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Technology yanks golf into 21st century
Technology has improved practicing and playing golf to the point that a golfer need not even step onto a course. [Photo: AboutGolf]

As golf entered the 21st century, it did at a snail’s pace where technology was concerned

As golf entered the 21st century, it did at a snail’s pace where technology was concerned. At the millennium, a caricature might show technology waiting patiently while offering a hand to yank the game into the modern age.

By technological standards, of course, that seems eons ago. 

After all, issues with equipment have been ameliorated for decades to the extent that, say, club evolution might look like an upward bar graph thanks to state-of-the-art advancements. 

Other aspects of the game, though, lagged woefully behind. Some areas were forced to play catch up, analogous to a runner plodding through an Olympic relay race in Dr. Martens — knowing full well sprinters shoes were available.  

Today, without being crass, technology has become golf’s paramour. The two are conflated, integrated into everyday life.

Instruction, academies, rangefinders, watches, simulators, esports golf gaming and even trendy merriments like Topgolf — a micro-chipped ball target range that combines fun with food – are predicated upon latest technologies. Industry apps, clouds, global positioning systems and websites — foreign terms less than 25 years ago — have permeated language and are now household words. 

The game has become more than just a good walk spoiled.

“The challenge is trying to marry [golf and technology] and to make sure that we are creating the innovation we need to from the technology end while not extending it too far where the golf world won’t accept it,” said Randall Henry, CEO and CGO of aboutGolf, which manufactures premium golf simulators.

The recent announcement that Topgolf andTCL, a growing television brand in North America, will partner to offer esports entertainment to golfers of every level stands as one example of how the game is — purists, close your eyes — growing in ways never before. Golf has entered the $1 billion esports industry in which video gamers compete. 

Through the partnership with TCL, Topgolf will add esports lounges to six of its 50 venues around the U.S. Additionally, there are plans to offer daily esports play, along with sports viewing areas that feature best-in-quality TVs, optimized for individual or group esports gaming and entertainment. Patrons will be able to play esports games and participate in coaching sessions, among other things.

Topgolf venues in Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston-Katy, Texas; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Scottsdale, Ariz., will open TCL esports lounges throughout the first quarter of 2019, aligning with major events in local markets such as World Golf Tour (WGT) and PGA Tour golf events.

"Topgolf at our core is about bringing people from all walks of life together through play, competition, music and food to share in meaningful moments," said Topgolf Media President YuChiang Cheng in a statement. 

Even the U.S. Golf Association has gotten into the act. The WGT app, partnering with the USGA, marketed the 2018 Virtual U.S. Amateur last year and has served up the Virtual U.S. Open esports competition for a decade. Winners have received gift cards and more. 

It’s no secret that Topgolf franchises have targeted esports patrons. There are local stroke-play leagues made up of teams of two or four-six players. Normally leagues last six weeks, followed by two weeks of playoffs. 

Successful teams are able to compete against other regional tournament champions at Topgolf Las Vegas for a $50,000 cash prize and the notoriety as the world’s best Topgolf team. 

However, it all comes back to mushrooming technology. Topgolf franchises have done outreach work in respective communities. Connecting with high school golf teams to use their facilities to practice has been a strategy to perhaps draw players into the esports environment and create a strong, ubiquitous brand.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Rich Stoner, the Metuchen High School (Metuchen, N.J.) boys golf team coach, accepted an invite from the local Topgolf location three years ago. Namely because it’s free. But also because he can track each individual player’s data and he favors the competitive environment it harvests. 

Last year the Northeast got hit with abnormal cold, inclement weather that kept the team off its home club course more than he preferred. So Stoner, who has guided the boys team to two state titles in the past seven years, thought practicing at Topgolf would be more stimulating than going to a range and telling his players to “pick a patch of grass and chip to an area.”

“There’s a big red 20-by-20 disc in front of you with a net and that’s more attractive to players that age,” said Stoner. “One thing I’ve learned coaching basketball and golf in my career is – and it sounds ridiculous – that if you can implement things with big, bright bold colors, things that are more attractive, then they’re more into it. To my point, it makes them want to use it more, and as a coach, it provides more value.”

