GOLF HAS GONE DIGITAL

The technology fallacy is that digital problems don’t always require digital solutions and I think the game of golf provides a great way to visualize that. As a collector of hickory golf clubs, I can appreciate just how simple the game was meant to be, with players originally responsible for making their own clubs which are then used to hit a small round ball into a hole. A very simple game with no room for digital transformation, right? Wrong. While the push to incorporate digital technologies is increasing, it’s really up to the individual to decide how they’d like to leverage the available tools just like a business would. I’d like to walk through some of the ways that golf has transformed as a result of digital technologies before comparing these changes to what we see in the industries we work in. 

As the game became more popular over a hundred years ago several club manufacturing companies formed to meet the demand for higher quality equipment. Buying these clubs was not as easy as just finding a retailer either, it often meant seeking out an order from the manufacturer directly and waiting sometimes months for the order to come in. This process has changed dramatically as there are more than a dozen retailers within an hour’s drive of me and I could even have a set of clubs delivered to my door tomorrow via Amazon Prime. When I got a new set of irons a couple of years ago I went to GOLFTEC for a fitting and swing evaluation. The technology they have on hand is absolutely incredible as they use video, a launch monitor, and motion sensors to evaluate a player’s results with different sets of clubs. The first set of swings are made with the player’s current clubs to develop a baseline for comparison. After seeing the results, the technician then suggests 3-4 other club models from different brands to try. As each new model is tried, data is compared and small adjustments like shaft length, grip type, and size are made to get the best feel. At the end of the session, the player then has 4-5 sets of data to look at to help decide which choice may be the best. This data includes metrics like shot distance, swing speed, shot dispersion, spin rate, and launch angle. The best part is that the testing session is completely free if you decide to buy a set of irons from them.

The gameplay itself has also been heavily influenced by a push to go digital. To make a tee time originally, players would have to sign up on a physical piece of paper posted in the locker room. That changed with the ability to communicate via phone and now just about every course encourages players to book tee times online. “How far are we from the hole?” is the most frequently asked question out on the course and historically players would have to rely on local course knowledge or visible yardage markers to venture a guess. Now, there’s an app on my Apple Watch that tells me how far I am from the hole with every step I take and also keeps track of my score. In situations where I have further questions regarding yardage, I simply take out my rangefinder which shoots a laser to the point of interest. This results in a digitized display detailing distance as well as distance adjusted for slope.

Course management has also been impacted by the push to go digital as technology now allows golf clubs to have tighter controls where they would like them. Carts at nicer courses have GPS in them which give yardage readings to players but also allows for the club to control and communicate in a much more direct manner as well. Management can communicate directly with a group of players if inclement weather is incoming or if they would like to tell them that their pace of play is too slow. It also allows them to set specific boundaries for where the carts can drive, preventing players from driving into areas where the ground is too wet or where wildlife may be present. There are many more digital tools available for maintenance as well like the GreenKeeper app which focuses on daily decisions relating to turf management. This app aggregates weather, soil, and location data to best manage a course’s grass, which is the focus of any golf course’s maintenance efforts. Traditionally, maintenance operates at the direction of the Club Superintendent, who advises based on feel and experience rather than data. As you can see from the screenshot below, the GreenKeeper app allows for precise monitoring, tracking, and then decision making. The app also stores all of the data and decisions so that managers can learn from their experience and improve. 

While there are certainly some pretty exciting things happening within the game of golf due to its integration with technology, the real takeaway here is that it comes down to the people. Whether it’s equipment, gameplay, or course management – it doesn’t matter if the latest and greatest technology is leveraged. All that matters is that in each sector, humans are aware of the benefits that digital solutions offer and can then make their own choices. Golf-related digital solutions are exciting tools to choose from but they are far from required. Each person has their own idea of what a great day of golf is for them and each course’s definition of high-quality playing conditions is also different. Even though courses encourage booking tee times online, booking directly in the Pro Shop is still an option if that’s what works best. As with business, it’s up to each firm and individual to leverage digital transformation as they see fit.

