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Topgolf gets ready to tee off
Work continues on the upper level at Topgolf in Brandon in preparation for the opening of the business. ANDY JONES/STAFF Work continues on the upper level at Topgolf in Brandon in preparation for the opening of the business. ANDY JONES/STAFF Topgolf driving range in Brandon will become the largest sports bar in the Tampa Bay region when it opens Dec. 19.

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An outdoor bar at Topgolf is nearly ready in Brandon. ANDY JONES/STAFF
By Richard Mullins | Tribune Staff
Published: December 5, 2014   |   Updated: December 5, 2014 at 08:32 PM

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The massive Topgolf driving range in Brandon will officially open to the public on Dec. 19, and immediately win a notable distinction:
It will become the largest sports bar in the Tampa Bay region.

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That’s not counting Raymond James Stadium on game days, of course, but still, the new facility will span a whopping 65,000 square feet indoors, rivaling many large grocery stores in size. Estimated budget to build: $20 million.

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On Friday, the new Topgolf International Inc. site was a whirlwind of activity, as upwards of 450 employees were going through some form of training. That includes more than 80 kitchen staff, 20 maintenance technicians, dozens of bartenders, concierges, golf instructors, and the 80 people with one-of-a-kind job title of “Bay Host.”

A blend of server, party emcee and private butler, the Bay Hosts will direct guests to one of 102 driving range bays, stacked on three levels, then take food and drink orders, and guide players through the electronic scoring system, and even give some tips on the proper swing.

That personal attention is necessary to explain to guests that Topgolf is far more than a driving range for avid golfers, said Director of Operations Brad Spofford.

This is an entertainment complex.
“I think my favorites are the couples that come in on a date,” Spofford said. Almost invariably, he said, the lady will give her date a look that says “I can’t believe you brought me to a driving range — on a date. But then in a few minutes, she’s ordering drinks, kicking off her high heels and thwacking away at balls, trash talking. A lot of times, you see them on the way out and she’s talking about how bad she beat him.”
Topgolf’s massive range uses special golf balls with wireless tags inside that track each golfer and ball. Each target in the 200-yard range has sensors to detect how close the ball lands. The further away, and the closer to the pin, the more points the golfer accumulates.
Roughly a third of all Topgolf guests company-wide are part of a corporate event, the company said, and in 2013, 2.7 million people visited a Topgolf location. They played 7.8 million games of Topgolf and hit 156 million balls. The company estimates that attendance will almost double in 2014 to 4.9 million visitors, and if growth patterns continue, in 2017 more people will play a game of Topgolf than attend a NFL football game.

The Brandon site near the intersection of Palm River Road and Falkenburg Road will be the 12th U.S. location for the Texas-based company. The site is part of the new retail campus that includes a Bass Pro Shops, and has a formal address on a newly built road at 10690 Palm River Rd. Perhaps the site’s most visible aspect are the giant poles that hold up the netting to keep balls in the course, visible from nearby I-75.
Big popularity brings its own issues. On busy nights, the wait time for a hitting bay can reach two to four hours, so the complex has two massive bars, a rooftop terrace with DJs or bands, and lounges with pool tables, foosball tables, giant Jenga games and large HDTVs with Xbox consoles. The site will only take reservations for large parties or corporate events.
Bays rent for a flat rate of $20 per hour on weekdays and $40 per hour on weekends, and can accommodate six players and 10 people total.
Spofford helped open the Austin location, and he noticed a few patterns right away. Pro-minded golfers tend to want the ground-level hitting bays, as they give a more accurate sense of distance. Partiers out to have fun tend to want the top, third-level bays. Just as a precaution, there are deep mesh nets that stretch out several yards from the hitting bay edge, just in case an errant golfer tips over the edge. It happens, Spofford said. Rarely, but it does happen. The staff strongly discourages people from taking a “Happy Gilmore”-style run-up-and-swing approach.
But more than a golf experience, Spofford said the company strives for an entertainment experience. The site stays open until midnight from Sunday to Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. In February, there will be a “Bathing Suits and Boots” night where guests (and staff) are encouraged to wear just that. Massive heaters over the hitting bays can raise the area temperature by about 20 degrees on chilly nights.

Staff are hired for their exuberant personalities. Even during training days this week, several staffers took over the main lobby for a Nerf gun shootout. One training class for drink servers involved them running around obstacles on the range with trays full of water glasses and rolling golf balls.
The opening rollout is already underway.

Dec. 10 is a formal Media Day tour, then Dec. 15 is a soft opening for training, then Dec. 18 is a VIP guest night, then Dec. 19 the site fully opens to the public.

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