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February 1, 2018

Tech Takeover

Emerging technologies are changing the practice range experience

BY TONY L. STARKS

On average, golfers spend about 45 minutes on the range practicing. Earlier this year, I spent four hours at Del Mar Golf Center and brought nine friends.

So what turns a 45-minute range session where a golfer spends $12 on a large bucket into a four-hour party with a tab in excess of $200? Technology.

Tech is everywhere in life, especially in golf. It’s in the golfer’s bag with the latest driver design. It’s on their phone as they track scores and shots, share photos with friends and follow the leaderboard of that week’s PGA Tour event from the comfort of their golf car. While it moved rapidly in other areas of the sport, the practice range stayed relatively the same. Until recently, that is. Now it’s evolving right in front of our eyes. Technology is quickly being infused with the range, and facilities are leaning on it to enhance the practice experience and, perhaps more importantly, up the entertainment factor.

Remember that group of friends I took to Del Mar Golf Center? We had two hitting bays covered by Dryrainge canopies and equipped with Top-tracer Range, the Topgolf innovation that’s designed to provide range goers the same ball tracking technology you see on TV.

Using a system of high-speed cameras and television monitors, after each ball is struck a flurry of data returns the screen. The actual shape of the shot, carry distance, total distance, ball speed and more. We could select our own playing style too, such as the points game (similar to the scoring system at traditional Topgolf venues), launch monitor mode (which gives you ball data), virtual golf where we were able to transport ourselves around the globe to play some recognizable golf courses, closest to the pin and even a long drive competition.

What could have been one golfer practicing for 45 minutes and $12 of revenue, turned into 10 friends eating, drinking, laughing and having fun for four hours – oh, and a substantial difference in revenue.

“We think of Toptracer Range as reinvention and changing the way things are done, changing the way people engage with golf,” says Ani Mehta, who oversees the expansion of Toptracer as VP of Corporate Development for Topgolf. “We’ve been very successful in doing that with our core business, the traditional Topgolf sites where we have 38 in the U.S. to date and are still planning for more. Being an innovative company, we’re continuing to look for ways to expand the Topgolf experience outside the four walls of our full-size venues. Toptracer Range is an immensely valuable tool for doing that, while also helping range facilities shift their demographics and create strong new revenue streams.”

“Golfers are wowing over how fun it so far,” says Matt Clay, the PGA general manager at Del Mar (California) Golf Center – a GRAA Top 50 Stand Alone Facility. “The interface is clean and the software is always being updated to keep the games fresh and add new courses. It keeps people far more involved, there’s interaction between the people back there drinking and the player hitting.”

Del Mar was among the first few facilities in the country to have the system operational, joining Arlington (Texas) Golf Center who installed Toptracer in the summer of 2015.

“I’ve seen my business double in size and revenue, which has more than helped pay for it. We have won several local and national awards for the innovative products we have, which includes Toptracer,” says Mauricio Galante, Arlington’s owner and head professional. “The game is only going more towards technology and this is wonderful technology for golf.”

While Topgolf may have opened Pandora’s Box, other forms of tech-based range entertainment centers are also on the rise. Later this year, Hudson National Golf Club in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, will become one of the first facilities in America to have TrackMan Range.

Presently, the primary difference between Toptracer and TrackMan Range (TMR) is that the latter system consists of multiple super-sized TrackMan radars that can collect data on every golf ball struck from any position across an entire practice range. The data is then returned directly to the mobile device or tablet of the golfer, where it can be viewed in real time, or stored and reviewed at any point in the future. Ball data can also be re-directed to screens or monitors in teaching studios. While the Toptracer system covers a limited number of bays (you have to add more cameras to cover wider areas), it’s expected to come with a lower price tag. Toptracer is also developing a tool that will allow their platform to connect directly to golfers’ mobile devices.

For Hudson National, which is in the midst of a $5 million range renovation project, the addition of TrackMan Range is the ideal fit and will provide the finishing touch.