18 comments

  1. I’ll admit, I am not a huge fan of golf (sorry!) but I found this blog to be very interesting and different! I think it’s common for people to have the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” mindset when it comes to digital disruption, but what they lack to see are the ways digital can make the experience more enjoyable/successful; You provided a perfect example with the GreenKeeper app. The app provides golf courses the opportunity to maximize their field and provide the best service they possibly can.

    Based on what I read on the GreenKeeper site, golf courses and GreenKeeper mutually benefit from the partnership; Golf courses get access to tools to improve their turfs, and GreenKeeper continues to gather data to improve the algorithm. It’s genius!

  2. I think golf is an interesting topic for digital transformation as the sport prides itself on tradition but has also adopted new technology (I recall a case study last year about Titleist golf balls). I did not know about the GreenKeeper app and I think that will continue to become an important tool for courses as they try to keep the course in pristine condition while limiting costs. Courses use up a lot of water so this app (or another digital tool) could help achieve the optimal water use based on many factors (drought level, grass type, historical weather data, expected foot traffic, and more).

  3. It’s interesting to watch this game evolve right before us – just like many other things but still interesting nonetheless. When I first started to read your blog, I thought you would also cover the technology that the Ryder Cup (played over the weekend) introduced this year. I read that they underwent a multi-year tech overhaul to deliver real-time golf scores and statistics, live crowd and course maps, and other data services, bringing insight advances in a sport linked to tradition. They also announced that they would be partnering with Capgemini, a company known for their deep technology and business transformation expertise, for the next six years!

  4. Nice post. Which App do you use. I’ve been on 18 birdies for about the past two years, and it’s my favorite, but I’m always open to switching if one is better.

    1. @geraldckane I use Hole19. Recommended by a friend a while ago, free and I’ve never had a reason to look elsewhere.

  5. @geraldckane I am a “The Grint” man myself for golf app, my friends and I like it for the social aspect – we follow each other’s rounds as they happen live, and trash talk via app or group text.
    @downeastdigitall great post, all the new access to information about golfers and courses and conditions is fascinating, with guys like Bryson DeChambeau really trying to use that stuff to get a competitive advantage – like his strategy of making every club the same length

  6. @geraldckane, @barrinja1 I’m a V1 user and really like it. I’m sure 18birdies is similar, but I use my watch for distances on every hole; it doesn’t do me much good when I hook it into the woods from 117 yards out, but that’s besides the point. I Just got fitted for a putter this past summer and the first thing the Golf Pro did was hook up a laser and an accelerometer to my putter shaft. After hitting 50 puts, we went over to the computer and sent the data. The software immediately graphed the data and told a story enough so that the Pro could recommend both slight changes to my putt as well as a certain style of putter. Another aspect of golf that we rarely think about was recently highlighted with Whoop data. One of the broadcasts had pro players live heart rate broadcast while they were swinging and putting. For the average watcher, this is probably just entertaining, but for golfers, including Justin Thomas, “I don’t take it off, ever,” Thomas said. “More so at the beginning, learning what’s better for me and what helps me sleep and what helps me recover better. Now I’ve worn it long enough that I know. It’s just part of my life, I don’t even notice I have it on, but I still look at it every day.” Cool post!

  7. @downeastdigital This blog certainly pulls at the heart strings as I have been a beneficiary of the digital tools available in the sport of golfing to improve my game. This summer, I spent a couple of months in California working with a golf coach who used motion sensor technology and a launch monitor to evaluate my golf swing. With these tools, my short game improved dramatically, albiet my mid distance performance still needs some work, Furthermore, like @cloudbasedbrett my golf coach also fitted my putter shaft and used similar tools to improve my putting game. Based on some of the comments, I can feel a mini golf group forming amongst the class. Great post.

