6 insider tips for visiting Topgolf, L.A.'s popular driving range with unstuffy vibes

·8 min read
EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 15: Brianna Casas and her coworkers from Knott's Berry Farms enjoy an evening of entertainment at the Southland's new Topgolf on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in El Segundo, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Brianna Casas and her co-workers from Knott's Berry Farm enjoy an evening of entertainment at the new Topgolf in El Segundo. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

For the uninitiated, the brand name Topgolf evokes a high-end performance center with video analysis, custom club fittings and serious male faces contemplating details like swing path and dynamic loft. Topgolf’s newest facility in El Segundo can be that, if you want it to. But like the company’s other 76 locations around the world, it mainly offers a freewheeling introduction to the game in which golf is the vehicle and good times are the destination.

As a 50-year-old weekend warrior athlete — albeit one who hadn’t swung a golf club since the Clinton administration — I enjoyed my first Topgolf visit a lot more than I expected. Not because I struck the ball better than anticipated, but because I felt no pressure other than the self-imposed kind, which dissipated quickly thanks to the relaxed vibe that wafts through the three-tiered, neon-splashed facility.

Friends enjoying drinks and laughing.
Kevin Moreno, from left, Hector Larios, Kimberly Lie, Brianna Casas and Jacob Reyes — co-workers at Knott's Berry Farm — enjoy an evening at Topgolf in El Segundo. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Think of Topgolf as a high-end driving range moshed with a Cheesecake Factory; or Putt-Putt on steroid-laced edibles. The new spot in El Segundo, five minutes south of LAX, is the only Topgolf in the world with an actual golf course attached (more on that later), but you’re more likely to see a novice grandma teeing off here than an aspiring pro in $300 stretchy slacks.

That was the case on a recent Wednesday, when the bays around me were occupied by families, raucous office gatherings and at least one bachelorette party. Sometimes balls rocketed off the tee like white lasers. More often they barely rolled across the mat — or didn’t move at all following a fruitless swing-and-miss. (Whoosh!)

Whatever the outcome, no one really cared. As long as the grub and grog kept comin’, and as long as everyone had a few turns gripping and ripping.

With that in mind, allow us to tee up a few pointers before your first visit.

1. Claim your space in advance

Three stories of driving range bays at Topgolf.
Three stories of golfers. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The 102 bays at Topgolf El Segundo (maximum six players per bay) can be reserved one week in advance, and they fill up quickly. Cancellations and no-shows do happen, though, and walk-ins are welcome. (Topgolf’s other locations offer an online wait-time estimator, but this isn’t available yet at El Segundo.) The good news is that the restaurants and bars on site are happy to seat you and sate you until a bay opens up.

Making a reservation is easy online. Your best bet, according to our bay host, is to seek times “early in the day and early in the week.” Bays are $45 per hour in the morning (10 a.m.-noon), $55 in the afternoon (noon-5 p.m.), and $65 in peak time (5 p.m. till close) on Mondays through Thursdays. Last swing is at midnight (1:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, when bay prices increase to $55/$65/$75).

Sam Tang of Redondo Beach was enjoying his “sixth or seventh visit” to the El Segundo location when I was there. “Make the online reservation if you can,” Tang advised. “We tried a walk-in with my son and his buddy and waited almost four hours.” Good thing Tang brought his clubs that day; he and the boys killed time on Topgolf’s practice green.

2. Do a little homework on the games you can play

A golfer sets up his shot at Topgolf.
Elijah Hughes tees up at Topgolf. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When you arrive, a Topgolf host will set you up in your bay, take your food and drink orders, and review the 11 different golf-centric games on offer. Pete Bowman, director of operations in El Segundo, recommends that first-timers browse the 11 games online before they arrive, so they can hit the ground running.

The two most popular games are a simple distance and accuracy contest called — ahem — Topgolf, and Angry Birds, which is just like the video game except you’re hitting green pigs with golf balls instead of red avian projectiles.

Felix Beltran of Long Beach, a Topgolf newbie on a group date with other 30-somethings, found the touch-screen game technology “a little complicated before we got the hang of it.” So don’t be afraid to ask your host to walk you through setup and gameplay.

