Topgolf is providing rookies and elite players alike with cutting-edge sporting technology.
In a world of Expected Goals, Toptracer and Heatmaps ,data and analytics are key weapons in every elite sports coach’s arsenal. From international cricket teams employing ball machines designed to mimic the exact speed of opposition bowlers, to Premier League clubs recording distance sprinted, jogged, and walked, technology is present in most training sessions, at every sport – at least at the top level. Critics have questioned if the exclusivity of such tech creates a division between professional athletes and the everyday amateur.
At Topgolf, tech isn’t reserved for elite golfers but made available to players of all abilities. Everyone who plays a Topgolf venue automatically engages with the kind of technology that is usually only available at the top tier of the sporting pyramid, regardless of their own ability. Not that this detracts from the benefits of the tech for those who possess supreme ability, according to Topgolf UK Head of Academy Andrew Agnoli.
(For those not familiar with Topgolf technology, the concept can be boiled down to this: microchipped balls correspond with large, dartboard-like targets that are spread across a full-scale driving range. When the balls land in the targets, the golfer scores points, depending on which section of a given target they land in.)
“Elite level athletes who train at Topgolf, such as Lily Humphries,” explains Agnoli, “Stand to gain as much from our technology as much as any beginner; the principles of evidence based improvement, replication of match situations and drills as skill test that Topgolf provides can be applied to any standard of golfer.”
Topgolf's Chigwell venue
With the company’s scoring technology employed in beginner golf lessons as well as for international tournament winners – and group free play, Topgolf’s PGA pros can bear witness to – and participate in, the disruption of coaching methods on a wide scale, up and down the skill ladder. And this technology isn’t just superior to other modern coaching tools because of its accessibility; , its true supremacy lays in its integration.
The main functional difference between Topgolf technology and other advanced apparatus is that technology isn’t imposed on a session but rather, is an inherent part of it. From the moment the player’s first ball rolls through a tracking sensor, student and teacher are playing within a matrix of data, producing and reacting to information in real time, rather than say, recording sprint speed over 90 minutes, assessing the stats and then working on improvements next time out. Within one game of Topgolf, the golfer can adjust their technique and objectives shot to shot, according to the data the system presents on an instant basis; Elon Musk might view Topgolfers as sporting cyborgs. But as Agnoli is keen to point out, human interpretation is key to utilising the technology:
“The effectiveness of the tech is down to the skill of individual coaches in how they exploit the data available to impact a session, and ultimately guide a player’s improvement,” he explains. “For example, you might talk a top level player through footage of their swing on Hudl (a video analysis tool), then ask them to hit specific sections of targets, according to how the target position reflects each shot from drive to putt on an actual course. And you’ll measure exactly how accurate they were with each shot, to see what factors are improving, and what you need to their approach in a traditional golf game.
Topgolf coaches incorporate further tools within coaching sessions, such as Hudl
“For a beginner, you might just want them to hit their shots further, or stop hooking them left – so you’ll give them a target 30 metres further away, dead in front of them, and record how often they hit the target as time progresses.”
Data-based evidence is nothing new in sport. Footballers have been measuring how far they run for years. But in an “open” sport, stats can provide misinformation as much as helpful data; a sprint isn’t always useful. In a “closed” sport such as golf, with fixed variables, accuracy and distance provide clean information that improvement can spring from.
So how do Topgolf’s coaches use the data for individual improvement ? For Agnoli, those three principles of evidence based improvement, replication of match situations and drills as skill tests provide the foundation on which coaches combine their nous with the tech to build their approach.
“Athletes make greater, more regular improvements more when their progress is measured as evidence. And when they make bigger improvements, they’re more eager to practice, which in turn leads to even more improvements. It’s a virtuous circle that leads to continuous enhancement.”
The evidence of progress is collated by Topgolf tech but how it is wielded is again, down to the ingenuity of the coach.
“This is where skill tests, rather than just skill drills come into play,” Andrew says. “ Topgolf’s microchip balls and targets allow us to record exactly how far the ball has been struck, and make a note of where it has landed, with points scored. It’s up to the individual coach in how to make use of this tool in order to challenge the student. Do they load up ‘TopPressure where players have to aim for all separate segments of a target at chipping practice, or ask them to hit the same specific segment, over and over again, before checking their results? Those are just two examples, of course; with an imaginative coach, the possible skill tests and paths to improvement are endless.”
Accessibility goes hand in hand with tech at Topgolf
Of course, much of golf is down to the intangibles, unseen factors that aren’t supposed to be measurable. The most infamous of these factors is, naturally, pressure. But according to Agnoli, that most human of sporting deciders can be replicated in practice, thanks to tech.
“Often, a lesson will start by ignoring the tech, and just getting a feel for hitting the ball – followed by a technical swing drill. It’s free and easy, with the focus on progress, rather than results.
"But when you introduce a challenge with measurable results, such as landing in the yellow target, then red, then black, the mood of the lesson changes. Students become more focused; they take their time on each shot, and line everything up more carefully than before. In essence, they’re responding to the pressure of having a measurable goal to aim for, that they can’t dismiss the failure of - because there’s hard evidence of right in front of them on the screen.”
Topgolf technology is improving coaching methods, and as a result, golfers – but let’s not forget that as “Everyone’s Game”, it’s also providing accessibility to the thousands of people who aren’t taking lessons at Topgolf but pouring through the doors in search of a novelty experience.
It’s for this reason that Topgolf technology isn’t just contributing to the sport via cutting edge coaching; the more people playing the sport, the higher the level of competition, which, in its own virtuous circle, will lead to further innovations.
Not that Topgolf technology is standing still; the company are currently planning to install a limited number of Toptracer screens at all three of their UK venues, a move that could take the impact of theirtech to another level entirely. With that in mind, and the accessibility of Topgolf to thousands who have never played swung a club before, is it inevitable that the sport will soon be invaded by an army of high-level golfing cyborgs?
The only certainty is that everyone, regardless of background or ability, will have the chance to try out.