Written by: Nick Winters
You’re right in the middle of the fairway, with 138 yards left to the front edge, and 146 yards to the pin. The wind is 7 miles per hour, into and left to right. The shot is playing a little bit downhill (the green is 23 feet below your current location). You know that you need to aim 16 feet left of the flag, and hit this 7-iron with 86% of your max swing speed to land this ball close to the hole. And you know all this because you are the best golfer in the world. Well, not quite. You’re just a 15-handicapper who saw the fancy new golf-tech on display at Dick’s a few weeks ago.
As with every other industry, golf is in for quite the culture shock in our immediate future. It’s nearly impossible to think of an aspect of our lives that remains untouched by technology. Computers that used to take up entire rooms now fit in our pocket, and have more processing power than the computers NASA used to get man to the moon (seriously, this is true). We are only years away from self-driving cars being a normal aspect of life, and many of us have asked an artificial intelligence, like Alexa, Siri, or Cortana, how many pints are in a gallon. So what does this mean for the golf industry, which has remained relatively untouched by technology, save for a few shot tracking devices, and GPS? Let’s start with what we currently have.
GPS, launch monitors, and rangefinders, oh my.
The golf industry already does have some fairly smart tech for golfers to play with. GPS devices can give us accurate distances to certain points in the fairway or on the green, and can be used in the form of a watch, or even an app on your phone. Rangefinders generally keep things fairly simple. Point the laser at your target (a flagstick, a tree, the beer cart) and get an accurate yardage. More advanced and expensive rangefinders can calculate your yardage with slope as well, taking uphill / downhill into account. GameGolf, and others, have come up with a system to track your golf game, by placing small devices in each of your clubs. Then, each swing is recorded into an app on your smart phone that gives you data on your golf game (fairway accuracy, scrambling percentage, greens in regulation, etc). Pretty neat.
Next up are launch monitors and simulators. A launch monitor is basically any golf device that records statistics about your golf swing (swing speed, ball spin rate, launch angle, etc). This has become an extremely popular teaching tool, as it helps students see the progression in their swing as they improve. There are even portable devices that you can set up on the driving range, and operate yourself. A launch monitor can be used in conjunction with a small room and some software to create a “golf simulator”. Take swings with real golf clubs, get stats and yardages on those swings, all while a simulated golf course or driving range is projected on the wall. Simulators allow us to basically play golf without the walking and fresh air (who needs it right?). Play Augusta National from the comfort of your own home. But, let’s face it, it’s not real golf… not yet anyway.
In The Year 2000…
So what’s next? Looking back at the first paragraph of this article shows the very near future of golf. Devices that can combine all aspects of the “thinking” part of the game into one complete package will soon be here, and it will come in multiple forms.
The first will be an electronic push cart, or “Robot Caddie” as I prefer. The cart will hold your clubs, and follow you around as you walk from shot to shot. The cart will have a built-in GPS, showing all the typical course yardages, along with yardage accounting for slope. You’ll be able to input the distances that you hit your clubs, so it can give you club recommendations, along with how hard you should swing. Along with this, it will allow you to input a “typical shot shape” for each club. Say you normally hit a 10 yard fade to the right with your 5 iron. It will use this information, along with the current wind speed and direction, to process how much effect the wind will have on your ball, and therefore, where you need to aim in relation to the pin (“14 feet right of the pin”). Who knows, it may even have a built-in AI called “Bones” that will spit out all this information to you if you ask it “What do ya think?”.
The second form that this will come in is a pair of glasses. A special head’s-up-display, or HUD, will overlay the lens. So at any given time, in the corner of your glasses, you’ll be able to see yardages, wind speed & direction, club recommendations, etc. Hitting a button when you’re currently lined up for a shot will display an augmented-reality shot-line, to help you account for the wind and align to the target. Think about the “shot tracker” on PGA Tour broadcasts. Once you get up and around the green, another button on your glasses will display a topographical map of the green. The HUD will even give you slope and speed indications using color and little direction arrows on the grid-system. Think “Tiger Woods PGA Tour”, the video game (example: http://golfstinks.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/green-grid.jpeg).
