The golf course of the future is here now, at least collectively.
Golf and technology are colliding, ever so slowly, even if they seem at odds. Golf celebrates its past. Technology aims to leave it behind.
You may or may not like how tech is already impacting the game - with music on the course, tricked-out golf carts and phone apps for everything from game-tracking to tips. To the younger generation, these new gadgets and gizmos may be the MAJOR draw for picking up golf.
I've seen the future of golf in a lot of my recent travels - from South Korea to Vancouver Island to a course where I live in Silicon Valley. A lot of facilities are experimenting with ground-breaking golf tech. In this story and video playlist below, I'm putting all this technology to use during my day at one hypothetical golf course. This "golf course of the future" features all the bells and whistles you can imagine.
Like many other industries, the golf course of the future will continue to leave its more consumption-heavy past behind, instead using organic and carbon-negative fertilizers. Branch Creek, produced by Synatek Solutions, is at the forefront of regenerative products like this and will keep golf sustainable and environmentally friendly.
The technology used by the superintendent starts working long before I arrive at the course. A robotic mower, an RG3 model by Cub Cadet Turf, is busy cutting and rolling the greens at day break. They've already proven their worth at the Presidio Golf Club in San Francisco, and the company is set to roll out a new and improved version later this year.
With the sun up, the superintendent flies his drone high in the sky, monitoring the course for any trouble spots, whether that's maintenance issues or places that need more/less irrigation. It's a practice done every day by 11 a.m. at La Rinconada Country Club, an 18-hole private club in Los Gatos, Calif. Should something look amiss, the super digs the phone out of his pocket and opens up the app that controls a water treatment plant built on property similar to the one at the Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., installed in 2017 to combat the drought and disperse its new supply of reclaimed water from the nearby city of Scotts Valley.
The investment of $9 million to build a wastewater treatment plant might seem excessive, but water costs are rising everywhere. Someday, this might not just be a California problem.
I don't know about you, but some days I don't want to mess with the pro shop. There is a way to skip the line and save more time to warm up. I simply scan my credit card into a self-paying kiosk like the one at the nine-hole Hancock Golf Course in Austin, Texas. After purchasing range balls, my golf rounds and choice of transportation, I'm almost ready to go.
Here comes the hardest decision of the day: How will I get around the course? The choices are similar to what's offered at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale: The golf bike, the GolfBoard, the Segway or the Kierland TurfRider (a two-wheeled scooter). Kierland is also one of the roughly 200-plus U.S. courses that offer the Shark Experience, the multi-media system that has been installed in 7,300 Club Car carts around the country. They're great for listening to music on Slacker radio through powerful Bluetooth speakers engineered to keep the sound in the carts or using the touchscreen TV to watch live sports. If the Shark Experience ever gets the rights to broadcast Big Ten or SEC football games live, it will free up my Saturdays for more rounds where I can merge my two favorite things.
My choice is the driverless golf carts I experienced in South Korea. These five-person carts stay on the cart path and are driven by a caddie. They are great for rounds where you want to walk a little bit but also need a cart for long rides between holes. In a perfect world, these carts would have the Shark Experience speakers, so I could jam to my favorite tunes.
On the range
The driving range isn't just a place just to bang balls anymore. With music being pumped in - like at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale or Diamante in Los Cabos, Mexico - it's a popular hang. There's an all-grass portion of the range to practice irons and a section of turf mats, where Power Tees feed me teed up golf balls as fast as I can hit them. It's a nice convenience for old guys like me. According to the Power Tee website, more than 400 ranges in 18 countries are already teeing up six million golf balls a day!
Each range stall, grass or turf, is equipped with your own personal Trackman, just like at Dallas National Golf Club, a well-heeled private club in Texas. With the Trackman app, I analyze every shot with eight ball parameters, including ball speed, launch angle, launch direction, height, carry, total, and distance from the pin.
In search of a cold one, there's a food truck on-site, just like at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, Calif.
The Short and putting courses
Assuming the modern life of a human is only going to get more cluttered, any golf facility that hopes to be sustainable for future generations must have a short course like the Cradle at Pinehurst. We'll use this facility as an extended warm-up, but the Cradle - and other short courses like it - are not only perfect for dialing in the short game, but a quick round with family or friends, no matter their ages or skill sets. The Cradle sells fun with music playing and the Pinecone, a stationary beverage cart serving specialty mixed drinks and beer.
To practice a few putts and have a few laughs, we tune up at the putting course, which has its origins at the Home of Golf in St. Andrews, Scotland, with the Himalayas. They have become a popular amenity at resorts like Bandon Dunes (Punchbowl), Gamble Sands (Cascades), Forest Dunes (HillTop) and Pinehurst (Thistle Du). Erin Hills is adding the Drumlin putting course this summer.