3. Budget a few hours and a couple hundred bucks (depending on your group's size)

Golfers walk on rolling terrain
Golfers enjoy a round of golf at Topgolf's par-three course, the Lakes at El Segundo. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

I suggest two goals for your visit: First, goof around in your bay, playing games, imbibing and swinging for the fences (that is, the 16-story net that surrounds the property).

Second, play the adjoining 10-hole course, which isn’t as uppity as its country-club name — the Lakes at El Segundo — makes it sound. There aren’t any corny windmills to play through, but each hole is about 80-100 yards long (compared to 200-400 yards at traditional courses), as if someone left a full-length PGA event in the dryer too long. There was a group in front of our threesome, and another party behind us (and I do mean party), but we never felt rushed or stood around waiting.

The coolest part of the day was the “Toptracer” setup on the last hole (No. 10), where my swing and the ball’s path were recorded, replayed on a nearby big screen, and sent to my phone with a quick QR scan.

As with the bays, clubs are provided and are included in the cost: $13-32 per round, depending on day and time.

4. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ...

A long row of golfers at Topgolf.
A row of golfers at Topgolf. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Whichever game you choose, they all require swinging a club. Slapping your driver into the turf instead of the ball is never a good look, so consider these simple swing tips, boiled down from centuries of men way overthinking this stuff:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

  • Left elbow stays straight during your backswing. (Right elbow if you’re a lefty.)

  • Hands and wrists stay loose.

  • Don't swing too hard.

  • Turn your hips toward the target as you swing.

  • Follow through.

Bowman, the helpful ops director who has been with Topgolf throughout its 40-year crawl across the world, kept things even simpler: “Be loose, eye on the ball, visualize the shot, breathe, go for it.”

That isn’t bad life advice, either. And as in life, when you hit one cleanly — when that telltale thwack finds your ears and the ball sails straight and true — well, it’s extremely gratifying. This dopamine surge alone will keep me coming back.

5. Arrive hungry (and save room for the famed injectable donut holes)

Hands reach for wings and chips and salsa at Topgolf.
A family gathered for a birthday party enjoy wings, chips and salsa. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Topgolf offers far better options than the doughy pizza and thawed chicken fingers offered at your local municipal course. The executive chef in El Segundo, a round, gray-whiskered Louisianan named Whitney Wilson, eagerly pointed out that his wings — the most popular item on the menu — are double-brined and marinated. Vegan and gluten-free options abound, including salads and cauliflower-based flatbreads and pizza crusts.

With each order of Topgolf’s injectable donut holes (guests are given a plastic hypodermic with which they shoot Bavarian cream into wads of fried sweetness), the company makes a contribution to the Make a Wish Foundation.

The place is proud of its beer choices and onsite mixologist. Topgolf staffers jokingly call its bar selections “swing juice” under the unproven premise that as one’s inhibitions loosen, so does one’s stroke.

6. Leave your elitism in the (huge!) parking lot

People gather outside the new Topgolf in El Segundo
People gather outside Topgolf. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

If you're adamant about adhering to golf’s traditional dress code, if you’re annoyed by loud preteens playing a few feet away, or if the idea of altering a course to make room for a parking lot offends you, consider heading up the road to Palos Verdes to play the course bearing the name of a certain ex-president.

No one at Topgolf plays shirtless, but there’s a certain looseness to the joint. Yes, the Lakes’ first hole used to lie where the gargantuan parking lot now sits, but as with other Topgolf adjustments, this one was made with inclusiveness in mind.

Scott Lovejoy, the company’s vice president of tech, told me that he gets two main complaints from golf purists. The first is that they don’t like chipping off a turf mat. “They say it hurts their shoulder,” Lovejoy said. (To which I say: Waaaaaah.) Second, they dislike that Topgolf’s balls have been altered to take five to 10 yards off each drive. In the end, though, these vets adjust, Lovejoy added. “They calculate for the lost distance and ignore the mats. The convenience of the place and the removal of golf’s traditional barriers usually win them over.”

This ain’t granddad’s country club. Expect any preconceived notions about what golf is or isn’t to be washed away in a riptide of new experience. Topgolf aims to reset how the layperson experiences the game by placing a new kind of welcome mat outside golf’s haughty front gates.

Whether your swing sprays straight 300-yard drives or results in whiff after whiff, the place is truly about having a good time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.