At this year’s PGA Merchandise Show, new Topgolf International president Troy Warfield wore a t-shirt that proudly displayed the name of the company of which he was now at the helm.
The receptionist at his hotel gave him a high five. He got into an elevator with 10 people from another company, and each began asking him when Topgolf was going to come to their respective cities. And driving range owners from across the U.S. spoke with him about how the company’s shot-tracking technology – branded as Toptracer – has changed their facilities for the better by creating new revenue streams.
“When you see that sort of instant recognition and appreciation… that was really powerful,” says Warfield.
Topgolf, one of the NGF’s Top 100 Businesses in Golf, was among numerous technology-based companies at January’s PGA Merchandise Show. Toptracer, which helps operators turn their driving ranges into practice destinations and entertainment hubs, was the presenting sponsor of the Demo Day event.
It signaled yet another step forward in incorporating technology in one of the most traditional of games.
It’s one thing to closely monitor technological advancements in equipment and apparel – for instance, Chase54 incorporated xylitol (yes, the element that makes chewing gum have that ‘fresh’ feeling) into the threads of one of its shirts, and the new ball from Callaway Golf includes a core made of Graphene, the subject of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics – but many golfers continue to recognize how much technology can help them improve or increase their enjoyment. Course operators, meanwhile, are turning to new tech to find new revenue streams, become more efficient and connect with consumers.
The NGF is currently conducting a comprehensive study on technology in golf, with a member report set to be released later this year. NGF researchers are investigating how golfers engage with technology, including mobile devices and apps, social networks, digital media and golf-related tech gadgets including rangefinders and GPS devices.
“For 400 years, a club consisted of a head, a shaft, and a grip,” says Tom Williams, vice-president of Arccos, another member of the NGF GOLF 100. “We think moving forward a club is going to be a head, a shaft, a grip, and a sensor. And we’re the ones doing that.”
Arccos is at the forefront of data tracking, giving golfers actionable data using analytics.
The system’s sensors are simply added to the butt-end of a club grip and data is sent to a smartphone via a mobile app. Last year Arccos introduced Arccos Caddie, which, according to Williams, has helped golfers get better at a more aggressive clip than ever, taking golfers’ data and easily translating it to the level that Tour professionals are used to seeing from their ‘real’ caddies.
Williams says Arccos users improved on average 2.77 strokes year-over-year in 2016. In 2017, it was 3.55 strokes.
“We want (golfers) to take lessons. We want them to get better equipment and get fit. We want them to do all these things to improve their game, but if all they do is make smarter decisions through data and (Artificial Intelligence) then they’re going to play better,” says Williams. “It’s almost guaranteed.”
Cobra took the first step toward integrated club technology, with Cobra Connect incorporating the Arccos system in the King F8 line. Claude Harmon III, one of golf’s preeminent instructors, says embedded sensor technology could be part of the future for other original equipment manufacturers.
“The stuff we’re seeing players use are all golf-swing based, like launch monitor technology,” he says. “What Cobra is doing is different because what they’re doing is about seeing what players are doing on the golf course.”
Dustin Johnson, a Harmon pupil and the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, has used a TrackMan launch monitor extensively to help improve his short game over the past two years. Regardless of a student’s ability level, however, Harmon says instructors can use technology to help make them better.
“Most golfers are trying to make whole-scale changes to their golf swing. One, they don’t have the time to do that and two, they don’t have the ability from a technique standpoint to do that,” Harmon adds. Technology “allows us to say to the student what they’re doing and how they can probably hit it better.”
Other technology companies are making management, networking and gamification easier than ever – while also providing a benefit to golf course owners.
Golf Genius Software managed almost 9 million rounds last year and, through collaboration with the USGA, is in almost 10,000 U.S. golf courses. What started as a platform to help organize golf trips has since expanded to manage leagues and eventually tournaments at the facility level.
With experiential offerings such as live scoring, TV leaderboards, and online portals, charities that use Golf Genius end up raising more money, according to President and CEO Mike Zisman. And with 40 percent of its staff as PGA Professionals, the top 100 company has its finger on the pulse of what technology facilities need.
“We make things very easy for the golf professional. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a product,” Zisman said.
18Birdies, which is based out of Oakland, California, and has 40-plus engineers in China, started out as a social networking app for golfers, providing opportunities for groups to track data on the course and see when professionals or friends alike are teeing it up. It’s also a GPS system, scoring app, and tournament management system.
The company, which has quadrupled its user base to 800,000 in the past year and recently partnered with the Billy Casper Golf management company, extended its mobile technology expertise by introducing its 18Birdies for Business offering. The platform was designed to help courses capture consumer data, grow golfer participation, incentivize mobile engagement, streamline tournament programming and reward course loyalty.
“It actually connects golf course operators to the user base we have built,” 18Birdies CEO Eddy Lui said. “They can utilize this activity and golf courses can really understand what golfers do, what their behavior is like. Golf courses can build their own local communities inside the 18Birdies ecosystem and create new, exciting experiences.”
18Birdies is also trying to make golf more engaging through gamification and is attracting Millennials – 65 percent of its user-base is 45 years old or younger. Lui says there will always be resistance to chance, but that the golf industry – as a business – is seeing a shift with the adoption of technological tools that work.
“The biggest thing technology can do is improve the overall experience and tailor it to the modern lifestyle,” Lui says. “Especially in the most important demographic: the Millennials. How do we use technology to understand their behavior and then help golf courses to actually deliver experiences on a golf course that fits their schedule and lifestyle?
“At the same time, technology is all about connectivity and integration,” Lui adds. “Now, using technology and connecting golfers and golf courses, you remove barriers like ‘golf is not accessible’ or ‘I don’t know where to play or who to play with.’ It’s the democratization of information so now golfers can figure out what works for them. We’re no longer saying everybody is the same.”
Adam is a Canadian-based golf journalist who has written for a multitude of outlets including PGATOUR.com, the Canadian Press, Globe & Mail, Sportsnet.ca, SCOREGolf Magazine, Golf Canada Magazine and the Golf Channel. A golf analyst for CTV News and CBC News, he’s also director of communications for the Golf Journalists Association of Canada.