Golf is at war with itself: on one side, the tucked-in, collars-and-socks traditionalists, their ranks split over whether to surrender or stand up against the advancing high-tech hordes of neon-lined, balls-and-beers entertainment centres.
Kevin Haime, however, may have just brokered a peace accord.
Haime, the co-founder with wife Lisa of the Kevin Haime Golf Centre, has kitted out the sprawling outdoor practice range in Kanata with Toptracer Range technology – an elaborate network of cameras and lights that track how a golf ball behaves in flight.
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It’s the first facility of its kind in Canada and a perfect blend of the game’s battling factions: paradise for golf purists, but packed with no-pressure fun for the untucked newbie.
“Nets are for fishing,” Haime says of typical indoor practice facilities. Instead, his nearly 30-year-old business is entirely outdoors, with 21 covered, heated hitting stations, 34 open-air tees and a grass hitting area, as well as a sprawling short-game practice area.
But Haime remains a champion of high-tech help. Devices like the Blast Motion putting sensor are a fixture at the Kevin Haime Golf School, while the Power Tee automatic ball dispensers make stooping to tee up a range ball a thing of the past.
But with Toptracer Range, a division of the Topgolf juggernaut currently turning the game on its head around the world, Haime has transformed a routine trip to the practice tee into a multimedia experience. Screens mounted within easy reach of the player track and display the flight characteristics of every shot.
Players can monitor the curve and trajectory of each shot, as well as document the distances they hit. They can also hit to real-life targets and chart their accuracy, stage long-drive or closest-to-the-hole contests and even play virtual golf on a wide selection of world-class courses, integrated seamlessly with the flags and targets installed downrange.
There’s an echo of Topgolf, the entertainment centres where customers order pitchers of sangria, plates of chicken wings and nachos, and occasionally hit golf balls to brightly lit targets that electronically register a hit.
But Topgolf, this ain’t.
“To me, it’s not pure golf enough,” Haime says of the Las Vegas-based enterprise.
“Topgolf – and they admit this – it’s 65 per cent non-golfers; it’s about margaritas, and fun, and togetherness and introducing people to the game. And it’s awesome. But I must say, as a golf pro, I was bored in about half an hour.
“Toptracer Range takes their understanding of the psyche of that newer player, but it blends it better, I think, for a player who wants to practice.”
For a family with one or two golfers in their ranks, Haime’s centre provides an ideal hybrid experience – the more experienced player can test and evaluate their skills, while newer, younger players can take their time and try it out without feeling the performance anxiety that keeps people out of the game.
“There’s some competitive fun-ness to it – have a beer, have some laughs, turn your hats around backwards and let ‘er rip, you know?” Haime chuckles. “But there’s also the game improvement thing.”
“If you’ve taken a lesson and you know you’re not rotating through the ball enough so you’re cupping your wrists at impact and spinning the ball up in the air, this is the only place you can go in Canada where you can just buy a bucket of balls and go on your own and work on your launch angle. And understand it.”
Toptracer Range president Ben Sharpe – former CEO of TaylorMade Golf – says golf’s marriage with technology is a critical element of the strategy to bring younger players into the game.
“As an industry leader, we want to make access as easy and fun as possible by removing barriers and restrictions that have scared newcomers away in the past,” Sharpe said in a recent interview with We Are Golf, a coalition of U.S. golf organizations committed to growing the game.
Millennials comprise a significant portion of the younger golf demographic in the U.S. and are “very influential,” he added.
“They grew up with technology as a major part of their everyday lives, so Topgolf and Toptracer Range are natural extensions of the game for them.”
Haime sees it this way: the demands of customers are evolving, and if he can integrate those demands into the traditions of golf that are worth keeping, so much the better.
“The days of the blazer and the men’s lounge and the clubhouse – I just don’t think this next generation will buy into that. I just don’t think that the psyche of my next consumer is interested in that stuff,” he said.
“Do I love backwards hats and untucked shirts? No, I’m a bit of a purist. But the reality is that is a tsunami of comfort that’s coming, and I don’t think we’re stopping it.”