The 18th hole at Torrey Pines. I stand in the fairway, 8 iron in hand, knowing that one more good swing will be enough. I wipe the sweat from my brow and take a deep breath. I grip the club, perhaps a little too tightly as nerves have kicked in. I address the ball and swing. The contact is good, the ball sets off towards the target and I’m on the green, 15 feet from the flag.
I punch the air. I’ve done it. I’ve beaten my best score and I’m now in – let me just check my phone here – 600th place on the leaderboard. YES.
While the world’s elite players are taking part in this week’s US Open at Torrey Pines, thanks to the wonders of modern technology amateur golfers all over the globe have been able to compete in their own simulation of the event on Toptracer enabled driving ranges on the Toptracer Torrey Pines 9-shot Challenge.
I went along to Aintree Golf Centre on Merseyside to find what Toptracer technology was all about and I came away convinced that every golfer really ought to try it.
Not only is it an entertaining way to pass your time at the range, it will completely transform how you practice and will likely help to lower your scores.
As someone who spends considerably more time on the range than on the course I know how dull practice can be, but Toptracer ranges offer something vastly different to what I am used to. This isn’t like reaching for your best driver (opens in new tab) and walloping 50 balls all over the range. It’s practice with a purpose and I had an absolute blast taking on Torrey Pines and then seeing my name on a worldwide leaderboard.
Granted, I was not exactly near the top of that leaderboard but I was inside the world’s top 600 and I had the second best score recorded at Aintree. Furthermore, the Toptracer app informed me that I was in the top 7% of players participating in the US Open challenge.
Overall, not bad for a middle aged, 14 handicapper with a bad back, if I say so myself.
The US Open 9 Shot Challenge from TopGolf is a great concept and a ton of fun. Not only is it the closest most amateur golfers will get to playing iconic courses such as Torrey Pines, it also provides a rare opportunity to compete against tens of thousands of fellow golfers worldwide. Almost 100,000 golfers took part in a similar challenge at Toptracer ranges during the USPGA Championship last month, and they are expecting similar numbers for this event, which runs until Sunday 20th June.
The beauty of it is that it’s free to enter and you can have as many attempts as you like, with only your best score being entered into the competition. While the US Open challenge was the focus of my visit to Aintree, I soon discovered that there is a lot more to Toptracer than just these ‘mini majors’.
Toptracer: what is it and what does it cost?
Toptracer transformed how we view golf on TV and it is now doing the same for driving ranges all over the world. Technology that was once exclusive to the top professionals is now readily available, affordable and enjoyable to all. Toptracer has over 400 locations worldwide and the list is growing all the time.
A Toptracer enabled driving range has monitors in each bay that can be activated by paying an hourly fee in addition to the cost of your bucket of balls. In the UK this is generally around £5 but it varies a little from course to course so check with your local (opens in new tab). If you don’t want to enable Toptracer you can just use the bay as you would normally. It is completely optional but if you visit a range where Toptracer is available then give it a try, even if it’s just once. You’ll almost certainly love it and if for some inexplicable reason you don’t, well it’s only cost you a fiver.
Before activation you will need to download the free app to your smartphone, create an account and then scan a QR code from the monitor. After that, you’re good to go.
Toptracer: how does it work?
The range will have numerous flags or targets at varying distances, all of which have been pre-loaded onto the monitor in your bay. The yardages to all of these targets are customised to each individual bay to ensure maximum accuracy on the simulation.
This accuracy comes via two cameras positioned on the roof either side of each individual bay. They track the flight of the ball for a limited distance which then allows Toptracer to gather enough information about the speed, height and direction of the ball to provide an accurate representation of where your shot is going to end up.
The use of these cameras provides something a little different to the data you would get from a launch monitor, which is the most commonly used shot measuring tool. All touring pros will have a launch monitor with them when they go to the range but not many amateur golfers can spend twenty grand on a Trackman or GC Quad! There are affordable, pocket sized alternatives from brands such as Garmin, Rapsodo and Swing Caddie but these are not as accurate as Toptracer technology. I’ll get to this in a bit more detail shortly.
