How many times at your club has someone—be it the head pro, superintendent, GM, chef, or even a member—watched with alarm as a player on your course finishes a hole and then, despite all your investments in clear signage and foolproof scorecards, takes a wrong turn and starts to play out of sequence, or maybe even in the wrong direction?
If this happens more than occasionally on your course—and it’s OK to admit it, because you’re not at all alone—you might want to start looking at global positioning systems (GPS) as something more than just an exotic toy. While perhaps not as dramatic as the life-and-death situations now replayed in radio commercials that sell the value of GPS for motorists, the satellite-based technology can prevent a lot of everyday disasters on the golf course, too.
Because golfers who take wrong turns in GPS-equipped carts will suddenly look up at the computer screens above their steering wheels and read hard-to-miss, straightforward messages such as, “Do you really want to play the 13th hole now?”
Getting and keeping players on course with the electronic assistance of GPS is an especially valuable feature for new courses, courses with multiple layouts, and courses with tricky terrain. Benefits include improved speed of play, reduced cart wear on the course and increased safety, as well as avoidance of on-course collisions or skullings because of wrong-way driving. GPS also provides effective communications when inclement weather threatens or medical emergencies occur that require help from the clubhouse.
But even where getting players around quickly may not be an overriding concern, GPS is moving from being viewed as a luxury to a much more essential—and sometimes even money-making—component of golf and club operations.
For example, at White Clay Creek Country Club, which opened this year in Stanton, Del., providing a good introductory experience is currently seen as the most important objective, according to Head Golf Professional Ryan Kidwell—even more so than moving people through the course quickly and cranking out the rounds.
White Clay Creek is affiliated with the Delaware Park thoroughbred horse racing track, which recently secured the right to also offer slot machine gambling. Anyone of legal age who secures a Player Rewards Card through Delaware Park is eligible to play White Clay Creek. Club ownership therefore wants to make sure that all visitors get maximum enjoyment from their rounds at the course, as part of a satisfying overall vacation experience that will keep them coming back to the gaming complex.
Kidwell came to Delaware from Orlando’s Grand Cypress Resort, which had a fleet of over 250 GPS-equipped golf carts, and he says his experience there and at other courses convinced him long ago that GPS is more than a luxury.
So he’s glad that at White Clay Creek, the new course’s fleet of 68 carts all have 8-x-8-inch “remote desktop”-type screens, with full-color graphics, mounted and centered above the steering wheel in a molded extension of the cart roof. The club has also equipped four staff and beverage carts with larger “control panel” screens that can help keep tabs on every cart on the course and respond to specific golfers’ needs.
Fun Learning Experience
Overall, says Kidwell, GPS is proving to be a valuable amenity at White Clay Creek, as everyone—golfers and club staff alike—get to know the new course.
“It’s a key part of the upscale golfing experience that we want to provide here,” he says. “It’s not just a toy, but a way to enhance the experience for the player. Primarily it helps by giving the distance without having to follow yard markers, and that in turn helps to improve the quality of play.
“If a group of players is behind, that can be monitored from the clubhouse,” Kidwell adds. “Then we can send a ranger out to say, ‘Hey, we noticed you guys are running a little behind. Is there anything we can do to help you out?’
“We’ve found that players automatically love it and don’t seem intimidated by the technology because it’s so easy to use.” he says. “The graphics are clear and easy to follow, and you really only need to push buttons when ordering food or requesting a ranger.”
Touch and Dough
Ordering food (and drinks) while still out on the course is just one of the ways that GPS systems are now being linked directly to operational benefits that go beyond the intangibles of an enhanced experience and drive straight to a club’s bottom line. GPS vendor Web sites now include testimonials from club customers that tout these kinds of hard returns:
• “Decreasing average playing time by 30 minutes and increasing total rounds.”
• “Doing more group business than ever, because of a great increase in customer and guest satisfaction.”
• “Improving pace of play, [thus] eliminating the use of rangers.
• “Generating additional profits through [on-screen] advertising.”
• “Promoting pro shop sales and sending messages to golfers to promote upcoming events.”
• “Incremental food and beverage revenues generated through the use of the system.”
