A Driving Range for the Digital Age Spearheads the Revival of an Old-Favorite Golf Course in El Segundo

Topgolf tees off.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Robert Earle Howells

Golf is a stuffy old game, as everyone knows, with arcane sartorial requirements and entrenched etiquette that proscribes boisterous laughter, loud music or any behavior that might distract from the task of hitting a tiny, dimpled ball. Did we mention that it’s kind of slow?

Enter Topgolf. Exit stuffiness.

Surely you’ve noticed the monolith arising beside PCH on that rare stretch of mostly open space between Rosecrans and El Segundo Boulevard, right next to The Lakes at El Segundo—a longtime local favorite nine-hole golf course that now boasts 10 holes. 10? We’ll explain that shortly.

The monolith is Topgolf, and it opened a couple of months ago—a driving range for the digital age, where golf meets sports bar meets video arcade meets let’s-get-outta-the-office and have some fun. Topgolf is a 102-bay driving range where you can hone your swing, but that’s where the similarity to anything familiar ends.

The range is arrayed with targets both drivable and chippable, while your tee is perched on a swath of artificial turf bordered by a video console that spits out your ball and then proceeds to record your swing in detail. Actually, what it records is the flight of your shot and all concomitant details, promptly replayed to your chagrin and the delight of your pals.

The Tiger Treatment

Topgolf treats your pathetic 90-yard shank with all the respect of CBS covering Tiger in Augusta. You get to see the mighty arc of your ball’s flight and its subsequent landing, replete with stats such as ball speed, carry, total distance, hang time and height—all in embarrassing detail.

In a basic Topgolf game, you score points for distance and accuracy, and, of course, a leaderboard is prominently displayed. You can play any number of other digitally enhanced games, from a links version of Angry Birds to virtual reality rounds at St Andrews or Pebble Beach.

The bays are arrayed in an arc high above the range surface on three levels. You feel like you’re teeing off from the reserved seats at Dodger Stadium. Or maybe more like the private suites, since your bay is your personal hangout for the duration of your visit. Six can play at a time at rates that range from $55 to $75 an hour for the whole group.

Bar snacks, burgers, munchies, sandwiches, salads, flatbreads and drinks are delivered to your bayside table. Or you can wander off and order your own, in which case you might get distracted by a giant video monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen showing whatever sport is in season.

It’s all good fun. And it’s a hit. (The El Segundo facility is the first in Los Angeles and one of more than 60 worldwide.) And you don’t have to be good to enjoy it. Never swung a club before? Doesn’t matter.

“There are barriers to entry in traditional golf,” says Topgolf real estate director Tanner Micheli. “We want to make the game unintimidating to eliminate those barriers.”

Peter Bowman, director of operations for El Segundo, echoes that. “At a normal facility, someone trying to learn is stressed and nervous,” he points out. “We throw that out the window. Anyone can play here.”

That’s further endorsed in the broader golf community. Phil Lopez, general manager of El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, says, “I love Topgolf. It’s a ton of fun. More fun is good for the game, good for business all around. It’ll expose more people to golf and show them that it’s not only for elitist rich people.”

Business has been brisk. Do some golfers miss just quietly hitting a bucket of balls? Maybe. But it’s pretty compelling to head out with pals and/or workmates for team building or partying. SpaceX has booked several times. Paul George held a birthday party there. Justin Herbert from the Chargers has dropped by. Full disclosure: The parent company of this magazine, The Golden State Company, recently held a Topgolf bash to help inaugurate its friendly new neighbor.

Lakes Country

The advent of Topgolf shouldn’t overshadow the course it’s attached to: The Lakes at El Segundo. The pairing is the first of its kind; normally Topgolf is a stand-alone operation. But here the promise of a course overhaul helped smooth the way to an agreement with the city of El Segundo, which owns the course. A decade ago, The Lakes was a tad ragged, and it wasn’t making much money.

When Topgolf waltzed in, it dangled what it thought was a win-win-win for the city, for traditional golfers and for itself. But it was a nine-year journey for Topgolf to secure all the necessary local approvals. Plenty of naysayers were concerned that the Topgolfication of an old-favorite course would spell its demise.

“Credit the local golf community,” says Craig Kessler, public affairs director of the Southern California Golf Association. “They insisted that Topgolf be faithful to their message that they’re into the game of golf and committed to growing it.”

Hence arose an agreement to not only build a $40 million driving range but to overhaul The Lakes and contribute $1.9 million annually to the city’s general fund. And also to retain the course’s exemplary junior program. The Lakes is home turf for the El Segundo High School team and hosts a summer golf academy for kids. Peter Bowman points out that Topgolf has also created 500 new local jobs.

The rehab of the course comprised extensive landscaping while keeping the course’s signature tall trees. Bunkers were reshaped and refreshed with new sand, and once-bumpy greens were retailored with new bent grass. The clubhouse and retail shop are new and truly lovely.

Was the course Topgolfified? Sure, to an extent. But no one’s complaining about new lights and night golf till 11 p.m., or the music spilling out across the fairways from judiciously spaced speakers.

And then there’s that aforementioned 10th hole. Call it a bonus hole, or call it your five minutes of fame. You’re on camera when you play it, as a huge banner on the backside of a giant screen proclaims: “JUST FYI—EVERYONE IS WATCHING.” Meaning the crowd up in the Topgolf bays can see the front side of the screen and snigger at your pathetic drive off the tee. More likely, though, they’re focused on their own intense game of Angry Birds. They’re thoroughly Topgolfified.