More than just Topgolf and the esports industry, technology has consumed other golf touchpoints.

Golf simulators and places like GolfTEC, which offers customized lessons and training, have embraced changing ways of teaching. The official simulator of the PGA Tour and for the Golf Channel, aboutGolf, helps leverage content other simulators can’t access. 

Want to play Pebble Beach Golf Links? St. Andrews? Done and done through various content subscriptions. At last year’s Ryder Cup, the aboutGolf simulator was on-site at Le Golf National in Paris. Henry, who grew up on the PGA Tour watching his father custom club fit and teach between 30-40 pros, said he gleans feedback from Tour players. 

He also estimated his company has placed more than 200 simulators in Northeast golf clubs alone, not counting indoor golf centers and residential areas. The simulator is sold globally. Moreover, like Topgolf, most indoor golf centers run varied simulator leagues, according to Henry. 

 “Probably more so in the last three years,” said Henry, “entities aren’t seeing indoor golf as just ‘gaming.’ It’s a way to attract new players to the game. It’s become more acceptable as a larger part of the game of golf going forward.

“With technology advancing and being as good as it is, you can really learn how to play golf and become a good golfer simply by playing on a golf simulator.

“You’re still never going to replace ball-to-turf interaction or hitting out of a bunker, but you can simulate so many things as far as the mechanics of the golf swing and what’s going on with the ball coming off the club.”

To render a course design, aboutGolf hires a data company to fly a course and scan it. Roughly 50,000 pictures are taken so every tree, every green contour are exact. It takes about four months to generate the content. 

Henry sees the simulators as a well-founded method to learn, improve or to simply have fun.

“We don’t want someone to become a good indoor golfer,” he added. “That does us no good. We really see our platform as being the golf platform for the modern golfer. The modern golfer is somebody who expects data when they want it, golf when they want it and everything at their fingertips.”

The aboutGolf simulator, for instance, allows novice to scratch golfers receive data that can be printed out on-site and added to a personal profile in the cloud. That includes accurate measurements of shots, every shot ever taken and all the statistics associated with playing a round. 

For Stoner, he could have had his team use the simulator at their home course. He instead opted for Topgolf because, no offense to a simulator, he wanted something more adrenalizing than “smacking a ball indoors into a screen.”

Simulators could have an impact on clubs in cold-weather states. Harsh weather is always an impending threat to close courses, which, of course, means less revenue. Today’s simulators provide an alternative in keeping food and beverage monies flowing, for instance, something that didn’t exist when they first hit the market in the 1970s. They’ve been perfected over time, similar to the evolution of a telephone. 

Some specialized sectors have not only embraced technological upgrades, but made it the bedrock of what they do. GolfTEC is one of those businesses. Since 1995, GolfTEC has eschewed the conventional ways of teaching and focused on data, or facts. 

“Our goal was to merge technology with golf instruction,” said Joe Assell, GolfTEC President and CEO, on its parent website. 

The company utilizes interactive video, camera motion swing measurement and launch monitors to analyze trajectory. All of it helps instructors evaluate swing patterns. GolfTEC advertises that more than 7 million lessons have been taught. That’s a lot of golf swings. However, it’s inconsequential. What is important is that prior to these past two decades, the ability to make such a declaration would be nearly inconceivable.

Not without technology. 

All that said, the simplified methods of Harvey Penick, Donald Ross and all of yesteryear’s ways still carry value, but many are better suited for a time capsule.

Stoner has been coaching golf for the better part of 14 years. Asked whether he saw a confluence between golf and technology when he began, he paused. 

“Not from the techie side, with the apps, I don’t think anyone saw that,” he said. “The biggest evolution in high school has been the technology for judging distances, like GPS apps or lasers, to judge distance. It has, especially in recent years, has had the biggest impact on the game.”

Or in other words, we’ve come a long way from a pair of binoculars, steel tape and markers. 

Ken Klavon served as the U.S. Golf Association’s online editor for 12 years and previously covered golf for Sports Illustrated. 

Twitter: @Ken_Klavon