As Executive Chairman of Topgolf, Bellevue’s Erik Anderson has “unbundled” the game — and in so doing, unlocked the secret to saving golf’s future
He’s been called one of “the top-10 most powerful people in golf.” One national magazine called him golf’s “No. 1 innovator.” He runs a company with an estimated valuation north of $2 billion, one that a 2018 National Golf Foundation report said is single-handedly responsible for almost one-fourth of the game’s growth over the last three years.
He grew up here. He lives here. His kids go to school here.
And you’ve almost certainly never heard of him.
“I guess I’ve sort of been able to fly under the radar,” he says.
Not for long.
The story of golf’s future begins, as do all the stories we tell, in the past. To visit Spokane in the 1960s was to visit a city that many felt had seen its best years pass it by. The rapid population growth of the early 20th century had slowed as families moved out to the suburbs, or packed up and headed across the state for lucrative Boeing jobs. The 1974 World’s Fair — which would ultimately revive downtown Spokane and lead to construction of many of the city’s iconic structures — was still a few years away.
For young Erik Anderson, though — born in 1958 and raised on a farm just outside the city — Spokane was “a great place to grow up. Early on, when I was young, we used to hit golf balls out into the pasture. My dad had an old set of clubs, and we’d just hit balls right there in the yard. That’s my first memory of golf.”
A basketball player at Mead High School (where he went head-to-head with North Central’s Ryne Sandberg, the 10-time MLB All-Star and 1984 NL MVP), Anderson used his high-school graduation money to buy his first real set of clubs, finally taking his interest in golf beyond merely smacking balls out towards the cows. Three years studying economics and management engineering at Southern California’s Claremont-McKenna College, followed by two more at Stanford, started Anderson’s climb up the corporate ladder, from a Dutch engineering firm, to an east coast management consulting firm, to Goldman Sachs, where he spent a decade before returning to Washington — this time settling west of the mountains — and starting his own investment firm, Frazier Healthcare Partners.
Along the way, Anderson picked up a golf game (“I remember meeting my pro for the first time, when I was living in New York, and he said, ‘Do you want me to try to help you, or should we just start over?’”) a wife, Deborah, and three kids (from a previous marriage) — Natalie (24), Claire (22) and Trevor (18).
By the early part of the 21st century, Anderson had it good — a booming business, a full house and a strong enough investment portfolio to not have to worry about his next paycheck. That’s when a phone call changed the course of his life.
If one half of this story starts in 1960s-era Spokane, with an investment-wise farm boy in search of the next big thing, the other half starts in 1996, 4,630 miles away in Watford, England, where twin brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe had a big thing in need of investment.
Like most golfers, the Jolliffes knew they needed to practice more to improve. And, like most golfers, they found practice rather dull. But, did it have to be?
“British driving ranges are just muddy fields,” Steve Jolliffe said. “We wanted to make the experience better.”
The brothers envisioned a driving range with scoring targets, where they could not only practice, but compete to see who could get closer. They quickly set to work developing a golf ball with a microchip inside, that could track a shot’s distance and accuracy. After building a prototype out of a microchipped dog collar and one of their own balls, and testing it using scanners at the local police station, they spent four years expanding upon their idea, eventually opening the first World Golf Systems “game center” at their local driving range in late 2000.
And, for the next four years, that was about it. The Jolliffes licensed their technology to a British firm that expanded their game to nearby ranges, but it wasn’t until 2004, when British investor Richard Grogan was invited to visit the Watford facility, that the brothers’ impact on the future of golf started to come into view. Expecting one of Britain’s “muddy fields,” Grogan instead found a driving range packed with golfers of all ages, laughing, cheering and carrying on. He realized immediately that the Jolliffes were thinking way too small — and, also, that it was time to make some phone calls.