the players which is then displayed in the screens in all of the bays. Topgolf also have a technology innovation centre in America and the UK locations use FlightScope, BodiTrak pressure matts and the swing analysis application Hudl. The UK director of golf is keen to point out that, while the information provided by this technology is very helpful, their coaching team don’t rely solely on the data and that he himself is constantly looking to improve his knowledge. “I’m always on the PGA website looking to see what the next coaching seminars are coming up,” he says. “You need to make sure you are keeping up to date with things, especially the technology side and how to correctly use all the data; if you don’t then I think you fall behind. The art of coaching is still key and for quite a lot of golfers who come through here than putting them on FlightScope is going to be irrelevant. We need to be able to adapt our coaching approaches.”
If clubs want to make their driving ranges more engaging then Williams recommends adding different elements to them, which he says can also help with coaching. “If there are challenges and games on ranges to challenge players to think differently with every shot then that helps,” he says. “If you have an individual struggling with distance control then hitting to a target which gives you feedback on how far it has gone is good.”
With the company looking to expand into more locations in the UK it is clear that Topgolf’s profile in this country will continue to rise. “We are very excited about the news. We regularly receive feedback from guests that are visiting the area from all over the UK and wish they had a Topgolf nearer to them,” says Williams. “I also believe it will be really good for the sport of golf in any future areas we expand into. England golf, The PGA and various other high profile coaches/players are in support of Topgolf which I think confirms that it’s a positive to have 10-15 venues across the country.”