San Luis Obispo County Golf Superintendent Josh Heptig likes to describe the new Toptracer facility at Dairy Creek Golf Course as a combination of a driving range, bowling alley, sports bar, and pinball machine.
"It's ridiculously fun," Heptig told me on April 22, the afternoon before I went to try it myself. "You don't have to be a good golfer to have fun."
- Photo By Peter Johnson
- TARGET PRACTICE Toptracer at Dairy Creek Golf Course is a blast. After hitting a golf ball into a live driving range accented by color-coded target pins, you can check a computer screen to see how far and straight it went, and how close it got to the pin.
Toptracer is a popular and growing technology that uses cameras and computers to track, analyze, and digitally visualize live golf shots. A game changer for pros (and wannabe pros), who love it for the analytics, Toptracer also opens up a new genre of arcade-style fun for the general public.
"Our whole goal of doing this was to make golf more inviting and more welcoming, to bring other people to the game that haven't before," Heptig explained.
As I arrive at Dairy Creek at 7:30 p.m., I see the lit-up Toptracer target pins from my car as I pass the new The Siren restaurant at the course. Already, I start to see the beginnings of what will be a totally reimagined El Chorro Regional Park in a few years.
SLO County recently downsized Dairy Creek from 18 holes to nine holes in response to a dramatic and permanent water shortage at the course. In its place are plans for a variety of new recreational offerings, including go-kart racing, mini golf, a zip line course, camping cabins, BMX bike trails, disc golf, and Toptracer.
Toptracer is the first of those projects to get off the ground. Its construction started right before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it opened in October 2020.
"Had we not gotten started on the project when we did, it probably wouldn't be here," Heptig said, referring to the COVID-19's impact on many pending county projects.
As I enter the facility, my first thought is, this is golf and bowling fused together. People sitting on couches in their separate "bays" enjoy their food and drinks while trading turns hitting golf balls into a live driving range.
With the sun setting, the scenery turns dark and the color-coded lighted target pins shine bright. The building has three walls with an opening to the range and TV screens in each bay. After I set my clubs down and order a beer from a server at The Siren, I turn to the touch screen that's located next to the tee box.
I learn that Toptracer basically blends the virtual with the real. I can do practice shots and check the screen after each one to find out how far and straight it went. I can play "closest to the pin" or "longest drive." I can get serious and play virtual holes at famous golf courses like Pebble Beach.
It does take some time to get used to the technology and the screens, but once I do, I'm having a complete blast. After some practice shots, I start playing Pebble Beach. Time is flying. Toptracer rates are $50 per bay per hour, which is steep, but it can be split with your group of four (the maximum allowed during COVID-19).
I'm here alone tonight, and I quickly realize that this game is best enjoyed in a social setting. As I look at the other bays, I'm impressed by the diversity of customers. Families with young kids are here, as are couples and groups of friends.
The broad appeal of Toptracer is precisely why it's there, according to Heptig. SLO County is trying to turn Dairy Creek from a financial disaster into a successful and welcoming hub for community recreation. And so far, it's working.
"We've been booked out solid pretty much since we opened," Heptig said. "The energy, the excitement, and the diversity of people we're seeing on the property has completely and totally morphed."
• The SLO County Public Health Department vaccinated 3,144 residents for COVID-19 on April 23—its highest single-day total since the start of the vaccination campaign. Nearly 11,000 shots went to local residents throughout the week of April 19—bringing the county's total to 137,805 to date. Health officials say about half of all county residents have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, either through a public health clinic or a pharmacy. Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to email@example.com.