From real-time game analytics to sensor-based swing analysis, the latest advances are bringing PGA-level tech to weekend golfers.
When golfers talked about technology changing the game in the past, they typically referred to golf club innovations like precision putters or state-of-the-art custom irons. With new advancements in wearable golf tech, duffers are turning to data analytics like never before.
“The data doesn’t lie,” said John McGuire, CEO of Game Golf, which provides amateurs with the same type of real-time analytics the pros use. “It shows a golfer’s tendencies in different situations.”
Whether players are scoring PGA paychecks or hitting the green recreationally on weekends, golfers at every level can benefit from technology that brings a detailed understanding of performance on the course.
The Limits of Equipment
Companies regularly introduce new club heads and shafts that are lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic than their predecessors. Designed with bigger “sweet spots,” these clubs help players hit the ball farther and straighter.
Technologically speaking, golfers who use old clubs are at a disadvantage. Most experts advise against using a club more than two or three years old.
“The best drivers I’ve ever used have come out in the last six months,” said Brian LoGrasso, the manager of the Edwin Watts Golf Superstore in the golfing hotbed of Orlando. “There are just so many more options than ever before.”
Golf balls have also advanced significantly, with a multi-layer construction to give players a target that will fly straighter and farther. At the top levels, technological advances have created a revolution, making some courses too easy for professionals.
These breakthroughs, however, haven’t done much for the weekend golfer—the average golf handicap has barely changed over the last 100 years. High-tech clubs and balls are no substitute for mastering the basics. That’s where new swing tracking and analysis comes into play.
Big Data on the Driving Range
The ShotLink trailer, parked somewhere near the course at every PGA event since 2003, looks like the back end of an 18-wheeler. The advanced command center tracks real-time performance of every shot taken on the tour—often more than 20 million individual golf strokes.
Ten years after ShotLink became an established part of the tour, John McGuire began developing a similar data collection project for amateurs. The result was Game Golf.
Like ShotLink, which uses lasers mounted around the course to track shots, McGuire wanted something that was “nonintrusive.” To help players forget that their every movement was being tracked, the system uses a belt-mounted device, or an app on a golfer’s phone, and small one-ounce tags attached to the end of each club.
At the end of a round, a golfer can see how they did with a dashboard of pro-level statistics, including stroke distance, stroke trajectory and how often the ball hits the green.
What’s more, Game Golf is amassing a huge body of data from its users, with millions of shots already on file. This has led to some interesting analysis, such as the observation that many amateur golfers need to reconsider their equipment choice as they approach the green.
“Our data shows that 94 percent of golfers under-club,” McGuire said. “Most golfers hit the club they chose well, but still come up short. That’s because they had the wrong club selection.”
A Digital Caddy and Coach
A caddy is often the best resource a pro golfer has—a grizzled professional who can offer advice and motivation and who knows the course, both from experience and clubhouse conversations with the other caddies.
New products like the Garmin Approach can do a caddy’s job digitally. While the watch won’t offer a golfer a pep talk—yet—it gives extensive feedback on course conditions.
The watch uses GPS to show a golfer how far the ball is from the hole and alerts the golfer to any hazards, such as water, rough or trees. With maps for more than 40,000 courses around the world, it can even show the golfer where the hole is when it’s not visible—like when a golfer is deep in the woods or buried in a sand trap.
Many of the top-of-the-line Garmin Approach watches also include swing analysis features that measure the strength and speed of a golfer’s swing, much like the tech batters use to improve their swing in baseball.
Research has shown that the ratio of a golfer’s backswing (when a player is “winding up” to hit the ball) to the downswing (when the club is headed for the ball) should be three to one. The Approach measures the speeds of a golfer’s backswing and downswing to see how close each shot comes to achieving the ideal ratio. It coaches the player by sounding tones to help synchronize the two pieces of the golfer’s swing.
Other products, such as Swingbyte, fit on the end of a club. The device gives real-time feedback on the speed of a shot, as well as several different angles to help a golfer determine what went wrong with a bad shot.
And Zepp has a line of swing sensors that fit into a glove that give a 3D image of the path of a golfer’s swing. The sensor, containing two accelerometers and gyroscopes and using Bluetooth LE to connect with smartphones, measures swing speed, hip rotation and a variety of other angles, comparing each to what the goal should be.
Keegan Bradley is a PGA golfer that uses the gloves to help him fine tune his game. He recently joined several other golfers, including Michelle Wie, to help develop the Zepp 2, which incorporates the golfers’ knowledge into a Smart Coach feature.
The new product diagnoses the player’s weaknesses and recommends a training program based on the individual’s swing data, explained Zepp’s Andrew Felix.
From Wii to VR
Virtual reality (VR) may be the next step in the never-ending quest to improve golf scores. The technology could make in-home golf simulators, which today cost upwards of $50,000, more affordable and fun.
Jordan Spieth used the Full Swing golf simulator to prepare for the U.S. Open.
“I can see my spin rates, my launch angle, my launch direction,” Spieth said in a video on Full Swing’s site. “It’s not like I’m hitting into a net. I can watch the ball react on certain greens, and I can play the courses I play on tour.”
With Full Swing, a golfer hits a real ball with a real club. Then, as the real ball bounces away, the VR display shows the ball’s flight on one of 93 championship courses, based on the analytics of the golfer’s swing.
PGA golfers Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter are regular users of Trackman, another in-home VR golf simulator.
Of course, no product, no matter how advanced, is going to score an ace for the golfer, but increasingly new technology is giving weekend warriors access to professional-level tools for taking their game to the next level.