The driving range goes high tech at Topgolf in Hillsboro.
Ah, Spring. That time of year when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of … golf?
Okay, that may not be just as the poet Alfred Tennyson intended that line. But it’s true enough for my son, who on the first spring-like weekend of this year was all too happy to excavate the set of clubs his golf-loving grandparents gifted him from the dark recesses of our storage closet and head out to hit some balls.
Though Portland has some excellent and kid-friendly golf course options, we headed this time for Topgolf, the newfangled driving range on the very edge of Hillsboro, just off of Highway 26. My son needed some practice after the long winter, and I thought the mix of technology and sport would be just the ticket.
If you’re used to a more traditional driving range experience, Topgolf can seem like a bit of a sensory overload. You reserve one of their 100-plus spaces (or “bays”) in advance, and pay according to the time of day. Pro tip: If you show up before noon, it’s $25 an hour per bay, which works out to $4.18 a person if you’re there with a group of six. And you get unlimited balls to hit, which makes this a competitive deal, since a big bucket of balls at a local driving range usually runs at least $10, and runs out in about half an hour.
The difference at Topgolf is that each ball is equipped with a microchip, allowing the scoreboard in your bay to track exactly where your ball has landed on the range. And the range itself is dotted with targets, some of them just 20 or so yards away, others more than 200 yards out. The trick is to hit your ball in the vicinity of the targets — the closer you get to the flag, the more “points” pop up under your name on the computer scoreboard that hangs above every bay. There are also bonuses and the chance to double the score on the next round, too, so a good player can rack up the points quickly, not unlike bowling.
You can also scroll through the monitor to choose your game. More experienced players might like a game that demands more precision, like hitting each of the targets in turn; Ben and I settled for the more basic version — take turns hitting balls, and celebrating wildly every time one of them made it anywhere close to a target.
Yes, I played too, though my knowledge of golf is rudimentary at best. Another plus for Topgolf is that clearly labeled sets of clubs, for men and women, are included at each bay, so I really had no excuse not to give it a whirl. When we arrived, a host checked if either of us needed left-handed clubs, and kid and toddler clubs were also available.
Like most of his generation, Ben is fluent in screen, so he immediately grasped how to wave his club over the ball dispenser’s sensor to trigger a new one. He also dug the instant feedback available from the screen after every shot, and was able to use it to choose which club to use based on which target he wanted to hit.
For me, it was a little less intuitive — at first, I kept waving my club wildly, but no ball appeared from the dispenser until Ben sighed and stepped in to help. Mastering the scoreboard also took a little doing, since I kept forgetting to tap the screen when it was my turn to switch to my setting, and thus my frequent misses were recorded as Ben’s. No matter, as Ben figured out right away how to readjust the score with a few quick taps, though I had to keep a close eye to make sure he didn’t “accidentally” tack a few extra points onto his total.
After about 15 minutes, we settled into a groove. It is hard to underestimate the pure pleasure of smacking a ball so it gets some good “up-in-the-air-action!” as my mom says. (This is not a technical golf term, but it’s accurate.)
The head-to-head nature of the Topgolf experience, especially reflected on screen, is a direct lift from video game culture, and it can lead to some heated competition — after a few lucky shots, I was actually beating Ben in one matchup, and he was not pleased. To keep the peace, I eventually stepped back and just let him go into practice mode. His shots got longer and more accurate the more he played and pushed himself. He got wrapped up enough that he even forgot to check the screen between shots, on occasion.
Of note: If we’d wanted to play on a colder or rainier day, we’d have been fine, since there are powerful outdoor heaters (or coolers, as needed) located at every bay. There’s also a food and drink menu and a table at each bay. Plenty of people around us were digging into brunch fare, from an acai superfood bowl with blueberries, avocado, kale and toasted coconut for $11 and 620 calories to the “hot mess” waffle fries toppped with pulled pork, a fried egg and pickled jalapeno for $12.50 and 1,980 calories (hopefully, large enough for two or more!). There’s drip coffee, for early morning tee times, and a full cocktail bar.
There were a number of other kids around on the Saturday morning that Ben and I were there and Topgolf offers some special deals for families, including a Summer Season Pass — $149 gets you unlimited game play all summer long, every weekday until 5 pm, for up to six people, if you buy before May 27 (after that, the price goes to $199). They also do birthday parties and offer kid-focused golf clinics and camps.
Teeing Off: More PDX-area golf options
The Colwood Golf Center has turf mats and sells range balls by the small, medium or large bucket size, to accommodate all ages. When you’re ready to get out on the course, they have an all par-3 course that’s great for kids. 7313 NE Columbia Blvd.
The First Tee of Greater Portland, which offers inexpensive lessons for kids from all walks of life, is based at Glendoveer Golf &Tennis. Kids will be mostly on the driving range, but can get out on the course towards the end of the series of lessons. Summer golf camps too! 14015 NE Glisan St.