IN RICK REILLY'S 1996 novel "Missing Links," the character Crowbar has a revolutionary idea for a golf driving range. Instead of beating balls aimlessly out onto a field, he'll make a game out of it. He'll put giant colored pits on the range, and every ball that hits a target will earn points. The farther the target the more points earned. The person with whom Crowbar discusses this idea calls it preposterous because no one will know which ball is his. But Crowbar has thought of that as well. He'll put bar codes on the balls to track them by computer.
It has taken awhile, but Crowbar's fictional concept has finally become a reality. TopGolf, which opens Friday in Alexandria, is a state-of-the-art driving range that marries traditional golf with cutting-edge technology.
"It's quite simple really," says Peter Allport, chief executive of TopGolf Worldwide, a subsidiary of Golf Entertainment International, the British company that created the game. "There's nothing particularly clever about the idea. It's just overcoming the [technological] challenges."
TopGolf looks like a typical driving range. The Alexandria facility, which offers day passes and memberships, has 78 bays on two levels from which golfers hit balls onto a field. The difference lies in where their shots are landing. Eleven targets are situated 25 to 250 yards from the tees. Ten of them are circular and similar in size to putting greens, while the other is a long trench that runs almost the width of the range. Much like the European billiards game snooker, each round target has a different colored flag -- red, yellow, blue, pink, brown, green, etc. -- and a different point value.
It's not unusual for a range to have flags positioned at various distances for golfers to aim at. The problem is, nobody knows how far the ball actually travels and, for that matter, whose ball is whose, especially when lots of people are driving at once. TopGolf eliminates the guessing. A tiny microchip -- so small it could fit on the tip of your pinky and you'd hardly feel it -- is embedded in the ball. (The TopGolf creators found that a bar code, which wears off after repeated use, wasn't feasible and spent several years developing a ball with a microchip that weighs the same as, and reacts like, an actual golf ball.)
Each player receives a card at registration similar to an ATM card. When you use it to purchase a bucket of balls, your identity is stored on the microchips. At the tees, balls are loaded into a basin and then brought one by one through an electronic reader before placing them on the tee or mat to hit. Several bays have tees set up for both right- and left-handed players.
After the ball lands, the microchip transmits information to the computer screen in the bay. The monitor gives an aerial view of the target, showing how far the ball traveled and how many points the shot received. (It even provides encouragement -- "Nice shot!") Each game has a handicap system that allows beginners to play competitively against more experienced golfers, and electronic leader boards throughout the clubhouse keep track of each golfer's score.
The TopGolf bays are unlike most stalls at driving ranges. They are designed to accommodate as many as five people with seating for two, allowing families or friends to share the experience. They are tended by "caddies," waiters and waitresses who can assist the technophobic as well as serve food and beverages.
TopGolf's intent is to make the sport fun regardless of ability level and less intimidating to the beginner. Anyone from weekend hackers to serious golfers can play, and if you don't have your own clubs, the facility will loan them to you free. TopGolf has six instructors -- including five PGA-certified teachers -- on site to provide instruction.
"It's not a substitute for golf," Allport says. "We actually believe we're adding to the golf market. It's an easy way of getting into golf."
TopGolf is designed as a game, but it can also prove beneficial to top players. Because it is played with real golf balls -- the same Dunlop balls used by PGA Tour player John Daly -- and real clubs, serious golfers, including European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, use it to get feedback on their swings.
TopGolf's roots are in Watford, England, where the first facility opened in 2000. That was followed by two other British sites, as well as a TopGolf in Bangkok, which opened in June. The eight-acre, $4.5 million Alexandria facility -- which already has 1,000 members -- is the company's first venture into the U. S. market.
"I think that it just caught people's imagination, really," Allport says. "They like the game. They have fun. They told their friends. They told their work colleagues, and that's really what drove the business."
TOPGOLF -- 6625 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria. 703-924-2600. www.topgolf.com. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Memberships range from $3 for a pay-and-play day pass to $25 for a year-long individual membership. Family memberships (two adults, two children) are $60 per year. Each additional child is $5. A bucket of 20 balls costs between $3.80 and $5.80 depending on time of day.