Frankly, the world of golf needs more of these short and putting courses where golf is fast, fun and affordable.
On the course
It's time to play some real golf! Escaping technology is why some of us tee it up. We're outside in Mother Nature. The grass, the trees, the ducks in the pond. Everything looks beautiful.
There are subtle hints of technology elsewhere. Playing a golf ball, GENiUS by Oncore, with a chip inserted inside helps my foursome find that errant first tee shot through an app on the phone. Finding yardages is easy with some combination of hi-tech GPS watches and the GPS in the cart.
Gone are the days of using mirrors or climbing a platform on holes with blind tee shots. This course has a traffic light like the one at Cruden Bay in Scotland that regulates when the group in front is out of the way. A green light means we can swing away.
With no traffic jams on blind shots, pace of play is steady. It's being monitored by Tagmarshal, a GPS software used at Erin Hills in Wisconsin and other courses that alerts operators of potential problem groups before anything actually occurs. Notorious for slow play, Pebble Beach Golf Links used to see 40 percent of rounds last longer than five hours. With Tagmarshal, that number has been cut to roughly 15 percent.
Getting thirsty, we can't wait for the beverage cart. A member of our foursome uses another phone app to order food and drinks prepared in the clubhouse grill and delivered by drone and/or robot. Full disclosure: This is the one technology that is still in the early stages of adoption. Eagle Vines in Napa, Calif., is using self-driving delivery carts that look like mini-coolers on six wheels to deliver drinks, snacks and golf balls to golfers in as little as 15 minutes, according to the Napa Valley Register.
Kings Walk Golf Course in Grand Forks, N.D., made big news last fall by testing drone deliveries. Unfortunately, a Flytrex representative told me this spring that there are no plans to bring back the program at Kings Walk or expand elsewhere until U.S. drone laws change to allow more mass transit.
Eventually, the beverage cart drives by, reminding us that new technology isn't always the best way. We share some friendly banter with the beverage cart girl, who is driving a unique roadster like the one at the Atunyote Golf Club at Turning Stone Resort in New York. It's the personal touch that a drone can't deliver.
Golf after dark
The fun hasn't stopped just because it gets dark. We want more golf. Although highly unlikely, maybe someday someone will invent a cost-effective way to light a regulation-sized course. At least the short and putting courses are lit for night golf.
Several indoor simulators - already a staple at private clubs in northern climates - have been installed in the clubhouse for the off-season, but they can also be useful on bad weather days or at night. If your club doesn't already have an indoor simulator, it is already behind the times. I've had multiple pros tell me their simulators make money, especially with food and beverage sales and winter leagues. One of the simulators - a Topgolf Swing Suite - delivers more than just golf: All ages will love the chance to shoot hockey pucks at a virtual goalie and pitch baseballs to fake batters. It's a nice twist. One indoor bay is occupied by the RoboGolfPro, like the one in the lead photo from the Pebble Beach Golf Academy. It will guide your swing down the proper plane, which should help your body learn the feel of a good golf swing.
Since we're here for entertainment, not lessons, we head back outside to experience a one-of-a-kind hybrid facility that offers the best of two existing ones: Shots in the Night in California's Coachella Valley and the Velocity Lounge on Vancouver Island in Canada. Children and families will gravitate toward Shots in the Night, a night-golf facility launched last fall at the 36-hole Indian Wells Golf Resort in Indian Wells, Calif., where neon lights create a vibrant show for golfers once the sun goes down. For a fee by the hour, players can rent a hitting bay at the Glow Golf Range. Watching glowing golf balls fly toward glowing targets is fun for all ages. The Putting Experience is powered by Nextlinks, which projects laser images onto any putting green to create interactive putting games.
The Velocity Lounge is something I discovered last fall at the Campbell River Golf & Country Club, part of the Vancouver Island Golf Trail. New owners redesigned the golf course and transformed a traditional range into an all-day, all-night entertainment center. By day, golfers can hit balls during warm-ups or get lessons at the all-turf range. At night, the indoor-outdoor building becomes a golf bar like Topgolf, where music plays and food and drinks are served to groups lounging on couches in 10 different hitting bays. Toptracer Range technology records and tracks every shot on video monitors, allowing participants to play virtual golf holes from famous courses, compete in skill games or battle for the longest drive.
Already nursing an aching back and a bum golfer's elbow, I encourage the group to head into the Velocity Lounge for its creature comforts. A few cocktails later, the squad is ready to call it a night. We're all beat after hundreds of swings, but within 48 hours, we'll be ready to rinse and repeat. If done right, the golf course of the future will lure us back in again, day or night.
Would this be a golf course you'd want to play? Which of these technologies do you hope all courses adopt? What other new technology could improve the game? Let us know in the comments below.