Technology is Changing the Way we Play Golf

The first distance-measuring devices in golf were laser rangefinders that shot yardages from point A to point B; today, handheld GPS devices show detailed maps of every hole and every green. Wristwatches that once only told the time now provide yardages to front, center, and back hole locations while receiving texts and emails. Launch monitors that merely confirmed shot distances—and could only be interpreted by teaching pros—now churn out spin rates, attack angles, and smash factors with easy-to-understand graphics.

And is your foursome still replaying shots over beers at the 19th hole? That’s so 2013. Post-round recapping now involves uploading stats to a mobile app, enabling your playing partners, distant friends, and the rest of the world to dissect your round via Facebook and other social media platforms.

Just as technology has changed the way we live off the course, it’s also changing the way golf is played, viewed, and enjoyed. Can we live without cellphones, smartphones, and tablets? Will we soon be wondering how we played this great game without all this electronic ephemera? And is this gadgetry, reliant as it is on socialization, anything more than a digital olive branch of sorts to a younger generation vital to the game’s growth?

Yes, the experts agree, but within limits.

Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, says embracing the latest technology is critical for his organization and for the growth of the game, but with one important caveat. “Technology is great in adding to the experience,” he says. “But you never want it to cheapen the experience. We’re all for technology up to the point where it starts to be detrimental to the essence of the game.”

That’s the fine line walked by innovators like John McGuire, CEO of Active Mind Technology, the company responsible for Game Golf—a wearable technology that gathers playing statistics via sensors on your clubs and belt—who believes that the newest products, with their emphasis on product design, are good for the game over the long term.

“Most products out there were technology-led, not design-led,” he says. “The former takes very little consideration for the user. The latter is all about the user. That’s why companies like Apple have done so well.”

There also needs to be a social component not only to attract a younger generation used to freely sharing personal information, but to continue golf’s tradition of post-round debate. “It’s not just using Facebook, Twitter, or things like that,” explains McGuire. “Part of our design thinking was, how can you engage golfers in between rounds? You do that by creating something that is fun, visual, and engaging. We want to make it more social, but doing so through data. You have to use technology to create products that do not get in the way of golf; otherwise it fails.”

Some products stand the test of time. The first truly accurate rangefinders came on the market in 1995. Today, both speed and accuracy have been enhanced in rangefinders, with slope angle now available for uphill and downhill distances. These devices have become such an accepted part of the game (and a pace of play improvement tool) that this year the R&A and USGA announced that rangefinders would be allowed for use in their
amateur competitions.

Our increasing dependence on smartphones has seeped into golf as well, as evidenced by the hundreds of related apps now available. “Mobile phones with GPS really opened up the doors to using new technology,” says Paul Goldstein, president and founder of GolfSight, a new app being used with the latest high-tech wonder gizmo, Google Glass. “Just having the ability to get cell data anywhere makes for powerful tools, especially for golf. The iPhone and Android took things to a whole new level.”

Many GPS devices have gone from handheld devices with tiny screens to larger, more easily readable screens that offer greater amounts of course information. “We’re coming out with a new product that has HD-quality graphics in mid-April,” says Paul Calabrase, national sales manager for SkyGolf, whose SkyCaddie was one of the first GPS rangefinders. “We’re also developing a new watch product with replaceable color bands and an online community called Club SG that we hope appeals to a younger generation. And we’re looking at other ways to get people into using distance information to help their game.”

Launch monitors—which have been around for 25 years—are more portable and less expensive than ever, making the cornucopia of swing information they provide easily accessible to the general public. TrackMan, a radar-based launch monitor system that debuted in 2004, traces part of its origins to the mid-1990s when golf balls were hit off the decks of U.S. warships to test tracking capabilities of new radar systems. Today, the product is revolutionizing golf instruction by providing golfers and teachers with reams of verifiable swing and ball flight data.

“We once heard a customer say, why guess what you can measure?” says TrackMan’s Justin Padjen, offering what just might be the mantra for the technology driven. “Golf instruction used to be, well try this. Now you have a device that can prove that a tip worked the way you wanted it to. But you have to be careful. Even Tour pros who own the system pick and choose their battles. If you are trying to look at all 26 numbers on every single shot, you might go a little crazy. If you figure out the key problem areas and focus on those, it’s manageable.”

Techno-skeptics argue that information overload can contribute to glacial pace of play. But a new mobile app called Pro Shop Radar might help. It lets golf professionals monitor the location of anyone who has downloaded the app within a “virtual fence” around the course. Poke along and the app generates a call or text encouraging the group to pick up the pace, while alerting the pro-shop staff to potential bottlenecks on the course. The free app will be rolled out at England’s Wentworth Golf Club this May and also could help manage staff and volunteers at tournaments and outings.

As tradition-conscious as golf can be, it’s also been very accepting of the new, from steel shafts to titanium heads, synthetic covers on balls to carts, hybrids, and spikeless shoes. But is there a limit to how far technology can—or should—take the game?

The aforementioned GolfSight already provides distances and scoring options right in front of your eyes with just a swipe of your finger on your Google Glass eyewear. Will it one day show the line of your putt and read the green for you? Protracer—that cool effect on TV broadcasts that shows the flight of the ball—offers a version for use on the driving range: Some day soon, you may be able to trace your shots on your smartphone. And what’s to stop the avalanche of available real-time data—about your swing, scores, even your favorite 19th-hole libation—from leading to a digital ID card any starter could swipe on the first tee to confirm your most appropriate set of tees?

Conceivably, there must be a threshold where something with a battery starts to cheapen the game. Until we reach that stage, however, the challenge and profit potential of building compelling and useful high-tech products ensures more innovations to come from inventors and entrepreneurs.

“What people care about is having fun and being able to see, share, compete, and compare,” says Game Golf’s McGuire. “If you can do that with a product, you can have whatever you want under the hood and have a real chance at success.”

Not only for that product but, with luck, for the game itself.

Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based golf writer.