While tech has for years transformed how many athletes play, measure and track their races, games, matches and times, it’s taken a while for tech to impact a sport with more tradition than most: golf. However, the time has now arrived and the sport of golf, its players, courses, and fans are adopting new technology to improve the beloved game.
Technology and its impact on the game
Smartphones and wearables have, more than anything else, helped increase the adoption of technology both inside and outside the golf course across all age groups. “The rise of wearables was the biggest driver for our success. Instead of buying expensive laser rangefinders or GPS watches, players can now simply use golf apps from their generic Apple watches,” said Anthony Douglas, CEO and Founder of golf mobile platform, Hole19. This unprecedented integration of tech into a golf player’s average game has been quite revolutionary for the sport with many positive implications, both for the players and the course.
This technology, in fact, plays an essential role in helping golfers play better, and the better they get, the faster they play. Consequently, the golf course can earn more revenue by selling more tee times. The case of Erin Hills, the course that hosted the 117th U.S. Open in 2017, is emblematic of the improvements: by implementing GPS trackers to manage its members’ pace of play, it was able to reduce the average round by 17 minutes, creating an additional $126,000 in revenue by simply adding one tee time at the end of each day.
Technophiles and technophobes
Technology can make rounds easier, less frustrating, and simply, more fun for the players. Golf techn can also help players keep track of their game statistics (something that is nearly impossible to do with paper scorecards or Excel sheets), find patterns in their game, and, consequently, improve their overall playing experience.
Golf courses, on the other hand, need to reinvent themselves and offer new benefits for their members. It is clear that players’ expectations have changed over time: for once, they are now more willing to pay for subscription-model apps over free ones to improve their game. Hole19, for example, currently has over 2.6 million registered users, a figure that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.
That being said, golf courses don’t always see the positive potential of tech adoption, creating a gap between the players (who are increasingly becoming “technophiles”) and the providers (who sometimes notice these trends too late). The Erin Hills case is indicative of this: by adopting new technologies, golf courses can dramatically improve the players’ experience and increase revenue. But how exactly?
The impact of COVID-19 on golf tech adoption
COVID-19, especially, created some interesting opportunities that, if correctly exploited, could bring a wave of fresh air to golf course management. Golf is one of the most popular socially distanced sports and one that experienced a major boom in popularity during the pandemic. “U.S. golfers,” Dylan Dethier wrote on Golf.com, “logged 20% more rounds in August 2020 than August 2019. The increase marks the fourth consecutive month with a year-over-year increase and underscores a trend: People are playing a lot of golf.”
During the creation of this article, Hole19 shared proprietary data with us, highlighting the magnitude of the trend:
Adding on top of the pandemic golf boom is the dramatic adoption of technology across many entertainment and service industries (QR codes for restaurant menus, for example). This has been driven by changes in customer behavior and preferences, and these same changes were experienced on the golf course. During the pandemic, players stopped touching flagsticks, using bunker rakes, and swapping paper scorecards. As such, digital scorecard downloads went through the roof in the span of just a few months. Another, probably even more important, trend was the rise of online bookings for tee times. As a result, golf courses can now better control their inventory and apply yield management strategies to maximize their profits in moments of low demand. Booking online, moreover, reduces players’ no-shows drastically.
A unified player’s experience through technology
With more and more players downloading golf courses’ proprietary apps, management has better chances to up/cross-sell. By knowing exactly where the players are at all times, for example, the course can send highly targeted push notifications, such as, “You’re playing your last hole, would you like to order your drinks at the bar now?” and so forth. These notifications can be used to improve the golfers’ experience. In case of bad weather, for example, the course could inform the players that no buggies would be available for the day.
Add this to a PMS/ePOS integration and management will know not only exactly what the players are doing and when, but will be able to identify the purchase history of each golfer (preferred pre-game snack, how many balls he/she purchased at the Pro Shop, lessons taken with the instructor, etc.), anticipating the needs of its members and increasing revenue and profit.
Lastly, technology can help golf courses disintermediate from tour operators. Most courses are, in fact, bound with tour operators, as they historically generated a major stream of revenue. The downside is that there is usually quite a significant disparity between the courses’ official rate and tour operators’ rate, and most courses are not even allowed to offer better prices on their official channels. This creates an unhealthy dependency, not unlike the one we witness in the hospitality industry with Online Travel Agencies. With more and more golfers getting in direct touch with the courses, however, there is enough margin to, at least partially, cut the cord with standard distribution and get back in control.
Golf is a sport of tradition, and proudly so. The modern version of the game originates back to the 15th century, and few sports have remained as true to their roots as golf has. However, it is undeniable that even our beloved game is going through a radical transformation, and there is no gain in being Luddites about it. Embracing technology can help golfers lower their handicaps, improve their pace of play, and simply have more fun, while courses can increase their revenue/profit and provide a superior playing experience to their members. From whichever perspective you look at it from, technology has the potential to make the game of golf better, without sacrificing all the wonderful traditions we all love about it.