After selecting the game you wish to play, pick a target out on the range, select it on the monitor and that’s the line you need to hit all of your shots. It is highly advisable that you select a target which is fairly central to your bay as it makes your alignment much simpler. And remember, you aren’t hitting to the actual target on the range, it’s only the line that matters. That can be a little disconcerting at first when you are hitting a 100 yard shot at a target 150 yards away, but the thing to focus on is the line, not the target.
So line up to your target, trust that you have the right club for the distance provided, swing away and then watch on the monitor to see the outcome. It’s incredibly satisfying when you turn to the screen and see your ball landing a few feet from the pin. You just don’t get that kind of buzz on normal range sessions.
For the standard “9 hole approach” challenge you will be required to hit nine different length approach shots to various greens on your chosen course. When golf’s major tournaments come around Toptracer will add a special, extra competition using this format, such as this current one at Torrey Pines. Prizes are given for the top three places, with the top prize being a signed flag by this year’s US Open winner.
The goal is to hit your shot as close to your target line as you can and then the simulator will do the rest. Most golfers will just be happy to find the green but the serious players will be targeting a specific side of the green, and the really hard core students of the game will even know how the green undulates.
Because yes, remarkably Toptracer has programmed all of the slopes and undulations from each green into their challenges. So for example, if you were playing the 16th at Augusta National to a “funnel pin” on the left of the green, rather than hit directly at the flag and risk pulling a shot into the water you could hit it right and the slope will funnel the ball down to the flag. Course knowledge certainly helps, but you’ll get that the more you play.
The scoring system is quite simple. If your shot ends up on the green 22 feet from the flag, your score on that hole is 22. Penalty points are added for balls that miss the green and end up in the fringe, rough, bunkers or water hazards. After nine holes your total distance from the nine flags plus any penalties incurred are tallied and that is your score. The lowest score wins.
You can have as many attempts as you like and your best score is the one that will be entered on the leaderboard. After my first attempt I was ranked 3rd at Aintree Driving Range, 197th in the UK and 1057th in the world. I won’t lie, I was delighted at first, but that night it ate away at me because I knew I could do better. So I went back the next day and blew that score away and flew up the leaderboard. Full disclosure, I’ll probably go back again after filing this review!
One thing I can say without any hesitation is that I’ve never gotten so much out of a range session. It’s highly enjoyable but also manages to recreate the tension and stress that you normally only experience when playing an actual round of golf. That’s what makes Toptracer such a brilliant concept. It’s practice with a purpose.
What else does Toptracer have to offer?
While the major tournament challenges are certainly appealing and the urge to keep trying to climb the leaderboard is hard to ignore, there are plenty of other challenges that you can compete in 12 months a year, either competing against yourself, friends in the next bay or - as with the US Open challenge - other golfers all around the world.
- Warm Up This feature traces each shot and gives you statistics.
- My Practice As above, but all club and shot data is stored in the app for further analysis. This is ideal for learning how far you hit each club.
- Virtual Golf Play some of the world’s most iconic courses right from your bay.
- Approach Challenge Nine approach shots of varying distances on a choice of three legendary courses. This is the format that the US Open challenge is based on and your scores will be entered onto a worldwide leaderboard.
- Driving Challenge Similar to the approach challenge only the aim is to hit fairways rather than greens. Points are awarded (and penalty points deducted) based on distance and accuracy and again, there is a leaderboard featuring the best scores.
- Long Drive As you’d expect, you try to hit is as far as you can. Great fun when playing against your pals.
- Closest to the Pin Compete against yourself or your friends by hitting it close on some of the most scenic Par 3 holes in golf.
- Points Game Score points based on accuracy of shots to physical targets out on your range.
- Go Fish A fun game for kids and beginners
These are the monitor based games. There are also some mobile-only games on offer.
I tried most of the monitor based games and some were more enjoyable than others but the great thing is that there’s something for everyone. You don’t need to be a good golfer to get something out of Toptracer and some golf coaches actually use it to give new students a taste of what to expect when they actually get out on the course for the first time.
