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Fun, Within Range
Despite Some Annoyances, a New Mix of Golf, Digital Technology and Beer Scores Pretty Well

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 5, 2006

Golf courses have been steadily evolving for 20 years, improving conditions and elevating the playing experience. Not so the humble driving range, which remains a place where golfers go to beat lifeless balls from grubby plastic mats, reciting vulgar hacker catechisms along the way. Even the beleaguered teen in the pickup cart is stuck in time, cringing through endless orbits of the field.

This changed for area golfers last year with the opening of TopGolf Game Center in Alexandria. By adding technology, social interaction and beer, the creators of this driving range have made an interesting hybrid of entertainment and sport: a bowling alley with tiny white balls, say, or Dave & Buster's with fresh air. A sports bar with something to play other than keno. Miniature golf with a 7-iron, maybe.

Anyway, the facility is the first in the United States by the British firm World Golf Systems, which operates similar ranges in England and plans an empire. Here's how the thing works:

Spaced around a vast field of artificial turf are 11 giant holes, each about the size of a golf green and segmented like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each target has a colored flag in the center. Players occupy stalls on one of two decks; all are covered and heated.

TopGolf balls are implanted with microchips: You buy balls (about $4 to $6 for 20, depending on the time of day) using an ATM-like personalized card, and each ball is electronically marked. When you get to your bay (you can make reservations), you swipe your card through a computer screen, then run each ball past a sensor built into the ball dispenser before swinging. When you hit a target, the ball is "read" and your yardage and score, for better or worse, appear on the screen.

When I first surveyed the range, I figured I'd do okay: It's not that I can hit a green with consistency beyond 20 yards, but these targets looked so big, and there were so many on that grand lawn, I assumed I'd thrive with middling control and some lucky hops.

(This is the point in most golf articles where the author offers comic self-deprecation and invites you to laugh along at his or her incompetence. Me, I'm just a little annoyed and hitting it pretty well today, so wipe that smirk off your face.)

I warmed up with the signature game, TopGolf, in which points are awarded for hitting any target, purposefully or not. Here is where TopGolf can annoy: Even many of my well-hit balls -- high, straight blasts down the center -- landed outside the target zones, earning me zilch. One or two shanks found their way into a hole, resulting in points of which I was unworthy. At least twice the computer failed to reward me for shots that hit the mark.

This is one way in which the old "analog" driving range is superior: You never need to reboot the 150-yard flag at your neighborhood hack track.

I next played TopChip, in which my screen dictated the targets to aim for (starting with the red-flagged one mere steps from the tee box). My first shot rolled tantalizingly close to the hole but, alas, netted me nothing. In real life, I was an almost-makable putt away from the flag, but got no digital recognition. My next ball bounced in, for three points.

I was not alone in my frustrations with near-misses: A guy in the next bay cursed audibly throughout his game, despite thwacking a series of long, true strokes. But many others seemed content. Walking the bays, I noticed groups of twenty- and thirty-somethings, drinking beer and heckling each other; an instructor working with a determined-looking young woman; and three adolescent boys taking a group lesson.

Unlike most traditional ranges, TopGolf provides free loaner clubs, a decent pro shop and an airy bar/cafe area with a TV screen the size of a double bed. Wait staff prowl the bays taking food and drink orders; roving instructors offer free tips.

TopGolf bills itself as the future of golf, and I can see why: The techno-interactivity, visual buzz, competitive element and modern comforts appeal strongly to teens and kids -- the golfers of tomorrow. For the rest of us -- my frustrations with the scoring system notwithstanding -- TopGolf makes an often elite, intimidating, time-consuming game a lot more like mass entertainment.

Golf as fun: Imagine that.

John Briley writes the Moving Crew column for The Post's Health section. TopGolf Game Center: 703-924-2600; www.topgolfusa.com.

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