A Round at TopGolf Tampa

Over the last year or so, no company has moved the needle in the game of golf more than TopGolf, and it's easy to see why... The ultimate playground for golf junkies - think Dave & Busters and Splittsville but replace the arcade or bowling alley with an interactive driving range - TopGolf locations have been sprouting up across the country at an alarming rate, with an ever increasing popularity to match. A new TopGolf location recently opened in the Tampa area, which finally gave this golf junkie an excuse to see what all of the fuss was about.
Warning: It will not look like this when you arrive.

That "fuss" has been almost relentless since I first learned of TopGolf some time ago. From constant praise on Twitter, to features on the Golf Channel and every golf publication on the planet, it seems many believe TopGolf is the greatest thing to happen to our Royal & Ancient game since that phenom from California said "Hello World." One article even went so far as to proclaim that TopGolf could save the game from the downward spiral in participation, brought on by economic challenges and an aging Tiger Woods.

While seemingly everyone has pontificated on everything that TopGolf is, I'll start by saying what it isn't...

TopGolf is not golf.

A visit to TopGolf is no closer to the real thing than a round of putt-putt at Pirates Cove.

And yet I loved every minute of it.

A rooftop bar at a driving range? Yes, please.

My friends and I arrived to TopGolf Tampa at 8:30pm last Saturday night. The chaos of the parking lot, where cars were parked literally everywhere but on top of one another, sent an immediate sense of dread through the four of us. But it was the greeting from the valet that nearly caused an outright panic...

"Welcome to TopGolf. It's a 5 hour wait for golf, but there's no line for the bar."

This outing had been on the books for 6 weeks, and included a 100+ mile drive for 3/4 of our foursome. Now we may not even get to play? This seemed rather preposterous. That is, until we went inside...

After signing up for our "membership" and checking-in with the concierge, I asked if there was any approximate idea on the wait time.

"Right now, I can't guarantee you'll get to play. It's telling me the wait is 7 and a half hours."

I kept waiting for the "Bazinga!" but sadly it never came.  

After a few moments of dumbfounded silence, my brother finally broke the ice...

"I wonder what the wait is at the Atlanta location. It might save us some time if we left now."

We elbowed our way through the uber-crowded bar, and managed to snag a table to watch the Kentucky basketball game on one of the 1,362 TVs on hand. The irony of a bunch of Gators watching Kentucky basketball at a place with "golf" in its name was certainly a little rich.

And this was after it had died down a little..

Two hours later, at the exact moment Notre Dame was attempting a last second shot to advance to the Final Four, my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from TopGolf... Our bay was ready.

After spending two hours locked in intense battle, and dodging the occasional physics-defying shank, a night that started out looking like an epic fail came to a successful end at 1am. But not before coming away with a few tips, observations, and general ramblings on our experience at TopGolf.

3 stories of awesome.

Go Early...Go Hungry

Needless to say, our group was insanely naive to show up at 8:30 on a Saturday night during March Madness. My guess is if we had arrived at say, 5pm, we would have been quoted something a little shorter than a 7 hour wait. The fact is, TopGolf's queue set-up leaves a lot to be desired. The feeling among our group was that quoting 7 hours was merely their way of nicely saying "Go Away." But given that the actual wait only ended up being 2 hours, there were clearly a huge number of people that had signed up to play with either no intention of actually doing so, or they just gave up waiting.

Perhaps requiring a deposit equal to 1-hour of play ($40) would solve this problem and cut down on how many new customers TopGolf discourages right off the tee.

The one saving grace to our wait was the food, which was far better than any of us expected. I mean, sure I've had better chicken & waffles, but never when sitting next to a driving range.

Leave the Clubs at Home

Seriously, don't take your clubs. Especially if you have an unhealthy attachment to them like yours truly. The Callaway rentals at each bay will certainly get the job done, even though they'll probably give your opponent an oft repeated excuse for his or her loss.

Remember...It's Not Golf

The games at TopGolf all pretty much center around hitting shots to various targets on the range. There are 6 different targets and each of those is divided into quadrants for scoring. Getting it as close to center as possible is typically the game, but requires a much different approach than real golf, along with a good deal of luck.

Since the bottom of each target is a net, the ball doesn't bounce once in the target area. So if you're going to get it close, the trick is to either one hop it from short, or fly it all the way to the center.

It also seemed the combination of "house ball" clubs and the fancy microchip embedded Callaway balls resulted in shots flying about 80% as far as normal. Either that, or I've been severely under-clubbing for roughly my entire life.

Oh and to paraphrase the current Nike ad, if you play golf to get better at golf, then TopGolf has nothing for you. Trust me, adjusting to the equipment is guaranteed to have your swing wrecked by the end of the night. If you're looking to practice, go to a real golf course.

My brother hitting what I'd guess was his first shot ever struck past midnight.

Better Than Green Fees

After spending the same amount of time as a typical round of golf, the four of us left feeling as though TopGolf was surprisingly cheap entertainment. We spent 2 hours in the bar and 2 hours on the range, and each walked out spending $60-$80, including food, beverages and our golf. Compare that to green fees at a golf course, or even dinner and a movie, and TopGolf begins to look like a steal. 

Mainstream Golf

It was clear pretty early on that I'd been looking at TopGolf all wrong...

TopGolf is not a golf facility with an entertainment component. It's an entertainment facility with a golf component. For every one person that was there hoping to hit golf balls, there were 5 more that had no intention of picking up a club. In fact, I'd peg the percentage that had ever picked up a club at even lower than that.

I'm confident the Old Tom Morris shirt shaved those hours off the wait.

Still, it's impossible to deny that each and every night, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are introduced to golf for the very first time at TopGolf facilities across the country. Do any of them then decide to buy a set of clubs and give it a go at their local muni... Possibly, but I'm willing to bet that number is infinitesimally small compared to the number that will only "play golf" on an occasional outing to TopGolf.

So with that in mind, can TopGolf really "save" the game of golf?

Absolutely not... But it can only help.

Enjoy Your Stay

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