How good am I? How good could I get?
To serious golfers, these are existential questions. For most of the game's half-millennium history, they have been answerable in mostly abstract, philosophical terms.
Until now. In the era of analytics, Big Data, sabermetrics and Strokes Gained, those questions can have concrete answers, if the growing and continually-refining class of golf shot tracking apps and products is to be taken seriously.
Those answers, driven by the results of millions of other shots struck by golfers across the range of handicaps, can be given to you at such a granular level that not only can you have a vague notion of your potential, you can see exactly which parts of your game are in need of the most improvement.
Having spent several rounds testing Arccos Golf's new third-generation club sensors and Arccos Caddie game-tracking app, I feel like I know my game better than I did before.
Arccos Golf and Arccos Caddie shot-tracking review
I'm a slightly-better-than-scratch golfer. Having played on my high school and college teams, I still enjoy competing in local- and regional-level amateur tournaments when I can. My current competitive goal is to make match play of a U.S. Mid-Amateur. To get to that level, I will need to shave a couple strokes off my scores.
I've treaded water at my current handicap level (USGA index: +1.5) for most of the last decade and a half. Have I plateaued, or am I missing something in my practice that is keeping me from breaking through that next barrier?
Arccos believes it can shepherd me to a +3 handicap in 12 months. Quite a bold statement!
(No matter what your handicap is, Arccos is confident it can help you out. The company claims that users lowered their scores by an average of nearly six strokes per round in 2021.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I've always considered myself something of a feel player on the golf course. As such, I have been somewhat skeptical of the continual integration of technology into a game that I have long seen as a retreat from technology. But knowing that shot-tracking products like those made by Arccos, ShotScope and others are increasingly a part of contemporary golf, and receive rave reviews from many golfers, I was eager to try it out.
Arccos' new Smart Sensors, released earlier this spring, represent the company's third generation of golf-analytics hardware. For $199.99, purchasers receive a set of 13 regular green-and-black club sensors (special-edition "Smoke"-colored ones are available as well, for $224.99) and a putter sensor that is 40% smaller and weighs 20% less than its predecessor. In addition, golfers receive a year's worth of access to Arccos' Caddie app, which provides not just GPS information but also smart-distance calculations that take into account factors like wind direction and strength and elevation change.
To activate Arccos, you need to install each of the sensors into the butt-end of the grip of each of your clubs, and use the app to assign each one to the appropriate club by flashing each sensor's unique QR code in front of your smartphone's camera. There are a few minor quirks - you need to make sure new sensors are not too close to each other, lest the system get confused about which club you are trying to assign; and the sensors themselves can be slightly stubborn when you're screwing them into your grips - but overall, setup is methodical, intuitive and painless.
Playing rounds with Arccos requires a bit of a learning curve. Overall, I found it a little less obtrusive than I had feared. Before striking the opening tee shot, it is important to download the map for the course you'll be playing before tapping a button to start your round. For each shot you hit, the vibration caused by the impact of club on ball will register your shot, and the next time a club sensor picks up a similar sensation, Arccos will link the shots together until it senses you have finished a hole. It tracks the distance you hit each shot, ultimately gathering accurate distance averages for each of your clubs.
The only real functionality frustration I encountered was on the greens. The increased sensitivity of the putter sensor is a two-edged sword; several times, I noticed the system thinking I had hit several putts on a green, or had hit a putt from an inaccurate location, when I was really just fixing and tapping down ball marks. Hitting practice putts can interfere with things, too. It is advisable to go through your round hole-by-hole at the end and confirm and adjust putt and hole locations in order to make sure the data gathered is true to your experience.
(Note: For best results, you need to have your phone in your pocket in order for Arccos to track shots accurately. The company also offers a product called Link ($149.99), which is in its second generation and clips to your belt or pocket to negate the need to have your phone close by.)
During my initial trial of Arccos, I played five new-to-me golf courses, all along Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. I found the app's renderings of holes clean and very helpful, with relatively easy touch-and-drag functionality to help me divine the distance to bunkers and over hazards that I hadn't seen before. In that way, the Arccos app is a handy yardage book for 30,000-plus golf courses, and stands up well to other golf GPS apps and products. Linger on it too much and it will eat away at least half of your phone's charge, though, so a battery pack is worth carrying so that your rounds don't get interrupted.
Where Arccos excels is in assembling relevant and actionable statistics about a given round, and then giving a golfer a picture of his or her game trends after several rounds. It leverages Strokes-Gained data based on millions of shots by other golfers so that you can compare your performance to that of someone at your skill level, or the skill level you are hoping to attain. Over time, Arccos' artificial intelligence-driven machine-learning (take these tech buzzwords with their appropriate grain of salt) platform should only become more sophisticated.
I had come into my Arccos trial with a solid sense of my strengths and weaknesses. My biggest strength, historically, is iron play; I tend to hit approach shots solidly and pride myself on my distance control. My weaknesses are streaky-at-best putting and periodic difficulties with my driver.
The data Arccos gathered over my five rounds in Alabama didn't change my perception of my game so much as confirm my suspicions in stark terms. My approach play is indeed a strength; my "approach handicap" across all five rounds was +1.7, with a single-round high of +7.7 at Ross Bridge. Even though I don't need Arccos to tell me it was one of the best ball-striking rounds I have ever had, the statistical confirmation was interesting and encouraging.
On the other side of the coin, I was not merely underwhelming on the greens; I was pitiful, under-performing my actual handicap by eight strokes on average. In the final round alone, my "putting handicap" was a horrendous 13, despite the perfect condition of the greens at The Lakewood Club's Dogwood Course. I have never felt so motivated to work on my putting.
Arccos Golf and Arccos Caddie app: conclusions
Arccos does a great job for its target market of curious, data-driven, improvement-minded golfers. The company's partnerships with club-fitting house TXG as well as OEMs like PING and Cobra (plus newly-minted board chairman Jimmy Dunne) suggest it is here to stay, and will only improve as new generations of sensors and software come consumers' way.
Still, the purist in me is itching to remove the sensors from my clubs after a few more rounds and focus on both enjoying the tech-free purity of golf and working on the deficiencies in my golf game that Arccos so bluntly pointed out. I will probably reinstall them in a few months to do another round of diagnostics to see if I am improving, but I recognize that most Arccos golfers will keep the sensors installed and gathering data on a rolling basis. If you are eager to delve deeply into the statistics around your own golf game, you will find the cost of Arccos - both in dollars and in learning time - worthwhile.
The numbers on the smartphone screen are clear. Now it's up to me to dig it out of the dirt.