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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The open area at Top Golf if seen on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in East Ridge, Tenn.

Richard Werhle admits that opening a new entertainment venue during a pandemic is a challenge — even one with a scorecard of fan appeal as Topgolf.

But Werhle, general manager of Topgolf's new East Ridge complex that officially teed off Friday morning, said that he believes his team has made it a safe place to play.

"We've taken our time and found a safe way to open up," he said.

Werhle said visitors are asked to mask up via Hamilton County guidelines until they're in their individual playing bays.

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Topgolf tees off in East Ridge

The outdoor venue is opening at just 50% of total capacity, though it's using all of its 36 bays with a maximum of six players in each, he said. Bays are separated by clear plastic dividers to help spur social distancing.

Werhle, who came to Chattanooga from Topgolf's Miami-Doral location, said personnel are disinfecting bays and golf clubs after every game. In addition, all of Topgolf's 200 employees must undergo temperature checks and health screenings prior to each shift, according to the company.

"We're offering a fun, safe place to enjoy," Werhle said. "I hope we do well."

Topgolf opened at the Jordan Crossing development off Interstate-75 at Exit One, and it's just the company's second completely open-air concept featuring a technology-driven, single-level design.

Werhle said the use of a single level, rather than two or three as is typical in Topgolf's other locations, enables the company to bring its experience to markets such as Chattanooga.

Golfers and non-golfers play Topgolf using point-scoring games with micro-chipped balls that instantly show performance data, including accuracy and distance, on a TV screen in a bay.

Kelvin Knaff of Knoxville said he was in Chattanooga for the weekend and decided to try out the new venue.

"We have a Topgolf in Knoxville. It's amazing," he said, adding that "this is different from the other ones I've been to."

Read Butler of Chattanooga was marking his 14th birthday at Topgolf. Vince, his father, said that's what his son wanted to do.

"I'm doing pretty good," Read Butler said. "I won the last time we played."

State Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, said that Topgolf is "a great addition" to the Camp Jordan area. She cited the Border Region Retail Development District state sales tax incentive for the growth East Ridge is undergoing. The incentive allows the city to recapture the growth in sales tax collections within the zone and then plow those funds back into repaying investments in the area.

Werhle said he likes the area around Topgolf, where developers of Jordan Crossing have wooed a Bass Pro Shops, Hampton Inn hotel and several restaurants.

He also noted that the Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer stadium recently opened just across I-75, where developer Bob Martino bought nearly 100 acres. The Utah developer's plan includes 400 apartment and condominium units, 375 hotel rooms, 475,000 square feet of commercial space and a network of walking and nature trails that could connect under I-75 with Camp Jordan on the other side of the freeway.

The project would be the biggest investment ever in East Ridge and is projected to create up to 1,200 jobs.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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