Driven by technology?

Thumbing your GPS system into life, satellites orbiting the Earth inform you that one hundred and ninety yards remain to the pin. Switching the eight iron for a robust six, you take aim and swing. Glory awaits, but at what price?

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  November 3, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|The sport of golf continues its meteoric rise in popularity, as the growing numbers of players treading the greens of Dubai can testify. But it’s not just the traditional golfing formula that’s bringing new players to the tee. While sunshine, exercise and even a few dirhams made at the expense of your mates remain key ingredients to a successful afternoon, technology has now been added to the mix.

Specifically, golf courses are turning to GPS (Global Positioning System) to entice would-be and veteran golf enthusiasts alike.

This isn’t, as you might expect, just a US phenomenon. CHARGED spoke to leading golf courses throughout the Middle East region and most admitted that GPS deployment was firmly on the business plan. Leading the pack, however, is Dubai’s Creek Golf and Yacht Club, where contractors have been given until December 1st to have the system up and running.

“The time frame is six weeks from the day that we can confirm a frequency with Dubai government,” said Peter Downie, general manager, Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

“No trial period, just go, go, go,” he added. “Our location near the airport complicates our situation, because not all the frequencies that are available will give us an optimum signal. But it’s a technicality, not a problem. I’d like to have the entire system up and running by December 1st.”

The benefits of GPS to the game are twofold, felt by the players and club management. For the former, GPS is all about getting around in fewer shots. How far is it to the hole? GPS can give you the specific distance. And where does the hazard lie? Forget inaccurate markers placed by the course maintenance team – your GPS system can pinpoint that bunker exactly.

The lesson here is one of information: guess work is an irritation of the past.

Even the slope of the green can now be predicted with accuracy. And not by a fad or unnecessary expense that should trouble club owners. Data gleaned from GPS can also enhance control of the course.

Aside from monitoring the speed with which GPS-enabled carts move around the course, a fully functional GPS system can be used to map the playing area, monitoring physical properties of the course and tracking appropriate assets.

Sweeter still, the resources required to roll out GPS are relatively limited. Essentially, co-ordinates taken by GPS readings can be added to aerial photographs, once transferred to a software program such as AutoCAD.

With the system established, management can then accurately calculate the size of areas within the course, producing multiple overlays to record irrigation systems or technical blueprints.

||**||When the going gets rough|~||~||~|The expense, however, lies in offering GPS to the masses. Sources tell us that arming an 80-cart fleet with individual GPS can cost up to half a million US dollars. Does this figure offer substantial returns? Absolutely. Courses with GPS systems in the United States generally charge an additional $5 - $10 in greens fees, but there are hidden profits too, tied up in faster rounds of golf and consumer loyalty – once you’ve tried GPS, you can never go back.

Over four hundred of the 18,000 courses in North America have deployed GPS technology. Today, the number of companies actively touting GPS systems for golf courses stretches into double figures.

GPS was, in fact, developed by the U. S. military and is still operated as such, despite the thousands of civilian users throughout the world.

The operational GPS constellation consists of twenty-four satellites that orbit the earth in twelve hours. Each satellite orbits an almost identical ground track each day, creating six orbital planes (with typically four satellites in each), equally spaced at approximately sixty degrees apart.

Specially coded satellite signals from four separate GPS satellites are processed in a GPS receiver back on terra firma, computing position, velocity and time. By measuring the delay in receipt of the signals, it’s possible to locate the receiver exactly.

Over at the Dubai Creek Golf Course, Peter Downie, managing director, confirms that US-based ParView has won the contract to roll out a GPS system. ParView’s solution is built around 10.4” colour video display units, mounted in the roofs of golf carts and linked via radio frequency to a central base station in the golf course clubhouse.

Some rival systems recommend handheld receivers for maximum mobility, but Downie disagrees: “You can also install the system in PDAs but why take them out of the cart? I think, personally, that they’re too small for the job: they have to be able to display the entire terrain, not just yardage but side-on views of the greens and their movement.”

Each golfer benefits from a bird’s eye view of individual holes, course hazard alerts, drive yardage, pro tips, electronic scoring, a live tournament leaderboard, two-way communications, emergency calls and, last but not least, the ability to order food and beverage items directly from the cart.