“Now all of our members will have the ability to download an app, go anywhere on the range and get launch monitor data immediately returned their phone,” says Theron Harvey, Hudson National’s PGA General Manager. “We were blown away by its capabilities and we’re all in on it.”

While total cost of installing the system is still undetermined, Harvey expects it to be in the six-figure range.

The original renovation kicked off after a thirdparty survey revealed that members didn’t believe the club’s practice facilities were on par with the rest of the Hudson experience – which includes a Top 100 Golf Course (as ranked by Golf Digest). So when a neighboring 20-acre lot came up for sale, the club jumped on the purchase and used the new land to build a state-of-the-art practice facility. It encompasses two all-new teeing grounds, an expansive short game area and a teaching studio that’s set to be complete this summer around the same time that TrackMan Range will be up and running.

Harvey doesn’t believe there will be any learning curve with his tech-savvy membership. They already exclusively use the Fore Tees app for tee times and use the Web for lessons and dinner reservations. Not to mention, most of his golfers have already been on TrackMan and have a basic knowledge of the diagnostic numbers.

“We believe that it’s going to benefit our club in many ways. It could spark more interest in lessons, as golfers become curious about what’s behind the numbers and how to improve them. Also all the archived swing data on their phones will help our teachers better structure individual lesson plans,” adds Harvey. “We pride ourselves on giving our members a different golf experience. No one in the Met Section has anything like this. Our members are going to bring guests, hit balls and have a great time.”

It’s not just ball-tracking systems that are pushing the technological envelop when it comes to practice facilities. Indian Wells (California) Golf Resort recently announced a partnership with NextLinks Golf to produce a tech-driven entertainment center around their nine-hole putting course. The laserbased platform allows golfers to play a variety of games while offering some pretty stunning visuals.

The Indian Wells project has been in the works for the last two years and is expected to open in late April. With $363,000 in funding approved by the City of Indian Wells, which owns the course, the plan is to build a full entertainment zone with standing structures hovering above the nine-hole putting course. Lasers will emanate from the structures and “light” the way for a variety of different putting games.

“You’ll be able to come up swipe the credit card, pick a game you want to play with a group of your friends and then begin the process of having fun,” says Steven Rosen, the General Manager at Indian Wells. “It can connect to your phone, tablet or smart watch to track scores. We’re still developing exactly what the games will be, but they’ll all be laser-driven, tech-based and fun.”

Rosen believes new potential golfers can often be deterred by the difficulty, cost and strict rules that mark the traditional game. He hopes that this new venue will strip away those barriers and create an affordable entryway for a new demographic.

“We hear everyone talk about how the game is struggling, and we’ve felt that ourselves with drops in rounds and participation over the last few years. Everyone understands the issues with the game, but no one is prepared to do something about it and make dramatic changes to how people interact with golf. We’re lucky enough to have an open-minded ownership that’s willing to try new things,” says Rosen. “It’s not rocket science, you have to use today’s technology and infuse it with the game to make it attractive to a growing demographic.”

For Indian Wells, that means 1) Removing the dress code, allowing golfers/people to come as they are. 2) Removing the time constraint, you pay by the hour and can play for as long or as short as you like. 3) Removing the need for expensive equipment (putters will be provided if needed) and other costs. Paying by the hour (and not by the person) gives large groups a chance to come out to the laser putting experience together and split the hourly cost.

“We have great owners who saw the opportunity and listened to us from a standpoint of what the trends are and where technology is going, and invested in the facility. I think it’s going to pay off in a big way,” Rosen adds. “Those days of adhering to strict golf standards, my grandfather’s days, those are gone. Our industry can’t be afraid to embrace change, and we’re trying to be at the forefront of this new way of thinking and bringing golf to people.

Golf simulators represent another growing tech trend. Many facilities are choosing to install them inside their clubhouses or teaching studios to give golfers an offseason or after-hours experience. At the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana, where more members are on property in the winter months for skiing than in the summer for golf, the installation of a simulator in the clubhouse has proven pivotal.

