The Golf Course of the Future

As I mentioned last month, one of the more interesting presentations I attended at the recent Golf, Inc. conference in San Diego was “Course of the Future” moderated by Forrest Richardson, along with Mark Jackson of Davey Golf, Robert McElreath of ClubCar and Dana Lonn of Toro.

Their focus was on the “marriage” of high tech and design, how technology enhances the entertainment factor of golf and robotics impact on golf course maintenance costs.

Using GPS technology, Marc Davey illustrated how the future may (if not will) see fully autonomous, all electric greens mowers and rough mowers reducing the need for human staff.  He also introduced the concept of drones for observing and mapping problem areas without the need for human visits to all points on the course.  These tools are also electrically powered using lithium batteries thereby reducing energy costs.

With so many constantly connected to cell phones, various platforms of technology were explored to enhance the golfer experience.  Using one’s cell phone to access tee times, get on course yardages and order food and beverage are fast becoming part of the typical golf experience.  Many golfers now get custom fit for new (high technology) clubs with the help of golf simulators and launch monitors.  Many courses provide GPS yardages and golfers use personal GPS or laser range-finders to calculate shot distances.

Technology and the cell phone are also becoming more prominent in tournament management, handicapping and even the management, organization and accounting for  “buddies” golf trips through Golf Genius Software and their Golf Advisor branded Golf Advisor Club.

The methods for getting around the course are changing and also adding technology to the experience.  Golf carts now have sophisticated systems that offer music, sports on TV and the ability to order food and beverage.  The course management can also monitor pace of play by observing the GPS tracked location of golf carts from the clubhouse.  Technology is also available to those who walk the course with remote-controlled electric trolleys, often with some of the same amenities.  While not necessarily high technology, there are more and more golf courses offering golf boards for transportation around the course in a form that might attract a different and more diverse market.

Economically, and in my opinion most likely to contribute to the value of a course or club are the autonomous mowers.  With labor typically being more than half the maintenance budget, any cuts that can be achieved are welcome.  Combined with reduced reliance on sometimes unavailable labor, this is a real plus for course managers.

Another possible trend in the golf course of the future is “Pay as You Go” golf which is golf on a pay-per-hole basis.  Many millennials say golf takes too much time, especially for an 18-hole round.  Many private club players have had this option for years but non golfers and novice golfers are still feeling their way around and aren’t always ready to commit the time or fees for an 18-hole round.  Driving ranges have successfully embraced this concept for years.  Will golf courses and clubs give some focus to their practice facilities to enhance capacity or increase revenues?

Will we one day see drones delivering food and beverage to players on-course?  Will music and other entertainment soon penetrate the traditionally quiet and peaceful golf environment?  Will even the more traditional private clubs evolve to a point where dress codes and various other rules are relaxed to a point similar to where many of the now corporate-owned clubs have evolved with a less-restrictive and more casual atmosphere.

All of this recalls the square grooves dispute during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Interestingly, that conflict was first resolved by a settlement ultimately grandfathering the use of square grooves and later limiting groove specifications for high level competitions.  At first, golf accepted what was then considered high technology and then dialed it back to the current rules.  Will the golf course of the future be receptive to new technologies and ideas?  Will these new technologies persist into the future?

Looking into the future is always a speculative endeavor, but it’s fun.  For sure the golf course industry will change.  It has to or it will continue to shrink.  I’m reminded of the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.  Today’s world is changing and golf is no different, albeit maybe slower.  The game, with technology in balls and equipment has been fast to change and the economics have been positive, with players replacing their equipment at a much faster rate.  Golf courses as well need to expand and enhance the experience.  What will the golf course of the future look like?  My bet is that many of the concepts discussed herein will either become reality or if already existing will further permeate the golf course world.