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July 1, 2017

Technology is Transforming Practice Ranges

BY: TONY L. STARKS

Technology is everywhere in life, especially on the golf course. 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. It’s even in their golf car in the form a GPS and charging stations for electronic devices. For nearly two decades, technology has been front and center in the golf industry.

As tech moved forward at rapid pace, however, practice ranges stayed relatively the same. But that’s changing right in front of us. Technology is becoming infused with the range and facilities are leaning on it to enhance the practice experience for golfers.

Why is now the Right Time to Embrace Tech on the Range?

The narrative has been that golfers have less time to enjoy they game than in the past. While that’s true, the most avid of players are still carving out time for the game nearly every week, and they are still seeking a premium experience. Where they may forego nine holes of weekday summer twilight, they’re still willing to spend 45 minutes on the practice range trying to fix the hook that showed up last weekend.

The other part of the “technology + range = success” equation is the Millennial work force that now represents substantial spending power. According to Forbes, Millennials 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.

Why did we throw in the “financially stable” line? Many experts agree that the true barrier to entry into golf is wealth. Among households with an annual income greater than $150k there is much tighter disparity between ethnicities, genders or ages that play golf. To put in plainly, green is really the only color that matters. As Millennials build stable bank accounts, they’re far more likely to start playing golf. And they’ll expect a level of technology to be involved in their experience, whether that’s on the range or course.

How is Tech Being Leveraged?

At the core, Topgolf’s entertainment-focused golf facilities are hyper-enhanced practice ranges with technology at the center – not to mention the added elements of music, food & beverage, gamification, relaxed dress codes and socializing. In a past Golf Range Magazine article, we described Topgolf by saying “Imagine if golf, bowling and Dave & Busters had a baby.” We thought that was pretty accurate.

With more than 40 locations in the U.S. and UK either open for business or coming soon, they have become wildly popular in a short span of time. They use microchipped golf balls and cylindrical targets to track precise distances and landing spots.

The company continues to seek ways to bridge their customer’s technology-based golf experiences with green-grass opportunities. For example, they recently announced a strategic alliance with ClubCorp.

While specific program elements are being finalized, Topgolf and ClubCorp leaders see opportunity to enhance the golfing experience across physical and digital platforms. For instance, Toptracer, Topgolf’s newly released product for practice ranges, could bring a more interactive format to the private clubs’ driving ranges. Players can track their ball flight path as they hit, receiving real-time insights on speed, distance and accuracy for a more interactive, gamified experience.

“Both Topgolf and ClubCorp have been leading the industry in encouraging fun golf entertainment,” says ClubCorp CEO Eric Affeldt. “That’s why a ClubCorp and Topgolf collaboration is so interesting. With our more than 430,000 members across North America and Topgolf’s tremendous reach among new golfers and even non-golfers, we have an opportunity to introduce and reinforce the great game among a massive audience.”

TrackMan, one of the most trusted names in launch monitor technology, is also venturing into this space. Earlier this year they announced their new TrackMan Range platform, which uses a multiple-radar system to track every golf ball hit on a practice range and returns key ball flight data back to individual golfers’ smart phones. The advanced technology can literally track hundreds of players and shots hit simultaneously on multiple levels.

“You can fill a range with 120 golfers, they all hit simultaneously and everybody will get their data to their personal device. That’s how it works, it’s that easy,” says Jens Nielsen, TrackMan’s Vice President of Strategic Alliances. “Even with so many swings, it’s easy for radar technology. They detect the moment of impact for each swing using millions of radar beams per second. Our Chief Technology Officer (Fredrik Tuxen) comes from a military background, so it’s defense technology that we adapted to use for golf.”

TrackMan had not released exact pricing for the Range unit at the time of this story. However, they indicated that it would be custom pricing based on facilities’ individual needs and physical characteristics.

With gamification components in the works, TrackMan envisions this technology giving all practice ranges the opportunity to deliver a Topgolf-like experience.

Viable Tech That’s Producing Range ROI

Investing in technology is a big decision and can come with a hefty price tag. However, there are some viable options that have been proven revenue producers while also enhancing the practice experience. Here are a few examples:

Power Tee

The automated teeing systems make it easy 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 almost 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!”

Toptracer Range at Europe’s Top Practice Facility

World of Golf is classified as Europe’s busiest practice range. Located south of London, a mere nine miles from Trafalgar Square, countless people pass directly by the facility on their daily commute to and from the city. “It’s a minor miracle being able to have a driving range on such a valuable piece of property,” says the facility’s owner and board chairman Christian Purslow.

However, Purslow, a keen businessman who served as the Managing Director of the popular Chelsea Football Club before stepping down earlier this year, knows there’s more to success than just location. He’s continued to invest in the technological advancement of his 60-bay stand-alone super range. The facility houses Power Tee’s automated teeing system, launch monitors and an automated ball collection system based on hydraulics and water flumes that’s unique to Europe. According to Purslow, it enhances the customer experience because the balls do not clutter in the seven-acre landing area.

Earlier this year, on International Workers Day (or May Day), Purslow debuted another piece of technology that’s intended to enhance the experience for his customers. Toptracer Range was installed in each of the 60 hitting bays, allowing golfers to instantly see and track their ball flight after each shot. It’s the same technology golfers are accustomed to seeing during PGA Tour broadcast.

After introducing it on Monday, May 1, Purslow had this response: “I’ve never been involved with a consumer business where the entrance of a new technology had such an extreme impact. By my records, on the first day of launch we had 40 percent higher takings than we’ve ever had on May Day.”

Marketing strategies included a 30-day social countdown to the arrival of Toptracer, and Purslow was more than pleased with the results.

“People were in an absolute frenzy, they were pouring into the range on a Monday morning at 10 a.m.,” he says. “We had lines behind every bay for most of the day. On the first day, the tech proved itself to be a revenue producer.”

Earnest Results from Ernest Sports

Ernest Sports, the makers of affordable and accurate launch monitor technology, offers a unique range specific device in its ES15 model. “The ES15 is designed as a range bay divider, but delivers fast and accurate data to the golfer,” says Jim Arendt, the company’s Vice President. “It serves as a great introduction of technology to a golf facility. It’s easy to use and doesn’t overwhelm the golfer with data. It gives you the basics: ball speed, club speed, smash factor, launch angles, spin rate, carry distance, and total distance.”

The simplicity is what makes ES15 a success at the private Frenchman’s Creek Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “Most of our membership here is 60 years old and up, so they don’t really need all the advanced data that more expensive launch monitors offer,” says Rocco Panzitta, the clubs head professional. “What they really need is the distance they hit each club and how far they carry their driver. The E15 gives you that clearly, and it’s easy to use.”

Frenchman’s Creek currently has six ES15 units, each of which is customized with the club’s logo. One of the best uses Panzitta has found is for hosting group clinics. He’ll set them all up on the range and move between golfers providing feedback and insights based on the data. “Beyond the clinics, I’ll set them up and just walk the line. It gives me time to talk with five or six members and give them some quick advice,” he describes. “In terms of price and function, they’re about as good as it gets.”