- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

TopGolf is well on its way to becoming the sudoku of the sports world.

“It’s incredibly addictive,” says Abe Caliboso, a retired Naval officer from Woodbridge, Va., who is a fixture at TopGolf’s Kingstowne facility. “Sometimes I think they put a microchip in my car, because I’ll be driving on I-95 and, all of a sudden, I’ll find myself on the Beltway heading to Kingstowne.”

On a very basic level, TopGolf is an upscale driving range complete with heated and covered hitting stations, a full-service bar and grill and stadium seats in every driving bay. Picture a golf version of a white-collar bowling alley.

But TopGolf offers much more than just the opportunity to attack a porterhouse steak and sip single-malt scotch while working on your 7-iron. Invented and engineered by English twins Steve and Dave Jolliffe and their mate, Jeff Emerson, TopGolf’s signature genius lies embedded in every ball.

At the core of every ball at TopGolf’s range is a titanium microchip approximately the same size and weight as a dime. This proprietary technology allows players to track their shots by encoding their information on every golf ball.

“Putting a personal signature on every ball meant we had to find a way to put a microchip inside the ball,” says Steve Jolliffe, who founded the game’s licensing corporation, World Golf Systems, along with his brother and Emerson in 1997. “We had a feasibility study done on it, and they said it was impossible. They said the chip wouldn’t survive ball-manufacturing temperatures and that it couldn’t be done without altering ball flight. We were actually thrilled, because that meant nobody else could do it slap-bang simple. We were certain we could do it.”

What followed was a two-year, multimillion dollar testing quest with equipment giant Dunlop and professionals like former European Ryder Cup captain and WGS shareholder Sam Torrance.

“It was a very interesting process which ate up all of our start-up money and then some, because Dunlop wouldn’t put their name on the ball unless it reacted identically to their other balls,” says Jolliffe, who previously worked as a mining engineer primarily in platinum mines in South Africa. “Dunlop has a machine which exactly measures ball flight, spin and such things, and eventually we got it perfect.”

The balls aren’t cheap, costing approximately $2 apiece to mass produce as opposed to the 37-cent price of the standard range ball. But attrition is extremely low, given the fact that each ball has a player’s name written on its microchip.

“We don’t get many pinched for that reason,” says Richard Roe, services manager for WGS. “Each ball will last about 350 strikes on average. And at that point, the cover starts to wear and fail, not the microchip. The best thing is that I defy even a pro to tell the difference between one of our balls and a Dunlop Maxfli Loco bought off the shelf. The performance is identical, and that’s crucial to the concept.”

Once WGS had its microball, the rest was comparably simple. TopGolf’s first gaming center opened in 2000 in Watford (just northwest of London). The company now has three centers in the UK, one in Bangkok and the debut U.S. site at Kingstowne. Licensing contracts are in hand for locations in Spain, Dubai, Paris, Chicago and Dallas.

“We see North America as our primary growth market, but we also have an eye on South Korea and Japan because of their space limitations for 18-hole courses,” says Jolliffe, an 18-handicapper who lists golf and snooker as his primary passions. “Perhaps it feels like it’s taken a while to take hold, because we’re so close to it. But it really feels unstoppable now.”

Spend an hour at the Kingstowne facility and whether you’re an avid purist or a beginner, you’re likely to agree that Jolliffe and Co. are onto something special.

Upon arriving at TopGolf for the first time, patrons fill out a brief form and are issued a personalized membership card which looks like an ordinary plastic debit card. For $15, players get the card and two free games. When the card is inserted into a ball dispenser, that player’s information is encoded onto the microchip in each ball dispensed.

Players proceed to a hitting station, where each shot they successfully hit into one of 10 massive green-shaped target grids (imagine giant dart boards set into the ground) is registered and relayed to a private feedback screen in each hitting bay. Miss short and right of the red flag located 125 yards from the tees, for instance, and your feedback screen will highlight the exact portion of the grid your ball flew into and tell you your shot traveled, say, 118 yards.

Points are awarded based on proximity to the flag and difficulty of the shot (a shot eight yards away from the 190-yard target being worth more than a similarly errant miss at the 150-yard flag and so on). A standard game consists of 20 balls and costs between $3.60 and $5.80, depending on the time and day of the week.

Score high enough, and your name will appear on one of the leader boards scattered around the facility. But most folks are content to simply challenge their own personal best, which is also tracked by the software and displayed at the end of each game.

“I come here every day and play between 10 and 20 games,” says Caliboso, whose handicap has dropped from the mid-20s to 16 since he became addicted to TopGolf six months ago. “Of course, I like the game, but I also love the atmosphere. The people are extremely accommodating, and it’s just a much nicer, more comfortable environment than your typical driving range.”

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