In the middle of a Moorestown cornfield, a giant golf ball once hugged the sky and stoked curiosity, even rumors. Visible from the New Jersey Turnpike, the 15-story radar dome was constructed during the Cold War for defense reasons and then dismantled decades ago, robbing the area of a fun landmark.
Now, a humongous net, supported by spires that rise nearly 200 feet, fills the void a few hundred yards from where the RCA-built dome once stood.
Drivers on Interstate 295 gawk at the odd new structure when it abruptly appears, almost dangerously, alongside the highway and near the turnpike, after a clump of trees.
This fall, the massive net will evoke memories of the old golf ball when it begins catching thousands of micro-chipped balls that will be launched nonstop when Topgolf makes its debut in Mount Laurel, along Moorestown's border.
Unlike the traditional variety, where a serious golfer purchases a cheap bucket of balls and practices hitting before heading out to the links, Topgolf is billed as a year-round entertainment center designed to appeal to golfers and non-golfers alike.
Think top-shelf liquor, trendy food offerings, widescreen TVs, golf-swing simulators, a rooftop terrace with a fire pit, and music. Oh, yes, and there will be climate-controlled driving bays equipped with specialized balls that gather data on how far you hit them into a target-filled, colorfully lit open-air field.
"We're hoping to bring something different to the community here in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area," said Danielle DeFalco, director of operations at the 65,000-square-foot Mount Laurel facility, located adjacent to Costco and the Centerton Square Shopping Center.
"Topgolf is for everyone, and it's about the food and beverages and the interactions. We love people who love golf and people who are not interested in golf," she said.
The statistics support the sentiment. Last year, 51 percent of the 13 million guests who hit 671.7 million balls at about 40 Topgolf centers around the world were non-golfers. Only eight percent were avid golfers who play more than 25 rounds on greens each year and who gravitate to traditional driving ranges for practice sessions.
Mount Laurel's Topgolf facility will be the second to open in the Northeast, after the first one opened in Edison, in north New Jersey.
A smaller, simulator-only Topgolf center and restaurant opened at Ocean Resort in Atlantic City last month. It has 11 "swing suites" and offers a "different experience," DeFalco said.
Topgolf chose Mount Laurel to begin expanding its locations in the Northeast because of its "demographics, the population, the proximity to a major city," said Morgan Schaaf, a company spokesperson based at the Dallas headquarters. Recruiting began recently to fill 500 jobs, including full-time and part-time positions.
DeFalco said the Mount Laurel center would have three floors and 102 bays. She said the prices hadn't been fixed yet, but she noted that in Edison you can rent a bay for $30 per hour during the day and $50 at night. The rent includes unlimited balls for up to six participants. Golf clubs are available for free.
At the Camden County Golf Academy, a driving range in Pennsauken that's been open since the '70s, Kevin Greene, of Audubon, was hitting balls from a medium-size bucket that goes for $8. He said he planned to try out the Topgolf in Mount Laurel, but won't make going there a habit.
"I've been to the Topgolf in Arizona and it was pretty cool. It's like a bowling alley for golf — you sit there, there's cocktails and food, and people go there to treat themselves. … It's easily a couple hundred bucks," said Greene, who's semi-retired and works in the building trades.
Greene goes to the Pennsauken driving range twice a week. The medium-size bucket contains about 70 balls.
Ross Levitsky, a retired lawyer from Haddonfield, also frequents the traditional driving range and said that it feels more like being on a golf course, "out in nature," rather than inside heated bays. It's true that he has to eyeball how close his ball lands to the markers out in the field to determine how well he hit, instead of learning the exact distance that it flew, based on the ball's micro-chip. But he says his own observation is good enough and prepares him for the greens.
At the Pennsauken driving range, golfers tee off in a wide-open area flanked by a man-made lake and then the Cooper River. There's no need for the tall nets that Topgolf has because beyond that lake is a cemetery.
"We don't have to worry about the balls hitting any cars," said Andrew Pierson, director of the golf range.
But the golf range does employ nets, but for another purpose. The errant balls, which are about 15 percent lighter than normal, float to the top of the lake and are later retrieved by workers wearing waders and using scooping nets, he said.
The only other sizable driving range in the area is Fox Meadow Golf Center in Maple Shade, which relies on tall nets to contain the balls because it sits alongside the busy Route 73. There, a medium bucket goes for $11.