When I went back to Aintree for a second visit in the evening, the place was rammed with golfers of all ages and there were several parents there with their kids, using the machines together and having a great time. Toptracer has made golf more accessible for families because it’s now just like going to the bowling alley. A regular driving range doesn’t offer that kind of experience and can be boring even for adults, let alone kids.
Personally I couldn’t get enough of the approach challenges because the stakes can get pretty high as you try to beat your previous best score and climb the leaderboard. Every shot matters because one poor strike will ruin your score and that makes you focus in a way that very few of us would when just hitting shots on the range without any real consequences. This is perfect for recreating the kind of pressure you might feel when standing over an important shot on the course as you simply can’t reproduce that in a normal range session.
The driving challenge is great for this too. It really increases your focus and allows you to get much more out of your practice. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself after my ‘US Open’ exploits but was soon brought back down to earth when I was spraying shots all over the range during the driving challenge. A look at that leaderboard afterwards saw me languishing somewhere outside the top eight thousand. Dreadful stuff, but the good thing is that your scores from these challenges are recorded in the app so you can easily see the areas of your game that need the most work.
Will Toptracer help you become a better golfer?
Yers, it probably will… although of course there are no guarantees. Regularly practicing with Toptracer enabled should make you better at golf though. One thing I can say for certain is that you will get much more out of a practice session using Toptracer than you would with a regular range session when most golfers end up just repeatedly smashing balls with the driver and not focusing too much about where they are going.
Another way in which it can help is by giving you accurate distances for each club. This is one of the most important things that can help amateur golfers improve. You simply must know exactly how far you hit each club otherwise you will be throwing strokes away needlessly on the course by taking the wrong club on approach shots.
One session using Toptracer will allow you to work that out and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it. In fact, the ‘My Practice’ option exists specifically for this. You enter the club you want to use, hit a number of shots (be sure to delete the bad ones so as to not skew the averages) and hey presto, by the end of the hour you have an accurate record of how far you hit each club in the bag and it’s only cost you a fiver.
Nick Percy, the manager at Aintree Golf Centre told me that installing Toptracer was a real game changer for them. “I’d been looking for something like this to add to the range for years” he said. “The problem was that everything we looked at just wasn’t really that good. Then Toptracer came along and it was an absolute no brainer. As soon as we got to try it we knew we had to have it. It’s fantastic. I don’t know why every range doesn’t have it”.
Of course you’d expect him to say that, but it was also my exact thought after spending two hours seeing what Toptracer could do. Every busy driving range should have this installed because it makes practice a lot more fun for both serious and new golfers alike. There’s something for everyone and it’s very reasonably priced.
I spoke to a couple of golfers who were using Top Tracer and their praise was just as effusive. Chris Hunter, a 60 year old from nearby Aughton says it has completely transformed his attitude to practice. “I hit half as many balls as I used to but I get so much more out of it because every shot feels important. Previously I’d just hit a load of iron shots without being too concerned where they ended up. Now if I hit one offline it bothers me because I’m trying to hit the green. It just makes you concentrate more”.
James Molyneux (23) from Aintree is another fan. “The thing I like most is I can play against my mates and it gets quite competitive. On the approach shot challenges you’re hitting a different club on each shot, so it’s not as repetitive as just hitting a load of balls into a wide open field. When I’m on my own I like to play the driver challenge because it helps me focus more on my shots and there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you look on the monitor and see the ball right in the middle of the fairway.”
Toptracer v launch monitor
Previously the only way for golfers to work out their club yardages on the range would be via a launch monitor, which normally means paying for a lesson with your local club pro or buying an affordable, pocket sized alternative launch monitor. Visiting a Toptracer facility removes the need for a launch monitor altogether and it will give you a consistently accurate yardage for your shots.
Whereas the pocket sized launch monitors such as the Garmin G80 measure what the club is doing at impact and calculate your distance based on that, Toptracer goes by what the ball is doing through the air. The cameras track the flight of the ball over a certain distance (similar to how traffic speed cameras work) and that provides a big enough sample size for it to work out what the ball is doing and where it is headed.