  8. I appreciate the last paragraph you clipped in to tie the whole blog together in one piece..it’s up to the golfer. I think the misconception people have about sports changing in general from technology is that it’s affecting everyone, however, it doesn’t have to. When you look at the great athletes in the past, they never relied on anything besides their hard work and talent. In this generation, the great athletes don’t rely on technology either, (Kawhi Leonard, Kobe, Derrick Henry, etc.) they simply outwork their equals. Tech use in sports has created a space for growth in some areas, but training isn’t one of them yet. As for treatment, injury prevention, and elevating stat projections for individuals and also giving data to sports betting companies, technology has been angelic. For the hobbyist golfer, technology can make the game really fun, and perhaps turn them into an avid golfer.

  9. Something that I really enjoy about the golf tech is that it makes the barrier to entry lower for beginners. I guess that would be true for other sports technology. For instance, I have been using a heart-rate monitor for years (I ran XC in undergrad) to keep my heart rate in the window I want for the type of training I am doing. I think there is a clear benefit to adding tech into traditionally low tech activities (like sports/recreation) to lower the barrier to entry and to help advance those with interests above the average connoisseur.

  10. I wonder if the advances in golf technology is due to the type of people the play golf. Generally speaking, a lot of corporate America plays golf and the sport itself has been associated with wealth. In my previous tech company, sales people would often take a potential customer out to golf to seal a deal through networking/conversations. I bet this has a impact on the investment that has taken place in the golf world to make it more high tech versus other sports – making it all about the experience. I don’t know much about other sports but I have not seen anything crazy in terms of digital transformation.

  11. Is there a mini-golf app for me?! That’s all I do now what with three kiddos! Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I played an actual round of golf — maybe 14 or 15 years ago?

    What I really like about this post is how you point out that golf is fairly straightforward: get the equipment, get a tee time, try to hit the ball into the hole. And then you detail the digitalization of so much of that experience chain which of course then makes one think that *any* kind of process can be examined with the same digital lens.

    And now based on some of the comments here, I’ll be better equipped when I do finally get back to “real” golf!

  12. Excellent post on a very important underlying factor. You mention that “While there are certainly some pretty exciting things happening within the game of golf due to its integration with technology, the real takeaway here is that it comes down to the people.” This, as I can infer from your conclusion, applies to all other industries as well. In fact, I suggested my company’s CTO attend this webinar today on “Why Legal Technology Projects Fail” and he told me he didn’t have to because he already knew the answer: the end user. That’s why a class like this one is so important — it all comes down to people and managing them!

  13. While I am not a golfer myself, a lot of people close to me are big into golf. I agree with the comment about the mentality “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. I think that many people might feel this way about a lot of classic sports. I think this is an easy way to think of it if you are looking at a sport at a nonprofessional or individual level. However, sports such as golf are businesses. Just as any good business leader should assess the landscape and be forward-thinking about the technology in the landscape, the same should be done in sports in order for them to remain relevant in society.

  14. simple and golf don’t belong in the same sentence lol… that aside cool article. I picked the game back up a few years ago as I find it the best sport to play as I get older. It’s also a useful skill in the business world in my opinion. I tend to like the aspect of digital transformation within golf particularly for the recreational golfer like myself. I think it makes the game more fun. I’m never going to be Tiger Woods so I like the aspect of looking down at my garmin watch or my grint app for proper distances. I also like that I can keep track of my rounds and handicap right from my phone. However I’ll admit sometimes online tee times annoy me particularly if the course has its own system that requires you to make a login and password. In that case I usually go back to the old fashioned way and just give the pro shop a call.

  15. Sports! I’m sensing a trend (tennis, golf, baseball, etc.), so clearly there is an appetite in the class for this sort of cross-over (myself included). Covid-19 has led to an increased demand for outdoor activities like golf and skiing where you can easily keep physical distance from others. I’ve noticed around the Boston area that booking tee-times during Covid became dramatically harder. You basically have to start looking on the Monday prior, to get a tee-time for the following weekend. Thankfully as you mentioned, a number of the courses have received a digital facelift with tools to book tee-times online. I 100% avoid course that require you to call in and I’m probably not alone.

  16. It is fascinating to see how tech influences sports on all levels, from pros to recreational players. I think this post was extremely interesting as I also saw very similar features offered to tennis players. In my opinion, tech not only makes our lives easier but provides ways to improve our games regardless of the sport. Thanks for sharing!

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