I usually had to say it at least twice for it to sink in:
“I’ve never played golf before.”
I may have been the only person who could make that statement of the hundred-some folks at the Topgolf in El Segundo, just outside Los Angeles. Or maybe not. After all, as a newbie, I represented an important market for Topgolf and parent company Callaway.
After all, if you’re at the experience level where you still miss the ball when it’s waiting patiently on a tee, three hours of bushwhacking through 18 holes is not necessarily your idea of a good day. But an hour or so on a driving range tricked out to look like a pinball machine, with nachos and beer waiting for you between turns — that’s a more universally enjoyable experience.
The range at the El Segundo location, like most Topgolfs, is three stories high, plays loud music, and draws more groups than individual golfers (I can’t recall seeing anyone playing solo while I was there).
The driving range is enabled with TopTracer technology, which tracks the path of your ball, incorporating games like “Angry Birds” as your drive corresponds to a flying bird on a screen next to you. The gameplay is pretty forgiving, so your shanked shots still have a decent chance of knocking down some towers.
You can also play a simulation of the British Open’s St. Andrews course, but “Angry Birds” is probably more my speed for now.
“We make it easy for you to come in with your friends, your family, with a work event and play for an hour or two,” said Geoff Cottrill, Topgolf CMO. “Hopefully you get some laughs and just experience a little bit of play time.”
Cottrill spoke about how kids play, but that part of our lives gets whittled away as we grow older. He wants adults to reconnect with play time.
The Future of Golf
Callaway completed its purchase of Topgolf in 2021, signaling a new era for the company, and, arguably, golf in the U.S. In its Q1 earnings call, the company claimed:
- It’s the top hard goods brand in the country.
- It has a 22% market share in the golf ball market as of March.
- Yet Callaway estimates that Topgolf will bring in more revenue than any other company segment this year and will account for half its EBITDA by 2025.
That’s obviously important for Callaway, but it also speaks to the direction of the sport itself. Golf has finally broken out of its core audience.
“There are a lot of barriers in place just to get someone that doesn’t play golf to where they can begin to play golf,” said Cottrill. “You have to buy golf clubs, golf balls, take lessons. You have to then invest an inordinate amount of time.”
Golfers tend to have disposable income, which they might spend on clubs, balls, golf bags, clothing, training tools, and more, but there are only so many of them. Golf has sought for years to grow and diversify the game, but that’s a tall order — it’s the sport of country clubs, not pickup games.
So it was telling when Callaway’s CEO Chip Brewer said on a May earnings call that “Topgolf is the keystone of our modern golf thesis.”
The Wearable Market
Topgolf may be key, but Callaway’s modern golf thesis extends beyond the entertainment venue. In 2017, Callaway spent $125.5 million to acquire another company with one foot in the golf market and one beyond: TravisMathew.
What makes TravisMathew unique is less obvious than Topgolf, but like the latter, it found a way to simultaneously target golfers while accessing a much larger market.
“You have lifestyle apparel sitting on one side,” said TravisMathew CEO Ryan Ellis, offering a bird’s-eye view of the clothing industry. “You’ve got performance or athletic apparel on another side. And then over the last 10 years, you’ve got athleisure, which bridges that gap, but athleisure still looks athletic. We live right in the middle with almost no one else, which we call ‘lifestyle performance.’”
Whatever you call it, TravisMathew’s clothes do manage to have an athleisure feel without making it look like you’re about to exercise. It might not be your choice for a sweaty workout, but it’s easy to move in and can pass in a variety of contexts, golf chief among them.
“We took some hiccups trying to force-feed fashion and lifestyle apparel into golf,” said Ellis. “Where we really won was if you could golf in it and you could wear it off the course, so we started building with that in mind.”
Thesis to Synthesis
It’s one thing to acquire good companies, but it’s another to make them work in harmony. At a Topgolf, you can use Callaway equipment, but you can also buy it, along with TravisMathew clothes — possibly made for that specific Topgolf venue — and perhaps some outdoor wear from Callaway-owned Jack Wolfskin or a golf bag from Callaway’s Ogio.
Then there are the benefits that come with the backing of an established name and ample bank account.
“We would have never gotten Jon Rahm [5th in the world golf rankings] without Callaway,” said Ellis, “and he’s a Callaway, Topgolf, and TravisMathew athlete.”
TravisMathew has also linked up with non-golf athletes for sponsorships, including Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Chicago Bulls’ Alex Caruso. The company’s image remains fitness-focused with an increasing willingness to stray from its core sport.
Topgolf plans to open 11 new venues per year for the next five years, on top of 70 already in existence, but the one I visited in El Segundo was the first with a particular feature: an actual golf course. On the surface, it’s easy to see irony in the heretical golf brand getting back to the real thing, but even a non-golfer like me could tell that this wasn’t a typical course.
- It’s 10 holes, beginner-friendly enough that I felt I had a theoretical shot at the par 3 holes.
- Golf carts have been swapped out for electric bikes, complete with a vertical slot for a golf bag.
On the 10th hole, there’s a screen next to the spot where you take your first drive, and if you’re able to hit a shot with a decent arc, you can watch a replay of yourself with your drive tracked by a TopTracer-generated tail.
My form looked like, well, someone playing their first game of golf, but I still got a kick out of watching the replay.
“The opportunity to have an impact on changing the demographics, the accessibility, the fun factor, to a sport as historic as golf, is exciting,” said Cottrill.
I’m still not sure if traditional golf is for me — the investment just to get up to non-embarrassing is a little much. But would I go back to Topgolf? Sure. I have unfinished business with some angry birds.