In Alexandria, TopGolf Livens Up the Driving Range

By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, August 4, 2005

The driving range: a few golf balls, some old clubs and an open field. What more do you need for some good old-fashioned fun?

Kevin Vouglitois would suggest the addition of computer chips, wireless networks and flat-panel monitors.

Yes, it's happened. Technology has invaded the driving range.

Tomorrow in the Kingstowne section of Alexandria, Vouglitois and his team will open a $4.5 million souped-up range called TopGolf that they hope will change the relationship between golfer and ball.

The theory is this: Instead of solitarily hitting ball after ball into an abyss of grass, players can compete against each other. It should be interesting enough to attract non-golfers, but serious enough to keep fanatics coming back again and again.

TopGolf gives customers targets to hit and keeps track of the score electronically. And, of course, there are "caddies" walking around serving chicken fingers and glasses of wine.

"It creates this fun environment . . . so a father can say, 'Wow, I can bring my whole family here," said Vouglitois, general manager of TopGolf USA.

Each player is assigned specific balls that are embedded with computer chips. Thus, when a player sets his ball on the tee, the computer network knows which person is up. The goal is then to hit the ball out to a series of target holes in the artificial-turf field that are between five and 25 yards in diameter. Points are awarded based on the distance to the hole and how close to the center of it the ball landed.

The holes contain chip readers so that when a ball comes in, it's identified immediately and a wireless network shoots data to the computer system so points are awarded to the right player. The 80 bays are equipped with monitors that keep track of scores, making pens and pencils obsolete.

The games change as players up the ante and want more challenges, but the price per player stays between $3.80 and $5.80 per game.

The concept originated in England, with two entrepreneurs who were bored with traditional golfing ranges. They spent three years developing the system and opened the first one in Hertfordshire in 2000. The company has since opened two more in England and one in Bangkok. The Kingstowne site is the first in the United States, but the firm is dreaming big, hoping to open more than 100 throughout the country over the next few years.

It remains to be seen if TopGolf will take off in the United States the way Vouglitois and his partners hope. In England, more than half of the customers had never played golf before, and that has been key to the firm's success. The Kingstowne center is trying to replicate that broad appeal by catering to couples on dates, children's birthday parties and corporate outings.

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