The innovators of modern golf

How Topgolf democratized a treasured pastime with technology

By Scott Shultz, vice president of digital & enterprise technology experience at Topgolf

Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.” The same can be said of innovation. You take a simple idea, combine complex processes and technology to make it a reality, and hope it impacts the world for the better. But innovation isn’t a destination. It’s a process that entails scalability, adaptability and a willingness to think outside the box. As vice president of digital & enterprise technology experience at Topgolf, I’ve witnessed how an idea becomes a successful global business, and I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with innovative partners to continuously improve operations to better serve the end user.

From idea to innovation

Photo courtesy of Topgolf

23 years ago, twin brothers Steve and Dave Joliffe had the idea of cutting a golf ball in half, putting a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag inside, and then placing targets on a large outfield with RFID readers to see who had the most accurate shot. They visualized a concept that would be appealing to golfers and non-golfers alike, making an exclusive sport available to the masses. They decided to build the first three venues in the U.K. and then expanded to the US. The original idea was built around target-oriented practice, so they called it T.O.P. Golf. Since then, Topgolf has grown to over 70 venues deployed worldwide and is the leader in recreational golf entertainment, serving more than 30 million guests annually.

As our global reach has expanded, our technology has had to keep pace with our growing operational needs. In 2016, we brought on Toptracer, which was pioneering the virtual tracing of balls in PGA tour events. The acquisition meant we needed a more sustainable solution for our existing RFID game scoring system. But this required seven additional servers and had a lot of challenges we had to work through to improve our stability and operations at the core. Before the transformation, each Topgolf venue consisted of seven PowerEdge Servers with about 22 virtualized instances of either virtual machines or microservices. So, if we experienced a particular server outage, it would have a domino effect on the rest of the tech stack. We needed a system overhaul if we were going to grow.

Driving growth with transformation

Photo courtesy of Topgolf

Transformation and innovation go together, particularly when there is a desire to scale. Topgolf’s success meant the opportunity to expand but presented the need for new infrastructure that would enable all aspects of operations. According to Dell Technologies’ Innovation Index, 85% of Innovative Leaders polled globally seek out technologies that realize their innovation. For Topgolf, that meant attaining the technology to facilitate each 102-bay venue with 60-frame-per-second high-res graphic capability, games and tracking on 14 simultaneous cameras. This needed to be done with a high level of accuracy, both on the trace and the tracking side of things, and it needed to be seamlessly fluid to create the optimal user experience.

We spent a lot of time with folks from Dell trying to understand how we could do this with a single rack at a venue with limited storage space. We looked at hyper-converged infrastructure, which offered the reliability and uptime capability we wanted but also gave the applications team the overhead and kind of horsepower they needed to run RFID games and high-res, 3D games. Since its inception, Topgolf has been an innovation company. Our success story is about our desire to continually improve, evolve and grow. But there are three main recommendations I give to anyone embarking on digital transformation.

  1.  Prioritize customizability.

Almost all of our applications are custom developed. And that’s just unique to our particular business. Depending on the scope of your innovative mission, you may have to force yourself to think outside the box. Seek out multiple mature technologies in the market and look for ways to adapt them to your particular business need.

2.  Find a true partner.

Finding a strong partner with deep reach in the industry has made a huge difference to us. Dell has been with us every step of the way, working with us to adapt our infrastructure to meet the moment. If we had had to do this completely on our own, I don’t know that we would have every one of our venues live with HCI by the end of the year. Having the support of a company with a worldwide reach has helped us accelerate rapidly and confidently.

3. Focus on resiliency and reliability.

For our international franchisees, we are able to streamline the process and help manage their tech stacks so that they have resilient and reliable systems that provide a return on investment in each venue. This is enabling us to drive growth. We are able to deploy to Bangkok or Oberhausen or Dubai because we’ve got a proven tech stack and platform to run on that we can assist them in managing.

The big swing

The mission behind Topgolf was to make a sport that was out of reach more accessible. Our statistics show that 51% of those who play at Topgolf are not golfers themselves. They are coming for fun, for community, to relax and have a good time. We are able to expose new generations and those who might not otherwise get to pick up a club the opportunity to discover the joy of a big swing. Through technological innovation and a willingness to transform to meet new challenges, we continue to reach new customers and bring golf to the masses. In our innovation journey, we learned that with the right collaborative partners, the endlessly complicated can be made deceptively simple. And fun.

Innovators We Love is a recurring series on Dell Perspectives that highlights bold leadership in innovation. For more information, check out the Dell Innovation Index on how to cultivate innovation resilience in turbulent times. To hear more stories about golf innovation, be sure to listen to this Trailblazers podcast episode hosted by Walter Isaacson.