Can Golf Technology Help Grow the Game?

Ilya Leybovich Writer, KBS
golfer swinging club

Golf is better known for tradition than cutting-edge technology, but new apps and mobile-device systems are bringing the sport to a younger generation of players.

When you picture the typical golfer, who do you see? Adjectives like young and tech savvy probably don’t come to mind.

Over the last decade, the number of golfers in the United States has declined by around 5 million, and many of the game’s institutions — ranging from the PGA down to individual courses — are looking for ways to inspire millennials to become committed players.

golf technology heads-up display

At only 25 years old and with three major championships under his belt, Rory McIllroy is swiftly becoming the new face of the PGA. His victory at the Ryder Cup last week cemented his status as a rising star.

But celebrity players may not be enough to reinvigorate interest in the sport among younger demographics.

According to the National Golf Foundation, 157 golf courses closed down in the United States in 2014, while only 14 new ones were opened, marking the eighth consecutive year of decline. Last year, the total number of golf players in America posted a net loss of 400,000, with the biggest drop in the 18- to 34-year-old “millennial” age group.

Despite stars like McIllroy, golf is facing an age crisis, and tech developers are stepping in to make the game more accessible to the millennial audience.

The Crowdsourced Caddy

“If you look at the state of golf today, it’s not in great shape. In the U.S. we’ve lost maybe 10 percent of the golfing population,” said Sam Damico, founder and CEO of crowdsourced data company Caddio. “Everyone in golf is desperate to find ways to ‘grow the game,’ and the biggest part of that is attracting millennials and getting them hooked on golf.”

A former application engineer at Hewlett-Packard, Damico designed the Caddio app to collect detailed information and tips from thousands of golfers to help improve a player’s game. The platform delivers geographically specific advice for individual holes on a course, and is loaded with more than 30,000 courses worldwide.

While having access to a knowledgeable caddy who assists you in your game is usually reserved for high-end players, this crowdsourced solution essentially delivers the caddy experience to average, casual and new golfers — a democratizing approach that may appeal to the millennial set.

“We’ve found that among older generations there’s a reluctance to use smartphones on the golf course. They tend not to embrace that type of technology. Conversely, the younger folks just gobble it up,” explained Damico.

“Many of the studies around golf retention say it’s results related. If you’ve had a good round, it affects your mood, and so does a bad round. If the crowd can help one another understand the course a little better, you’re more likely to have a better round, perform better and enjoy the game more.”

While “disruption” is a popular concept in most of the tech industry, it’s anathema to the sports world, where the aim is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Golf has a certain pace to it, and interfacing with a computer or mobile device can break that rhythm.

That’s why Caddio relies on a button-press to deliver contextually relevant data based on a player’s location, minimizing the time spent using a device.

“I think we can help bring more millennials into the game — and the golf industry as a whole — by starting to look very deeply at the role technology can play in making this happen,” added Damico. “Any social application that creates a connection between a club and a golfer can contribute, and there are ways technology represents that point of ‘stickiness’ between a club and its players.”

The Connected Experience

Digital Caddies takes the notion of “stickiness” to a new level by providing a connected experience between golfers and course operators throughout their time on the links. The company’s tablet-based system delivers course information, yardage between landmarks, views of each hole and golf-related content like ads, videos and promotional offers. It also enables golfers to message the clubhouse with questions or service requests.

The benefits extend both ways.

“Golf course operators will be able to better manage and track their golf car fleet, manage pace-of-play issues and increase food, beverage and merchandise revenues through on-screen promotions and contests,” said Catherine Curry, marketing and communications manager at Digital Caddies.

“Participating courses will be able to distinguish themselves from their competitors and build brand and customer loyalty.”

golf technology in a golf cart

Tablet-supported golfing is a growing trend: Digital Caddies has already installed 11,000 tablets in 150 courses across the country, and the company expects the “connected course” to eventually be an industry-wide phenomenon.

“We believe that, one day, GPS-enabled tablets on golf carts will be standard,” said Curry. “Young golf superstars such as Rory McIlroy… are generating great excitement and interest in the sport with the millennials and Gen X cohort. These younger generations are very receptive to digital technology and will embrace, enjoy and begin to expect interactive screens on golf carts.”

Even in a sport as pastoral as golf, technology is making inroads that will change the way we see the game, if not the way we play it. So what’s next?

According to Damico, the biggest revolution in golf — and sports in general — will be based on what we wear, not what we carry.

“When I look at golf, the thing that is most intriguing to me is wearables — stuff you don’t need to interact with. Just the fact of having to pull a phone out and read information sort of interrupts the natural flow of the game,” said Damico.

“But with a wave of wearables coming out, from Google Glass to smartwatches, there’s great potential there to take information like the type we’re gathering and extend it to other delivery mechanisms so that the tech becomes less intrusive. Is tech going to benefit the game? Yes, no doubt.”


Images courtesy of Caddio and Digital Caddies.

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