“It’s set up with coaches and chairs, there’s over 100 golf courses that members can choose from and also other activities/games in the room like darts,” say Bill Ciccotti, the club’s PGA Head Professional. “We do a good job of emphasizing the social aspect of it. We encourage them to come down before dinner while having appetizers or cocktails to play a quick closest-to-the-pin contest or a couple holes of virtual golf while their meal is being prepared.

“We offer it the entire year, but throughout the winter it’s usually booked from 2 p.m. when we open it until it closes after dinner services. That helps our golf season go from 90-100 days to something that last all year for our members.”

In addition, it has been a tool to introduce golf to winter members who only ski. “I saw close to 50 groups that had never played our golf course in the summer, who played on the simulator in the winter and then came back here in the summer time to tee it up.”

On the conversation of simulators, one of the coolest products at the 2018 PGA Show was found at the booth of Full Swing Golf. The simulator company paired their Virtual Green technology with Putt View. The Virtual Green is a contourable green that offers up to 32 putts in 32 different configurations. Essentially the floor moves to create a variety of different putts. And think of Putt View like “Tiger Vision” on the old PGA Tour video game, where a virtual line appears showing you exactly where to hit your putt in order to find the bottom of the hole. Sounds crazy? Experiencing it is even crazier.

“With simulated golf you’re doing a three-dimensional activity, with part of it being two-dimensional in a way. So putting during simulated golf is always something that people ask about. In the simulation world, I think our current putting experience is very good. But with Virtual Green in combo with Putt View, we can add another high-end tech product for our clients,” says Wes Armstrong, lead sales executive for Full Swing. “In addition to obvious fun and entertainment factors, we also saw an opportunity for indoor golf and training centers. If they have limited space for a putting green, this platform gives them the opportunity to create hundreds of different putts in a much smaller area.”

Investing in technology doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend thousands of dollars on Top tracer, TrackMan Range, NextLinks or a simulator with a Virtual Green. It can start with small steps that fit your facility’s model. Automated teeing systems, for example, make it easy and fun for golfers to let it fly when they’re out practicing on the range. John Richman, owner of the Martin City Sports Complex in Kansas City, Missouri, says that the majority of range balls hit at his facility come off Power Tees.

“About 80 percent of our practice range business flows through 14 stalls of Power Tees,” says Richman. “Being a golf professional and a teacher, I was hesitant to bring them in because we were of thinking that everyone wants to hit off natural turf. We’ve had them for more than a year, and that perception has changed for me.”

The grass teeing area at Martin Sports Complex is large enough to fit 90 golfers, but Richman says he’s even seen golfers forego the grass range during busy hours and wait for one of the Power Tee stalls to open up. It’s proven to be a differentiator for his business and a tool for attracting golfers.

“We have a wide range of golfers, from beginners to experienced players, men, women, juniors and seniors,” Richman describes. “There are two reasons why I think it’s been successful for us. One is the alignment. I teach a lot in the Power Tee stalls because it’s very easy for the student to align themselves the same way every time with the ball teeing up in the same place at the same height. It creates a consistent and repetitive environment. Secondly, it’s just fun!”

A major part of the “technology + range = success” equation is the Millennial work force that now represents substantial spending power. Research indicates that wealth is truly the biggest barrier in golf, as households with incomes greater than $150k are more likely to have golfers regardless of ethnicity, gender or age. According to Forbes, millennials now account for more than $2.5 trillion in annual spends. This group (which I’m unabashedly apart of) craves technology in all aspects of their lives, and as the generation as a whole becomes more financially stable they will start seeking golf experiences that meet their needs. And they’ll expect a level of technology to be involved in their experience, whether that’s on the range or course.

As one leading PGA teaching professional said to us recently, “unplugged driving ranges as we know them will be non-existent within the next few years.” Some golf purists will argue that they will never let electronics get in the way of a devoted practice session on the range, but they may soon be in the minority.