The NGF recently sat down with Sal Syed, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Arccos Golf, the fully automatic shot-tracking and analytics platform, to discuss participation and technology in the golf industry. Armed with a love of golf, a passion for technology and an MBA from Yale University, Syed recognized that the sport lacked a high-performing, comprehensive tool to track stats and help golfers improve their decision-making on the course.
What drew you to golf and what do you see as the biggest positives in the industry?
I see incredible potential. I would say the consensus, whether it’s me or my investors, is that golf is a very large market when you look at the dollars spent — tee times, equipment spending, the travel, the media, training and everything else. And we know it’s a large, untapped market. In other sports, the data-capture solution is easier to solve. When you look at basketball, baseball or football, it’s a limited field of play, so you can use cameras to capture all the data and then analyze it. With golf, it’s hundreds of acres, so we can’t use cameras. We have to create sensor networks, which is what we did. The fact that it’s a huge market and it’s a hard problem to solve is attractive. The fact that we are making headway in terms of solving it is awesome. It would be hard to design a sport more suited for analysis if you were starting from scratch. Now you can factor in what the wind does, you know the starting and ending terrain on a given hole, and you have a database of shots to compare it against. You can start feeling out what the impact of all these other variables is, how you’re playing and what your strengths and weaknesses are. All those things drew us to golf.
With the technology that Arccos provides, how have you seen it affect engagement and participation?
The real measurement that’s hard to do is how much does a person wantto play golf? One of the things we look at certainly is how often our users are playing, but we also look at how often they’re looking at their data and how often they’re going to their dashboard because they’re basically re-living their golf round. They’re having a vicarious experience of their past self through the app or the dashboard. In the last month or so, 50% of our users, which is mind boggling, logged into their dashboard to see their played rounds. Even though it was winter in the northeast and they weren’t going golfing, they were experiencing it some way. They were re-living their connection to golf.
Golf, at its core, is a traditional game. How do you see it continuing to evolve in terms of new technology?
In terms of the evolution of golf, my perspective is the data perspective. If you look at every other industry around us that’s evolving, whether it’s transportation – with super-advanced geo-location data through Uber and Lyft, whether it’s advertising through all this data that Facebook and Google have, every industry is changing through data and they’re becoming more efficient. Uber is going to lead to more efficiencies in gas consumption because it’s better matching demand and supply. You don’t have a taxi driver coming from like 15 miles away to pick you up. There will be a driver like a mile away. So that’s making the industry more efficient. Our view is really similar. We’re going to make the entire golf industry more efficient. It starts with making the golfer more efficient and smarter about their game by giving them all the data and analytics. Now we’re creating the “world’s smartest caddie” with our new course analyzer system through a partnership with Microsoft. Talk about tradition; we’re bringing something back that’s been lost over time. Golf is one of the most mentally taxing sports. The reason is it gives you time to think. So you have to make a conscious decision before every shot. There are bigger opportunities to make mental errors in golf than any other sport because you have the time to kind of get in your own head. In other sports, you’re reacting. After the serve in tennis, you’re literally reacting and running. It’s muscle memory. In golf, you’re literally thinking. So we’re creating this world’s smartest caddie, which is going to provide you an objective opinion to your subjectivity. How often have we seen one bad shot lead to four other bad shots through poor decisions? We will be able to help golfers take a step back, make smarter decisions and save a lot of strokes.
How will developing technology affect the golf industry in coming years?
Every moment that a golfer is spending on the course, every shot they’re taking, there’s data that’s going un-captured. That data can drive the industry to be more efficient. I’ll give you a couple thoughts around golf. Two of the major costs for golf courses are labor and water. With labor, it’s the perfect opportunity for autonomous vehicles to come and mow the course through GPS mapping data and course utilization data. Golf will become a little cheaper for everybody, a little bit more accessible. Second is irrigation; water is obviously a big expense. Today, golf courses kind of water everywhere equally. In the future, like what the USGA did with the US Open at Pinehurst, we can give utilization data heat maps for where people are walking, where they’re taking shots, where the carts are driving. Now courses are going to be smarter and save 40-70% in irrigation costs. Those are two simple examples that are going to make golf more efficient as an industry and, as a result, more affordable because those savings can eventually be passed on to the consumer. So instead of your round costing $50, it might cost $30. Or, if you’re paying $50, you might be paying that for a much better experience. All those things become possible. And having an understanding of that is important. Those are just two of the things that golf can carry into the next century. Embracing technology is the way to get there.
Our NGF research indicates the improving golfer is a more committed golfer. Have you seen the same?
One of the things I hear anecdotally from people frequently is that Arccos makes you want to play more golf. Now they have the data and it empowers you in terms of not only making smarter decisions but gives you actual actionable information on how to get better. The reason our average user improves 2.77 shots a season is because when you look at golf, the handicap isn’t a linear scale. Going from a 13 to a 12 is much easier than going from a 3 to a 2. When you know what your weakest aspect is – if your driving is a 10 handicap, it’s much easier to get that to a 6 than if you’re working on your strengths, which might be putting at a 2 handicap. Knowing what the lowest hanging fruit is really leads to the most significant improvement. When asked if using Arccos makes you want to play more golf, 59% of our users said yes. That’s one of the metrics we look at closely. Are we increasing golf participation or excitement about golf? That’s part of our mission.