There are challenges and games you can play which will give you a feel for exactly which club you need to hit for certain distances and this is a lot more enjoyable than just smashing balls into a field and looking at a launch monitor, which may not be entirely accurate anyway based on a little test I ran.
Out of curiosity I took a Garmin G80 along with me to Aintree and compared some numbers with the Toptracer results after hitting a dozen shots with my eight iron. There was usually a difference of a few yards, which you’d expect and is not really a problem, but there were some shots where the G80 was showing nine yards less carry than the Toptracer, which is a one club difference and quite a big deal. So while we may think we know how far we hit each club, an hour session on Toptracer will remove any doubt and could help knock shots off your score when you get out to do the real thing.
In the interests of balance I’d like to be able to point out a negative or two but I’m struggling. The games are fun and realistic and there wasn’t even a single occasion when the technology failed to pick up my shot. I hit 300 shots and every one of them was traced. I’m told that isn’t always the case as the ball does have to be in the radius of the cameras, so if you top one along the ground it may not always show on the monitor. Even my bad shots were picked up though, and I shanked a couple.
The accuracy and realism is seriously impressive, which ironically might actually be the one flaw it has. Toptracer can be a little too accurate at times and the manager at Aintree told me of an occasion when he hit a shot perfectly on line and when he turned to the monitor he was horrified to see the ball strike the flag and bounce 30 feet away. No-one needs that level of detail!
It can certainly be a frustrating experience at times but that’s not down to Toptracer, that’s just the nature of golf! When you’re out on the course you can be putting together a great score only for one bad shot to completely ruin it and the same can happen with this. One bad hole can destroy an otherwise good score and leave you tearing your hair out.
Another slight downside is that there’s obviously no putting involved, which does take a little away from the experience of the ‘virtual golf’ game option but currently there is not really any way around that. Who knows, maybe range bays might become fitted with some kind of putting mat in the future?
The price is very reasonable and certainly wouldn’t qualify as a negative, but if you were playing every day it would soon add up so perhaps some kind of subscription based service with discount for regular use might be an option to be looked at in the future.
I went into this relatively blind and, I’ll admit, a little sceptical. I’d been to Aintree Golf Centre numerous times but I’d never used Toptracer as whenever I’d been on the range it was just to have a bit of a warm up prior to going out on the course and I wasn’t interested in ‘playing games’. Having now experienced what it has to offer my attitude has completely changed.
I’ll be making a point of stopping off there any time I’m passing just to try to beat my own best scores and to get something worthwhile out of my range session.
I keep going back to the phrase, practice with a purpose, because that’s exactly what it is. I hit a lot of balls at my local driving range but if I’m being honest with myself most of it is a waste of time because I’m doing little more than going through the motions. I know I’m not alone in this. The way we are supposed to practice at the range is usually far removed from the way we actually do it.
We’ve all heard the advice and tips from the pros and golf coaches. Treat every shot as you would if you were playing on the course… Have a pre-shot routine and use it on every shot… Don’t hit the same club in consecutive shots as that isn’t a scenario you will face on the course.
We know all of this, yet even with the best of intentions it goes out of the window after a few shots and most of us end up just machine gunning balls out there with the driver. Look around the range next time you’re there and you’ll see most of your fellow golfers doing it. Teeing up a ball and smashing it with the driver over and over again. Or just hitting shot after shot with the same iron.
Toptracer challenges encourage better habits because there is an incentive on each shot. You’re trying to achieve something which means you are under some degree of pressure. You are also rarely hitting the same club on consecutive shots, which makes it more like an on course situation.
Most amateur golfers have terrible practice habits that don’t really help them improve. So if there’s a Toptracer location near you get down there and give it a go. It might transform your game and even if it doesn’t, at worst it’s a fun way to spend an hour or two.
The Toptracer 9 shot US Open challenge runs until June 20. If you miss out fear not, as Toptracer run these events during the week of all four of golf’s major tournaments. Be sure to get down there in July for the British Open.