Make no mistake, goes the ParView mantra: this is a genuine tool for the golfer. You’re treated to a graphical overview of the approaching hole, detailing distances to the pin, fairway hazards, landmarks, pro tips on how best to play the hole, and an elapsed timer to monitor pace of play.

The system even displays the distances from your current position to the front and back of the green. Now add to the mix an electronic leaderboard, scoring the hole number, par and handicap. At its best during a fully-fledged tournament outing, participants can use the Live Tournament Leaderboard feature to follow who is dominating the game at that very moment, and what hole they are playing.

From a managerial point of view, the most attractive benefits of a ParView system are effective course operations and a speedier pace of play.

“The greatest thing in my mind is that, when we have a golf tournament, people can simply punch in their scores and the rolling leaderboard will reveal where you stand against the field, both gross and net score,” says Peter Downie.

“That is then relayed back to monitors in the clubhouse so that everyone on the course is kept up to date.”

||**||Mind if I play through?|~||~||~|Tournaments are big business in the modern golfing age, and that means keeping ahead of the competition; the ParView live tournament leaderboard feature, described above, is earning rave reviews wherever it is installed.

“During tournament play, golfers love the ‘real-time leaderboard’ with their names on the electronic scorecard,” says Ted Roderick, general manager, Glenn Annie Golf Club, Goleta, California. “This feature definitely gives Glen Annie an advantage in attracting group outings and tournaments.”

Broadcast messaging capabilities ensure that the course can send warnings of any nature to the carts and thus the golfers. Likewise, players in difficulty, perhaps facing a medical emergency, can use the ParView’s ‘911’ feature to notify course management, saving valuable time by revealing their exact location on the course.

While the traditionalists out there are more likely to reach for Knitting Monthly magazine than scoop up a copy of CHARGED, we felt honour bound to put forward the inevitable question: is there a danger of taking technology too far? “A good walk spoilt,” as Mark Twain once said, but spoilt now by technology and not the sport itself?

Not so, says Downie. “Without a doubt, there’s a fear that technology is squeezing the game and it’s something that must be addressed. The real problem here is the golf ball. There are so many on the market place. Golf is the only sport in which the governing body doesn’t dictate the nature of the ball.”

“Golf balls today are too hot, too lively, and it’s making courses obsolete,” says Downie. “Long courses at 6,500 yards, years ago, are now out the window, replaced by 7,200. Even the likes of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus are fearful.”

“But there shouldn’t be similar fears about GPS. It’s about giving the players information that they could get hold of anyway, only much, much quicker and without the manpower,” he adds. “If you had a caddy, you could get information. Another caddy and he could run on ahead to arrange food and beverage, yet another runner and he could return to the clubhouse to find out the latest scores. GPS offers all this and more without any of the hassle.”

||**||Caddy of the future|~||~||~|Ultimately, Downie gives the sceptics short shrift. “This is not a gimmick. It’s a useful tool to run a modern golf course and adds tremendous value to the tournament package. Today, we have scorers at every three holes. Now we can automate the entire process.”

Investment such as this isn’t simply a case of obvious financial returns either. “It’s a case of staying ahead of the field, keeping up with technology to give golfers the finest, unique golfing experience possible,” says Downie.

“The main reason is to put information in the hands of the players, on yardage, and on the green. Just now, someone has to find a sprinkler head, not necessarily near his golf ball, pace out the distance, ask on the day for the distance to the pin, calculate the possibilities and leave a lot to chance. With the system, a player drives his cart up to the ball and the job is done. GPS, I might add, is far more accurate than footsteps.”

The Global Positioning System, then, offers specific benefits to the golfing community – not technology for its own sake. The advent of wireless technologies marks a sophisticated future for golfing at large, but underpinning this bright new dawn is an understanding that high-tech developments are a means to an end, not an end result.

“We’re also now beginning to look at mobile technologies, such as SMS messaging, to help communicate with our members and give them a voice,” says Downie. “Of course, my job is to get out there with them, not sit behind a desk. This is the hospitality industry. So, whatever options we implement, they have to free up my team, not tie them down even more.”
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