George Peper: The Ultimate Driving Machine

The walk-on player filling out your foursome may soon be a robot

Roughly 30 years ago, I had a nutty idea. Actually, I had a bunch of nutty ideas back then, but this was one of the more colossally nutty ones.

As editor of GOLF Magazine, one of my duties was to act as sort of a P.T. Barnum and attract attention to the magazine. In one notably unguarded Barnum moment, I cooked up a competition in which two of our staff players, Greg Norman (then the best ball striker in the world) and Ben Crenshaw (then the best putter), would combine forces to take on the team of Ping Man and Perfy. Ping Man was the PING company’s ball-hitting machine—accurate enough to hit ball after ball into a garbage can from 150 yards—and Perfy was the perfectly repeating putting metronome created by short game guru Dave Pelz, who was also on the GOLF staff at that time. My plan was to assemble the four of them at Winged Foot for a made-for-television match.

Illustration by Michael Witte

All four players were up for the challenge, and even Ping Man’s quirky godfather Karsten Solheim was excited about it. But for some reason I can’t now recall, it never came to fruition. Maybe Norman wanted too much appearance money or Perfy got cold feet. Bottom line, it was an idea whose time had not come; the world, or at least the golf world, just wasn’t ready for robots.

Well, now it is. The age of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and programmed androids is well and truly upon us. Unless you’ve been under a rock the last six months you know that a program called ChatGPT debuted recently with the capacity to produce creative writing—everything from poetic verse to potty humor—and the words can be penned in just about any writing style, thanks to the company’s reference data base of 300 billion words. This, of course, has myriad implications, both exciting and scary, among the latter being the extinction of people like me. Either that or we’ll go on writing forever, our future bylines coming from plagiaristic robots.

A few similar apps have appeared in the last several months, creating artwork on your computer screen in a matter of seconds, simply from commands you type into a search bar, whether you want a rendering of the “Campbell’s Soup Can” in the style of Leonardo da Vinci or the “Mona Lisa” by Andy Warhol.

Robots are working in factories and assembly lines. They’re mopping, welding, scrubbing floors, spraying crops, delivering packages, shelving library books, even doing minimally invasive surgery. Maybe you’ve seen the video of the Boston Dynamics robot who lopes jauntily up a flight of stairs, walks a narrow plank, does a standing four-foot-high jump onto a platform, tosses a tool bag to his human co-worker, and then dismounts via a twisting back flip, sticking the landing with a celebratory fist pump. You won’t see this guy among the crew now building the house down the block, but it’s just a matter of time before he comes to a neighborhood near you.

And yes, even golf has gone to the bots, and today’s versions are far more sophisticated than dear old Ping Man and Perfy. The most famous is LDRIC (Launch Directional Robot Intelligence Circuitry), which can exchange snappy banter on the range while hitting the ball with superhuman power and accuracy. A few years ago, he made a hole-in-one on the 16th at TPC Scottsdale. And last year a team of German scientists unveiled Golfi, a putting robot that combines a green-reading neural network, 3D camera, and computer-simulation to sink roughly 70 percent of its putts.

Robots are already serving as ball pickers at dozens of driving ranges, and in Europe there’s a $1.5 billion industry in robotic mowers. I saw one of these in action a few years ago at Iceland’s Brautarholt Golf Club (LINKS’s Fall 2019 cover), where 98 percent of the mowing is done by a crew of robots each the size of a suitcase. They aren’t inexpensive—one mower costs several thousand dollars—but they’re electrically powered, eco-friendly, and require no salary or health insurance.

But these are just the beginning. I’m convinced that my two-year-old grandson, if he takes up golf, will one day walk the fairways with robots. At this moment, someone in Silicon Valley or Austin or Bangalore is putting the final touches on a golf superhumanoid, a walking, talking encyclopedia on the game with fully articulating joints and the strength of 10 men, combining state-of-the-art AI, laser vision, GPS tracking, voice recognition, and a bottomless database of golf knowledge. Think Alexa, Segway, Butch Harmon, Bones Mackay, and Einstein all rolled into one, with the ability to not just caddie for you but improve your game and even step in and play alongside you.

The first invasion will surely be the caddie-only model, available for rent from your
club in a range of engaging personalities—exuberant youth, canny Scot, crusty veteran—
each programmed with his (or her) unique catalog of verbal wit, wisdom, and sycophancy.

Let’s say you’re between a 5- and 6-iron on an approach shot. Robolooper will have not just advice but the incontestably correct answer based on his trove of data on your performance with every club and from every sort of lie. “Go with the 5-iron, boss,” he’ll say. “Under these conditions you’ll have a 38 percent chance of hitting the green versus 17 percent with the 6.” Human caddies, already a dying breed, will have no chance against these mechanical marvels who always show up, keep up, and can be programmed to shut up. Plus, they won’t need to be tipped, just recharged.

But the ultimate and most intriguing iteration surely will be the robot that plays golf, actually walking the course and hitting the shots. Imagine arriving at the tee for your regular Saturday foursome and learning one of the guys had to cancel so you need a fourth. “No problem,” you say, “I’ll get Zoltan out of the trunk.”

Of course, Zoltan will be a better player than any of you, but you’ll have the ability to dial him to any handicap you want, from Tour pro to 40-handicapper, depending on what sort of match you want to have.

No matter what level, he’ll play quickly since all strategy and shotmaking decisions will be instantaneous and there will be no need for a practice swing or pre-shot mumbo-jumbo of any kind. He’ll shoulder both his clubs and yours, and best of all he’ll have sort of a kangaroo pouch in the form of a comfy seat.

This is one golf partner you can rely on to carry you every time.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Spring 2023 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.