Golf and technology have always made strange bedfellows, especially when it comes to the most venerable of golf institutions, the country club. But circumstances have changed during the past decade. Members use the latest technology at work or at home and expect the same at their club. Furthermore, private clubs are struggling to shore up membership numbers, which have fallen steadily since 2001 because of a glut of new courses and a sluggish economy. Consequently, private clubs are seeking to lure members and increase operational efficiency through technologies and services.
What would it take to get your money's worth from your club? How about remote-control carts that follow you up the fairway and feature video cameras for real-time swing analysis? Or a learning center that uses muscle sensors to build a 3D model of your perfect swing? Or greens that use a subterranean watering system to maintain a smooth putting surface? How about amenities such as dry cleaning, car detailing, day care for children, and a state-of-the-art fitness center and spa?
There will always be purists who want only the traditional golf experience, but many club owners believe the way to improve member enjoyment and increase revenues is to embrace technology, not resist it.
Not your dad's private club
Your day at the country club of the future begins when your car enters the front gate. A transponder in the car signals to a wireless receptor that notifies the staff of your arrival. Using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, the service folks in every department are told that John Smith is here, has a tee time at 10:30 a.m., and a dinner reservation at 6:30. Your bag is placed at the range an hour before you tee off. You visit the business center and log on to the wireless network to check your e-mail before hitting balls.
"It used to be that the ideal member was a guy who paid his dues and never showed up," says Jim McLaughlin, vice-president of operations at Intrawest Golf, a Scottsdale golf management company. "But the club of today is trying to be more proactive." To keep its membership happy -- and spending money at the club -- Intrawest is installing CRM software in its high-end clubs. Using the software, Intrawest's staff can better recognize members, cater to their tastes in food and entertainment, and provide a personalized experience.
At ClubCorp, which operates nearly 200 clubs and resorts, the philosophy is that technology is good as long as it's not a hassle for members. ClubCorp President and COO John Beckert doesn't want customers struggling to remember codes or fumbling with complicated hand-held computers. Using smart-card technology, ClubCorp is considering debit/charge cards. "The cards can be as smart as you want," Beckert says. "Kids can charge up to a preset amount, but no alcohol." In other words, no more running up mommy and daddy's bill.
Putting the cart before the course
When you arrive at the first tee, you're given a small device to wear on your belt that emits a signal to your golf cart. This device allows you to summon the cart remotely (or send it up the cartpath), saving you the exertion and humiliation of running back to the cart to change clubs after flubbing your 5-iron 40 yards. Carts have flat-screen monitors mounted to the dash, with GPS data for exact yardage, wind speed, and temperature readouts. They also have a video camera built into the front for recording and analyzing every swing.
The golf cart has tremendous potential for new technology. The only thing holding it back is how technology will affect pace of play. Having GPS in the cart can speed play by eliminating the need for yardage books and markers. But it's easy to see how surfing the Internet might bring about a six-hour round. That's the danger of creating a mobile office out of the cart. Club owners believe the course isn't the place for day-trading. Instead, they'll be content with installing Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) networks in the clubhouse and keeping the Internet off the links.
Ron Skenes, manager of marketing and communications at E-Z-GO Textron, a golf-cart maker, envisions a day when hybrid vehicles use solar power and have power steering. UpLink, a provider of GPS systems for carts, sees a time when club pros can watch members play using video cameras in the cart that transmit a signal to a monitor in the golf shop. The pro could give real-time tips to the golfer through the dash monitor. Of course, this violates the U.S. Golf Assn.'s Rules of Golf but would be fun for playing lessons. In addition, clubs with GPS systems in their carts are beginning to provide services such as real-time scoring, leader boards for tournaments, and handicapping.
A course for the future
As you walk down the first fairway, your golf cart in remote tow, you notice the grass is exceptionally thick and healthy. There are no divot holes. Despite no rain for the past three weeks, the ground is moist and the greens are like sleek, green glass. Not a single sprinkler head is in sight. Nor is there a single weed. And the maintenance crew seems to have taken the week off.
The technology responsible for the condition of the course is subterranean irrigation. "You achieve 100 percent efficiency and zero water waste," says Jim Connolly, a golf-course consultant based in Spokane, Wash. With sub-irrigation, the course architect lines the entire course with sand just below the soil layer. A pipe that runs the length of the course carries water to the sand. Using capillary action, the water rises against gravity, up through the sand, and feeds the grass roots.
Sub-irrigation serves as a draining outlet so the course is never too wet or too dry. Course managers can run hot water under a green in case of frost, or cool water during a hot day, controlling temperature and moisture content.
In addition, scientists are building a better blade of grass. Through genetic engineering, breeding programs at universities such as Rutgers, Penn State, and Texas A&M are developing "ultra-dwarf" breeds of Bermuda grass that grow slower and allow for a low cut without losing density. That means faster, truer greens.
Learning to love technology
After your round, the club pro who watched you struggle with your wedge shots from the golf-cart video camera suggests you visit the learning center. Once there, you encounter a dizzying array of launch monitors, balance systems, club-fitting gadgets, and interactive swing analyzers. But your pro wants you to work with a new device that gives you a 3D analysis of your swing and shows, from every angle, the manner in which you are breaking your wrists too early.
Although 3D is still a few years away, golf simulators are growing in popularity. Full Swing Golf has a $50,000 simulator that lets you play St. Andrews and other great courses year-round, rain, snow, or sleet. In what looks like an enclosed personal theater, the simulator projects the hole onto a 10-ft.-by-13-ft. screen. Each shot is tracked by two electronic curtains emitting 60,000 infrared pulses per second. This translates onto the screen as you watch the flight of your simulated ball down the fairway.
Besides being the coolest golf game since Golden Tee, the Full Swing Golf simulator is the latest in high-tech instruction. "It gives us accurate launch angle and club-speed data," says Rick Martino, director of instruction for the PGA of America at the PGA Learning Center in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Martino sees a future with tiny muscle sensors feeding information on when muscles are firing during the swing. Factoring in height, weight, and other body dimensions, Martino says we will be able to tell golfers what their ideal launch angle and positions are throughout the swing.
In the future, clubs will undergo philosophical changes to complement technological advances. The staff at Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland, Mass., says the days of the stodgy 18-hole men's clubs are numbered. "It takes too long to play a round," says Ron Lavoie, general manager of Harmon, which offers a full-size nine-hole course. "We're trying to bring people into the game by turning Harmon into a two-hour club." Harmon offers programs allowing members to get in a workout, hit balls, or play a quick round. Membership costs just $1,800 a year.
Although high-tech gadgetry can spice up a day at the club, owners say protecting the sanctity and tradition of the game is important. With that in mind, you wind down your day at the country club of the future the way golfers have ended countless rounds over the centuries: arguing with buddies and drinking a beer or two. Some traditions technology just can't improve.
By Dan Briody