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Innovative Technology and Golf

Often criticized for being too tied to its traditions, the reality is that golf has a long history of adopting innovative tools that make the game more fun and expand its user base. We now stand on the threshold of a period where innovative technology will transform how and where we play and how we think about the game.

In 1851, Old Tom Morris, the legendary Scottish player, teacher, architect and keeper of the green at St. Andrews was fired on the spot from his job as an assistant professional to Allan Robertson for playing a gutta percha ball. “Gutties,” made from a gum resin from India, were beginning to replace “featheries,” the leather pouches stuffed with a top-hat’s worth of goose feathers that was the original golf ball. Robertson saw the new ball as a threat to his lucrative business making featheries.

Morris ended up having to move clear across Scotland to Prestwick to continue working in golf. He returned to St. Andrews some 15 years later and created the version of The Old Course as we know it today. Perhaps its stories like this that suggest golf is anti-tech, but it turns out Morris was only foreshadowing how quickly and enthusiastically golfers will embrace technologies that further their enjoyment of one of the world’s oldest and most beloved sports.

Many have suggested the decline in golf play over the past decade is attributable to the game’s holding onto the past. The reality is much different, however, as the game has been in nearly continuous change since its start. From the time of Old Tom to today, golf has continually evolved. Sure, the game’s core values are much the same today as they were when curated by The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in the 1850s, but how the sport is enjoyed has been in a constant state of evolution ever since. It has moved from featheries to gutties, hickory shafts to steel and graphite, wooden headed clubs to metal ones, metal spikes to soft ones and on and on.

While the changes have been truly massive, we currently stand on the edge of a technological revolution that will take the game to new heights and new places. From how players schedule their games, register their handicaps, participate in tournaments, learn and train, every aspect of the golfing experience is being revolutionized before our eyes. The fact is that the people playing and leading the game are embracing technology and it is spurring a revolution in the sport which will play out through the coming decades. Many of these advances will take the game to places its never been, like inside the clubhouse or to the indoor private club in the heart of the city, or even your basement. It will both connect players on the course and connect those on the course with the foursome that’s not even playing that day. Much of it will break down the time constraints that are a drag on participation by making it a 1- to 2-hour experience.

Tech Innovations

Here are some of the major ways technology will impact the golfing experience in the next decade:

Teaching and Training: Digging the game out of the dirt by banging balls on the range all day a la Ben Hogan will soon be a relic of the past. Players are already learning and practicing their games in golf performance centers outfitted with the latest technology. This provides the data they need and want for every club and on every swing. Once found only at elite fitting centers, Trackman, Flight Scope and the other tech tools are now so commonplace they are carried to the range by pros for their warm-up. They’ll be increasingly available to club players as seen in cutting edge facilities like the recently opened building at Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill. Part training ground and fitting center and part simulator and bar, use of the facility is off the charts in only its first half-year of operation. These centers will become the norm over the next decade, especially in the land-constrained clubs of the northeast where the practice facilities can’t meet the expectations of the modern player.

Indoor Golf: There have been amazing advances in simulator technology in recent years, to the point that indoor golf will soon be part of the scene at your club and at the pub down the street. Indoor golf clubs such as Golf & Body NYC already exist in New York, Chicago and other major metropolitan areas. They are a great way to extend the camaraderie of the game to longer periods of the year and in places much smaller than what it takes to provide 18-holes of green-grass golf. Clubs like Midland Country Club in Midland, Mich., (see Club Trends spring 2017) already have extensive indoor leagues. Most every major clubhouse renovation or rebuild has simulators in the plan. The new facility at Columbine Country Club in Littleton, Colo., doubles as a gaming and movie-watching space for children. Electronics will dominate the clubhouse of the future, including play spaces.

Stat Trackers and Gamification: Arccos, Game Golf and others have developed sensors that attach to your clubs to track every shot of every round. They collect this data and provide post-round feedback you can use to improve your game and become a better decision-maker when you play. While there is an element of controversy to it, they can also serve as your on-course caddie. Some in the game see this as crossing the line, but the companies argue that no one ever said a caddie needs to be a real person. For the up-and-coming generation of players, the best feature of all may be their gamification aspects. Players can earn badges and surpass other milestones and, most important, set up challenges with their friends so that they can “golf” with them even when they can’t be on the course at the same time.

Connected Competitions: Golf Genius and Gamebook are two of the apps that let golfers playing in competitions post their scores at the end of each hole and see a live scoreboard for their event. No longer do you have to wait until you return to the clubhouse to know how you’re your team did in the event. This adds a whole new element to the experience of playing in a tournament and builds a stronger sense of community among the participants.

The Fit Golfer: Fitness is another part of the mix here. When we were young we were told not to lift weights if you wanted to be a golfer. Most of today’s top players are work-out fanatics, getting the feedback they need to plan an exercise regimen that will translate to success on the course. Fitness training is a key part of any junior development program and clubs will need to provide the programming and facilities that juniors need to compete on their local teams or ultimately enjoy the game for life. For older players, programs like Pilates for golf are a difference maker.

The Smart Golf Car: Golf cars are getting increasingly sophisticated, many are now equipped with GPS and barrier controls to keep them from venturing onto sensitive areas of the course or across busy parts of the course. Players can order lunch and drinks and enjoy heating and cooling systems like you might find in an automobile. On a recent trip to Scotland we played most of our rounds with a PowaKaddie, an electric golf trolley with GPS that allows players to manage their games right from their walkalong bag carrier. Club Car also has a new hands-free autonomous golf caddie unit, Tempo Walk, that offers wireless technology to maneuver around the course.

Topgolf: Of course, the most revolutionary thing to hit the golf world recently is Topgolf. A beautiful marriage of a driving range and a bowling alley, albeit with a much better food and drink, these facilities are popping up all over the country to the joy of novice and experienced golfers alike. Its right up there with the ingenious adaptations of tech that has let a regular person turn their car into a taxi or their house into a hotel. Ranges have been around forever, but they have never been like this. We are already starting to see the bleed over to clubs where Topgolf-like features are popping up on their ranges. Within a decade, the golf range at your club will feature gamification, tech teaching tools, music and an entertainment zone, like the Toptracer Range technology at Topgolf. St. Louis recently saw the closing of its most venerable and long-existing traditional range and the opening of its new Topgolf the same week. The symbolism could not have been more palpable.

Club leaders should embrace this revolution, because the millennials that represent the future of the game certainly are and will.

And one last thing about tech and golf. Hasn’t watching golf on television become infinity better with the use of the ball-tracking technology?

Club Trends Summer 2018