TopTracer at night at Dairy Creek Golf Course.
Story by Judy Salamacha
Photos courtesy of Josh Heptig
As a Morro Bay Rotarian for almost 20 years, I admit I just couldn’t wrap my excitement around a Central Coast TopTracer Golf Classic as a replacement fundraiser for our decades-long Central Coast Golf Classic. It was virtual golf one might play on a smart TV, right? Could 150 golf tournament players really be COVID-safe sitting in bays even if outdoors? It was compared to a bowling alley with bays for a foursome. I decided to see for myself.
Dairy Creek Golf Course is one of several public-serving features within El Chorro Regional Park, a stone’s throw east of Cuesta College. I’m not a golfer, so had been to the dog park and SLO Botanical Gardens, but never saw the golf course. I quickly recognized why golfers enjoyed getting outdoors to chase a little white ball for nine-holes — a great 3-4 mile walk or cart ride around stunning vistas! Recent rains reminded me of Ireland’s vast green rolling hills.
Upon arrival at the clubhouse, I entered a sports bar-restaurant with a large outdoor patio the public was invited to enjoy. It is operated by Paul and Kelly Boisclair, the owners of Morro Bay’s Siren. Outdoor music concerts are anticipated someday. A meandering sidewalk overlooked what I expected was the driving range dotted with golf balls, but it contained several curious large rounds teetering like merry-go-rounds. A towering structure open on one side loomed above the rounds. Indeed, there were large seating bays facing the rounds. Golfers relaxed watching teammates position their golf-stance to aim at or beyond one of the rounds. A television monitor was set to 104-feet. Helpful staff confirmed student team-hopefuls were demonstrating their skills at the TopTracer ‘long drive.’ Their high school coaches stood by seeking future star players.
SLO County’s Golf Superintendent Josh Heptig was my guide. Since 2008 he has managed the three county golf courses, Morro Bay, Chalk Mountain and Dairy Creek for SLO’s Parks and Recreation. Always an advocate for positive environmental programs at his facilities, Heptig received the 2017 President’s Citation for Environmental Stewardship from GCSAA (Golf Course Superintendents Association of America).
I told Josh I hoped he might help me understand this new golf thing called TopTracer? He said, “I tell people to think driving range, sports bar, bowling and pinball.” My personal perception was close, but then he surprised me with a pandemic comeback story. I really did stumble on a good COVID-come-back story, my readers might also enjoy.
Dairy Creek had a major water problem, not particularly drought related, he explained. Josh develops Zero Waste programs on golf courses he manages. Dairy Creek’s landscaping water supply is reclaimed water from California Men’s Colony (CMC). When California’s prison system realigned, CMC’s water usage had decreased due to prison population downsizing. Ultimately, Dairy Creek’s water allocation was reduced 60 percent. Josh’s management team was challenged to master plan the vast Dairy Creek property. They researched multiple suitable recreational uses the public might enjoy. However, Josh being an avid golfer — the lead golf advocate for the county — his hopes included finding something to expand golf play at Dairy Creek. He needed to introduce more non-golfers to appreciate the game he loved.
Josh discovered Toptracer Golf (www.toptracer.com). Originally developed in Sweden, the concept was acquired by Calloway Golf, the company that had expanded TopGolf sports bar complexes in major worldwide hubs www.topgolf.com. Toptracer Golf was Calloway Golf’s answer to bring TopGolf patrons out of the sports bars onto the golf courses. Their marketing promotion matched Josh’s goals: “Today, every golfer—from the pros to the Joes—has access to valuable shot insights like how far, how fast, and (for some of us) where did that shot even go? Through the gamification of the driving range experience, Toptracer is introducing golf to a new generation of players, teeing up ranges for long-term success, and bringing people together in meaningful ways.”
Josh admits it was a leap of faith when he convinced his bosses to support Toptracer Golf to increase public use golf rounds, thus, revenue. Given the struggles other business would face, even he was amazed it all happened as it did. If construction had started two weeks later than mid-February, 2020 the project would have been delayed post-COVID-19. And in October, 2020, when TopTracer at Dairy Creek was open for business, Sacramento and SLO County were the only counties in California that allowed golf courses to remain open during pandemic shutdowns. Somehow leadership had convinced healthcare authorities golfing was healthy “…a physical outlet for mental wellbeing…Getting outdoors was good for the human species.” Locals were ready to get out of their houses and Dairy Creek TopTracer became one of the few options. When restaurants and bars were closed during the pandemic Dairy Creek’s bays were open already limited to four individuals with social distancing encouraged.
Josh said, “People came out to rent the bays just to get out of the house and watch the sunset. We had a group of eight moms with their babies come out weekly just to visit while the babies slept. Grandparents came with their grandchildren who were distance learning. We had anniversary, birthday – a variety of family gatherings.”
For the regular golfer, Toptracer offered more training tools than Josh could offer. “Some golfers were amazed the data would mark their swing to identify which clubs they should be using. They could virtually pre-play other courses they might want to play someday, determine true length of their long ball drives or challenge each other to see who gets closest – even get a hole-in-one — virtually.”
New golfers can rent clubs and are offered a free lesson. “Children love it. My two daughters like the aquarium game best to beat the sharks.”
Morro Bay Rotary Club’s president Tim Olivas knew hosting the decades-long Central Coast Golf Classic at Morro Bay Golf Course could not happen in 2021. He asked Josh if a TopTracer tournament might fill the loss of the fundraiser that earned scholarships for Morro Bay High School students. Josh was intrigued to test out the tournament concept, another TopTracer first for SLO County. Josh offered all the bays at three prime TopTracer tee times. President Tim chose a Pebble Beach virtual challenge. Golfers would receive a meal with a beverage and a first-ever TopTracer Tournament shirt for a comparable donation of $50 per player. As in the past teams of three could choose to host a Morro Bay High School junior golfer. The deal was struck. Saturday, February 29, it’s a happening at Dairy Creek. Sponsorships and Sign-ups are at www.morrobayrotary.org
Was it luck or good business sense when Josh recommended SLO County become one of the first regional golf courses to join the TopTracer movement to excite new golfers? Josh said luck launched him into a good business venture for the county and hopes the first-ever tournament partnership with Morro Bay Rotary Club might create a new-normal for area golf tournaments at Dairy Creek Golf Course.