Golf Life - Tale of the tape: Topgolf vs. Drive Shack

Topgolf Orlando

Golf Life - Tale of the tape: Topgolf vs. Drive Shack

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Golf Life - Tale of the tape: Topgolf vs. Drive Shack

I fear that I have witnessed the future of golf, and it doesn’t involve any par 3s. Or par 4s. And certainly no par 5s.

On April 20, I visited Topgolf Orlando and its new competitor, Drive Shack, which opened its first U.S. location April 7 in a suburb southeast of downtown. This was an unscientific attempt on a Friday night to get some sense as to how Drive Shack is performing relative to its more established competitor.

Topgolf has one Orlando location, which opened in October, and operates 41 venues with more in development. Drive Shack is the reinvention of American Golf, better known in the golf industry for managing and owning golf courses. Drive Shack still operates golf courses and has announced plans to spend as much as $300 million building entertainment facilities around the country.

Top Golf Orland

Topgolf Orlando

I arrived at Topgolf at 6:45 p.m. and spent 75 minutes walking the three levels and noshing on some delicious steak quesadillas in the hopping second-floor bar. Then I spent 2 hours, 15 minutes at Drive Shack, located southeast of downtown, near Orlando International Airport. Finally, I returned to Topgolf for an hour.

When I arrived at Topgolf, the entire third floor was blocked off for a private event. Topgolf is located less than a mile from Orange County Convention Center, so it’s well positioned to capture group business. Still, I was surprised that an entire floor was reserved. That had to be a lucrative sale for the Topgolf team.

All of the bays on the second floor were occupied, as were two-thirds of the bays on the first floor. The main bar, located near the entrance on the second floor, was packed, though most of the customers appeared to be there just for after-work drinks. I didn’t notice many of them gravitating toward the hitting bays. It was a reminder that for all of Topgolf’s formidable golf technology, it often feels like a giant bar with a driving range attached.

That said, there was only one person sitting at the first-floor bar when I arrived, and the restaurant tables were unoccupied. It wasn’t much busier when I returned around 11 p.m.

When I arrived at Drive Shack at 8:25 pm., I was surprised by the number of cars in the parking lot. Unlike Topgolf, which is located near many entertainment attractions, Drive Shack sits near a toll road in the Lake Nona suburb. It’s a growing residential and commercial neighborhood, but it lacks the traffic density found near Topgolf.

Drive Shack Orlando

Drive Shack Orlando

Drive Shack customers enter on the first floor – a slightly different configuration than Topgolf’s layout – and immediately head for the higher levels. There was little activity on the first floor, but there were only three open bays on the second level and one open bay on the third level. Drive Shack wasn’t as busy as Topgolf, but the customer traffic was much better than I anticipated for just its 14th day in operation.

The biggest difference evident between the two facilities was that Topgolf’s main bar and restaurant was much busier than Drive Shack’s. To flip the formulation cited above, Drive Shack felt like a driving range with restaurants attached. Drive Shack’s enclosed restaurant on the second floor had 20-30 customers throughout my visit. The open-air bar on the third floor had a half-dozen customers, myself included

The mahi taco appetizer really is as delicious as the “Sara(h)s” – Drive Shack CEO Sarah Watterson and COO Sara Yakin – had told me during a facility tour in late March. That dish was as good or better than any fish tacos I’ve ever had.

There was no live music at either Topgolf or Drive Shack, though a DJ was spinning tunes on Topgolf’s third floor when I returned later in the evening. A Drive Shack staffer said she expected a DJ to be working the next night.

What is striking about walking the floors at Topgolf and Drive Shack is how few customers appear to play golf regularly. I spent 4½ hours walking both facilities and could count on two hands the number of customers who appeared to be skilled golfers. There’s talk around the industry that Topgolf and Drive Shack customers might transition to traditional golf courses, but I remain skeptical based on the anecdotal evidence.

That said, both companies have good technology for serious players interested in such things. Topgolf Orlando was the first location to introduce Toptracer (formerly Protracer) technology, which is used in television coverage of the PGA Tour. Drive Shack uses Foresight Sports’ technology, which spits out information on carry distance, total distance, backspin, ball speed and peak height. That’s similar to the data customers see at Topgolf.

Golf’s version of bowling

One other point struck me as I walked the floors at Topgolf and Drive Shack: They attract a broad swath of consumers. While traditional golf has struggled to attract minorities – middle-aged and elderly white men still drive the rounds-played numbers – there’s no shortage of diversity at Topgolf and Drive Shack. The customers filling those hitting bays look like a cross-section of any American city. These are people simply looking to have fun with friends and family. In that sense, what both companies seem to offer is something akin to golf’s version of bowling.

During the course of my visit to Drive Shack, I noticed that some hitting bays began to open up. Still, when I left at 10:30, a few late arrivals were filtering in, and there were some 195 cars in the parking lot. (Yes, I drove each aisle and counted the cars. And yes, I do need to get a life.)

I wrapped up the evening with an hour at Topgolf. The event on the third floor was over and all but two bays in the facility were full at 11 p.m. Thirty minutes later, Topgolf’s main bar still was filled with customers who showed no interest in hitting a golf ball. They were there to socialize.

That brings me to the final takeaway from the evening: Drive Shack can provide customers with a golf product that is comparable to Topgolf’s. If my anecdotal experience is any indication, where Drive Shack will need to close the gap is in the lucrative food-and-beverage category. In visits to several Topgolf locations around the country, it’s been evident that the facilities are community hangouts – places for locals to eat, drink, socialize and perhaps even hit a few golf balls. It’s extraordinary when one considers that more than 13 million consumers, many of them nongolfers, annually spend hours racking up large bills at Topgolf facilities.

Drive Shack seems capable of replicating the golf experience found at Topgolf. My sense is that the key question for Drive Shack is: Can it build the fun, exciting culture that keeps all of those nongolfers coming back time and again? Gwk

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