© Jax 0677

The game of golf is a collection of curiosities and once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences. For example, the odds of hitting a hole in one on a normal par-3 hole are 12,500-to-1. But things can really get crazy … like a hole in one on a par-5. Consider this from Wikipedia:

“As of October 2008, a condor (four under par) hole in one on a par 5 hole had been recorded on four occasions. A horseshoe-shaped par 5 hole once enabled a condor hole in one to be achieved with a 3-iron club. The longest recorded straight drive hole-in-one is believed to be 517 yards on the par 5 No. 9 hole at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver in 2002, aided by the thin air due to the high altitude. A condor is also known as a double albatross, or a triple eagle.”

A condor? Who knew?

Yet among all the rarities in golf history – Alan Shepard hitting balls on the Moon or Jimmy the Greek famously winning a bet by hitting a golf ball a mile … on a frozen lake – there is one thing that stands as the rarest achievement of all. It’s so unlikely that I have to call it a “pink unicorn.” It is the rarest of the rare in the crazy world of golf.

It’s a non-golfer who went to TopGolf and then became a real golfer at a golf course.

Seriously. Can anyone show me a study of how many Americans started playing real golf because they went to TopGolf first? In fact, just show me one. Show me that pink unicorn.

As the great Judge Smails once said, “Well? We’re waaaiting.”

Look there’s nothing wrong with TopGolf. They’re building one in Cleveland right now and everyone is breathlessly waiting for the big grand opening. There are now about 50 TopGolf locations in the U.S. and at least four more internationally.

They are franchise operations like Subway or Krispy Kreme. You buy the franchise rights (which presumably include technology, licensing, marketing, supplies, etc.) then you pay for land and construction on top of that. Total start-up costs average about $18 million from start to finish, but the Vegas location reportedly cost a whopping $50 million.

The folks who’ve bought franchises and built these in major markets are not dumb and they will undoubtedly earn their money back. Smaller markets? It seems to me it would be tough to recoup your $18 million in Topeka or Greenville but, hey, more power to you if you want to try.

I also have no problem with the concept of TopGolf. Basically, it’s a pretty fancy bowling alley with a driving range attached where the lanes would be. I like bowling. I probably go once every couple of years, usually for a party or something. I can’t help but think that’s pretty much the TopGolf model too. People go there to party – corporate entertainment or birthdays or low-end bachelor parties or whatever. They drop their $100 a person and everyone has a good time.

My problem is that the NGF and others – who are apparently desperate to tell some kind of good news story about golf – are now touting the growth of “off-course play,” including TopGolf, other simulators and stand-alone driving ranges. They’re claiming that 9.3 million Americans now play “golf” exclusively “off course” and somehow this indicates the game is growing. This, to borrow a phrase from bowling, is a gutter ball.

Fundamentally, TopGolf is not golf. It’s an entertainment venue that’s more akin to a video game arcade than (and I’m just going to say it) REAL GOLF.

If anything, I think TopGolf has the potential to cannibalize course revenues when actual golfers decide to go drop their $100 there on Friday night instead of teeing it up Saturday morning. Yes, I know I’m being curmudgeonly about this and it’s fun and all, but I’m tired of being told by the powers that be that somehow this giant bowling alley thingy is good for our game.

I call B.S.

My version of golf still takes place on a large, gorgeous, unregulated playing field made of real grass. It involves exercise and fresh air. You can keep score or not. There are no bells ringing or electronic buzzers going off because someone hit a great fake electronic shot. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful and it is fun as hell even when you stink at it.

So, I’d be happy to welcome a pink unicorn to my game but I’m not holding my breath. I think there’s a better chance of me scoring a condor than TopGolf growing the game I love.

Pat Jones is the editor-at-large of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at pjones@gie.net.