Will minigolf be the next big thing?

PopStroke and others are betting on it

All over urban and suburban America, another fundamental component of golf is being Topgolfed.

This time it’s putting, the no-experience-necessary pastime enjoyed all over the world at both highbrow golf destinations and lowbrow minigolf venues. It’s a certifiable trend:

• Drive Shack, Topgolf’s main competitor in technology-rich driving-range operations, has enlisted Rory McIlroy to help open 50 Puttery-branded venues in the United States by the end of 2024.

• Steve and Dave Jolliffe, the twin brothers who invented Topgolf, co-own three arcade-like Puttshack minigolf venues in London, and this year they expect to debut U.S. versions in Atlanta, Chicago and Miami, with Nashville and other cities on the horizon.

• Swingers, the owner of two adults-only minigolf venues in London, will soon bring its concept to Washington, D.C., and New York City.

So who’s surprised that “Holey Moley,” the mini golf competition television show, has been renewed for another season?

“It’s all about having fun,” said Bob Detwiler, who owns three no-tech minigolf courses in Myrtle Beach and serves as president of the United States ProMiniGolf Association. “The idea of eating and drinking while you play golf is the way the business is going. People are trying to copy Topgolf.”

The adaptation that’s turning heads in mainstream golf these days, however, is PopStroke, a Jupiter, Fla.-based enterprise that’s 50 percent owned by Tiger Woods. PopStroke has unveiled two 36-hole venues in Florida, and, like the other newcomers in the contemporary minigolf space, it integrates putting courses with trendy foods and drinks, the vibe of a nightclub and the spirit of friendly, technology-enhanced competition. But unlike its competitors, PopStroke is played outdoors, on synthetically turfed tracks that resemble actual golf courses, and it aims to deliver golf’s joys and frustrations in a quasi-genuine way. 

PopStroke has legitimate connections to traditional golf. Jackson Kahn Design created the courses at the company’s original facility, in Port St. Lucie, and Woods’ TGR Design is responsible for those at its second facility, in Fort Myers, as well as all future courses. (No word yet on whether Woods intends to create any “signature” tracks.) Bridgestone, a longtime partner with Woods, manufactures PopStroke’s official ball, and Pete Bevacqua, a former president of the PGA of America, serves on PopStroke Entertainment Group’s board of directors.

“We know how to give customers a great experience, and our reviews have been extraordinary,” said Greg Bartoli, a former investment banker who founded PopStroke in 2018. “Between our operating experience, our understanding of hospitality and Tiger’s brand, we have a powerful combination.”

Bartoli, the principal of JEM Capital Management LLC, worked on Wall Street for 15 years before he moved to Florida and opened some restaurants, an ice-cream shop and three old-school minigolf venues that operate as Lighthouse Cove Adventure Golf. He appreciated minigolf’s ability to attract people from literally every spectrum of American life, saw the obvious synergies with his eateries and eventually convinced himself that presenting a pair of 18-hole tracks — one tricky, one somewhat easier — in a family-oriented, technologically dynamic setting might lead to opportunities galore.

Though the golf is miniaturized, Bartoli is thinking big about PopStroke’s future. He expects to debut venues in Orlando, Sarasota and Scottsdale, Ariz., this year or in early 2022, and he hopes to have 40 or 50 by the end of 2025. His target markets are in Arizona, Florida, Southern California, Texas and other warm-weather states, so the facilities can operate the year ’round, and he says he’s considering international opportunities. Though he won’t reveal the cost of his expansion plan, he says the funding will be provided by PopStroke’s principals and bank loans.

So far, the rollout hasn’t been glitch-free. The pandemic delayed Bartoli’s expansion plans, and the sensor-embedded, Bluetooth-enabled “iPutt” ball that’s central to PopStroke’s customer engagement is still in development, where it’s been for more than two years. When it’s put into use, the ball will count strokes and automatically send scores to smartphone apps and to PopStroke’s electronic leaderboards, so players can compete, at least virtually, with those who play at different times and possibly even different locations.

Bartoli is also planning to host tournaments and celebrity events at PopStroke venues, and he might even organize a national tour, similar to the one Detwiler’s association has run for a quarter-century.

“I don’t know where it’ll go,” Bartoli conceded. “There’s a lot of potential, and we’re exploring all of our options for the future. I see real growth in PopStroke.”

Needless to say, at this time PopStroke and other emerging minigolf concoctions don’t pose a threat to the traditional golf business, and they likely never will. Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, recalls that when Topgolf came on the scene, many of his members worried about the potential impacts on their operations, and he hopes it doesn’t happen again. 

“It was the wrong response,” Karen said. “Instead, we should be asking, ‘What’s PopStroke doing that we can emulate?’ We should be thinking about ways to generate revenues by providing fun with technology, music and food and drink.”

To that end, Karen encourages his members to draw inspiration from the Himalayas at St. Andrews, Thistle Du at Pinehurst and the Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes and add to the growing U.S. collection of putting courses.

“Putting courses are a perfect vehicle for social interaction,” he noted. “They’re natural complements to traditional golf courses.”

Soon, they may also complement high-tech driving ranges. Detwiler says that, prior to the pandemic, Topgolf approached him for advice about building putting courses at some of its driving-range facilities. The idea appears to be on the back burner, but Topgolf could put it on the heat anytime.

For sure, though, a lot of entrepreneurs are banking on minigolf becoming a big thing.

Add new comment

If you enjoyed this article and would like to sign up for a FREE digital subscription, click here!