Some of this may seem farfetched, and consumer items may not be available for another 5-10 years for cost reasons, but products similar to the ones I’ve described will exist relatively soon. Whether or not some of this technology will be good for the “spirit of the game” is debatable, but some players will find the added visual cues and simplification of the game to be very helpful. New players may even decide to give golf a shot specifically to try out Taylormade’s new “Golf Glasses”.
Ready Player One
These “Golf Glasses” will serve as a precursor to more prevalent use of augmented reality and virtual reality in golf. Augmented reality, or A.R., is essentially when we have a view of our real world, and computer generated graphics sit on top of it. For instance, the topographical map of the green or the shot-line in the glasses example in the previous paragraph. Some companies have started playing around with A.R., like Magic Leap and even SnapChat, which can show computer generated characters on top of real world objects. Virtual reality, or V.R., is where the world around us is entirely virtual. Picture putting on a headset, and instead of seeing the real world around you, you now see an entirely fabricated, virtual world. Video games have been adapting to this for a few years now, transporting the player through the V.R. headset into the game world, through the eyes of the character in the game. Pretty amazing stuff.
What does this have to do with golf? Picture playing golf on a real world golf course, fresh air and all, using only augmented reality equipment. One of the biggest barriers-to-entry for new players is that golf is not only incredibly difficult, but incredibly expensive. What if in the future, augmented reality glasses become mainstream (as in, 1 billion people own them), and creates a need for an augmented-object marketplace? After all, with all of these people owning glasses, they need to be able to do stuff with them, right? In this marketplace, you’ll be able to purchase apps for your glasses, like a weather dock that can show you the weather forecast on the wall of your apartment, or a monopoly board, where you and your friends can see who lands on Boardwalk. You’ll also be able to purchase the “starter golf set” which includes augmented balls, tees, and clubs, all for the cost of lunch. Beginners will be able to try the game without too much invested, but they will also be able to avoid most of the frustration. The “starter golf set” will include some options that make it a little bit easier to hit the ball, hit it straighter, hit it farther, etc. These tools will change the perception of golf from frustrating hobby, to refreshing outdoor-augmented activity. This added accessibility will help make golf appeal more to the younger crowd, a demographic that golf has been struggling to reach for decades. Crisis averted.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, would almost be like taking a golf simulator one step further. Users would pick the course they want to play (for a fee, of course) and be transported inside a virtual recreation of that golf course. Got a 1pm tee time at the virtual TPC-Sawgrass? No problem, just throw on your V.R. headset and meet your buddies on the range. Picture it as if you are moving, talking, and making choices all inside of a dream-world, all from the comfort of your favorite chair. The interesting part is how big the world will be, how much can you do in that world, how will transportation work, is it one big world or will each industry (golf, tennis, baseball, etc) have its own “world”, etc. So many questions, so few answers. Only time will tell.
Now, depending on how V.R. penetrates the consumer market as a whole, golf could be affected in any number of ways by this technology. It it doesn’t gain much popularity, it may stay in the video game sector. Hobbyists may make the purchase with a few buddies to play, but course options and the level of immersion for the player will be limited. If industries as a whole start to take interest, there could be a different V.R. experience for each sector. For instance, buy the “golf V.R. headset” to play virtual golf. Buy the tennis headset for virtual tennis. Or, it could be one V.R. piece of hardware (made by Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, etc), and golf or tennis are available for purchase as applications / downloads. If it becomes an every-day item where everyone has one, a huge virtual world / worlds may exist, where making tee times at the virtual Augusta National isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Shopping, eating at restaurants, viewing sporting events. All of these could be done through V.R.. See, feel, touch. Wake up and smell the virtual roses, because this may be where we’re headed. If that’s the case, real-world golf may struggle to compete with the accessibility, affordability, and convenience of virtual golf.
So as to not end this on such a somber note, the future of the golf industry has a strong outlook. Technology has the capability to make golf a fun game for any man, woman, or junior with the desire to play, as opposed to being limited to the player with prior experience or a deep pocketbook. However, technology does not care about industry traditions, and it’s coming, ready or not. Industry professionals need to be able to adapt to the new norms, whatever they may be, that these new innovations will present. There’s never been a more exciting time to be alive. Let’s embrace it.