World Golf Systems: There's a new driving force in the game of golf

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The Independent Online

World Golf Systems, a small company which is aiming to revolutionise the ancient game of golf with microchip technology, has signed a deal with worldwide sports marketing agency IMG, set up by Mark McCormack, the most powerful man in sport, claims Sports Illustrated. The golf company's founders hope the agreement will put them firmly on the map and lead to worldwide expansion for its new creation: intelligent golf.

The Watford-based firm has put microchips into golf balls to develop a game called TopGolf, designed to allow electronic feedback on how their performance when they are practising at driving ranges. The chips can "read" the distance the golf ball has been hit and gauge the accuracy of the stroke.

"We regard this as urban golf entertainment," says Peter Allport, commercial director and among the founders of World Golf Systems. The deal with IMG, which is still chaired by Mr McCormack, could even lead to the small British-based firm selling golf balls with chips to the golf-crazy Japanese. "It will revolutionise the game of golf because it is real product innovation that will transform the traditional driving range into a new leisure business," adds Mr Allport."

World Golf Systems was set up four years ago by a friends who were staying at a golf club. The men – Mr Allport, Geoff Emmerson and twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe – realised the limitations of the game as they watched people play: players had no feedback on their performance. "People can be practising their mistakes rather than improving their game," says Mr Allport.

The friends set up the private company in 1997 with an investment of around £8m, including money from the directors and two private placings. The group plans to float in the next three to five years.

For the past four years World Golf Systems has been essentially a development company but it has just opened its first golf range in Watford where players can play a "proper" game in the driving range. The centre cost £3.5m to establish.

TopGolf, the game the company developed, is played with real clubs, tees and balls and the centre is a 10-acre, all-weather outfield made up of 11 target greens. The score for each shot and the distance the ball travels are relayed back to a screen in each bay and players are all given a printout of their score at the end of the game.

The company, which is valued at £27m and expects to post a turnover for the year of £4m, is raising £2.1m for further development and is determined to expand.

World Golf Systems hopes to have more than 200 clubs around the world within the next five years and has already had approaches from firms in Japan, Australia, the United States and Europe.

IMG, which represents athletes, models and companies, will be franchising this concept around the world, selling it to, for instance, hotels, for commission. "TopGolf is a world first and is the future of golf driving ranges," says Mr McCormack.

Mr Allport would not comment on the commission IMG would be paid, but did say a typical franchise would cost around £1m for the system plus an ongoing franchise fee of 15 per cent of turnover.

World Golf Systems, through TopGolf at Watford, has 29,000 members. The group aims to have 300,000 customer visits a year and charges around £2.40 for a game using 20 balls. Mr Allport says his customers think this new system is improving their game. "It is focused practising so when they go and play on a golf course they are noticing the improvement in their game."

Mr Allport is busy trying to spread the TopGolf game around this country and bring it to a driving range near you. The company, which says its target locations are densely populated areas that have up to one million people within a 30-minute drive, is negotiating deals for six sites in the UK.

Whatever the success of TopGolf, the "intelligent" golf balls with their microchips will remain confined to driving ranges. The company sees this as "additional" golf and there are no plans to take on the Old Course at St Andrews at its own game.

Small Is Beautiful features fast-growing companies with a turnover of up to £100m.