When pressed for details about the added investment that must be weighed against those returns, most club pros and managers play it cagey, preferring to say only that the extra costs can be absorbed fairly painlessly as part of cart leasing arrangements.
And as with all relatively new technology, the cost curve for GPS is still on a downward slope, and vendors are still willing to provide good financial incentives to entice clubs to make the jump from nice-to-have to must-have.
The biggest challenge to widespread implementation of GPS in golf carts, in fact, may prove to be competition from hand-held units that are also gaining favor for their ease of use, portability and universal application in taking advantage of what still remains the technology’s most popular feature: distance-gauging. Course maps from vast online libraries can be downloaded directly into the hand-helds, giving them greater appeal to users who play multiple sites.
Recognizing the threat that the smaller units—which are being fiercely marketed (at $350 a pop) directly to the consumer through airline magazines and infomercials—pose for making their big-screen, in-cart GPS offers obsolete (not to mention their caddying services), some clubs and pro shops are now starting to do brisk businesses either selling, or renting, the palm-pilot-sized gadgets themselves.
Into the Second Generation
GPS has now been around long enough that some courses are already moving into an upgrade phase. At Furry Creek Golf and Country Club in Furry Creek, B.C., Canada, General Manager Andy Hedley is replacing the system that his club has used for the last few years with newer technology that is packed with up-to-the-minute features.
“The new GPS allows us to have wireless Internet from anywhere on site,” says Hedley. “This means we can have laptops out on the course or at the registration table. It also helps to make our tourney leader board more convenient.”
The new GPS system at Furry Creek also allows players to print out scorecards in the clubhouse after a round, Hedley adds. Seeing these new features come on stream is important to him for another reason beyond specific features, too: it’s an indication that he hasn’t invested in stagnant technology that stands to become obsolete, but rather something that can grow with his needs and those of his playing customers.
Hedley did change service providers in conjunction with the upgrade—a move
that highlights the importance of checking out the full capabilities of a GPS supplier, beyond the bells and whistles that may show up on a display or readout.
“We’re now renting through a Vancouver-based company; having a service provider who’s closer to us has proved to be very important,” Hedley reports. “We had problems with our last system, because the distance between the vendor and the course made for some serious service issues.”
Furry Creek expects a noticeable and steady increase in interest in, and traffic to, its course for the rest of the decade, because of its proximity to Whistler, B.C., site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. So service reliability stands to become a more critical concern than ever, as more new players will be on the course and in need of GPS-provided assistance and direction.
Hedley also notes that GPS is “particularly beneficial on hilly courses like ours—we’re in a mountainous region with ravines and things—where you might not be able to see what lies ahead.”
Because these types of courses are the ones that most often cause players to scratch their heads while trying to gauge the yardage for their next shots, the potential impact of GPS on the speed of play and satisfaction of the golfer becomes that much more dramatic.
A Clear View of Benefits
But even in regions with much less challenging terrain, GPS continues to catch on as a way to not only distinguish a course from nearby competitive options, but also to reap substantive benefits that can help boost operational efficiencies and returns.
Steve Summers, a member of the pro shop staff with Glynns Creek Golf Course in Long Grove, Iowa, reports that this is the first season his club has employed GPS. And what might have seemed like a nice perk in the beginning has since quickly become established as a necessary component to the business, Summers reports.
“We did it so we could add an extra amenity to our customers,” Summers says. “And we’ve found that it really helps us stand out from the competition, because as far as I know we’re the only ones in our area to use GPS.”
Glynns Creek is a public-access, daily-fee course owned by its county’s conservation board, and as such has clientele that runs the full gamut in terms of both golfing and technological expertise. But Summers said there weren’t many hurdles in getting everyone comfortable and up to speed.
“People became quickly acclimated, and aside from the need to work through a few minor bugs in the beginning, all of our players like and have become accustomed to our GPS system,” he reports.
The Scott County Conservation Board that owns and operates Glynns Creek also operates a nearby campground, and as part of the GPS installation at the course the Board also contracted for wireless Internet services, for both properties, from its GPS provider.
“[Having] the wireless Internet access will certainly increase our level of service [in both locations],” said Roger Kean, the Conservation Board’s Director, when the installation was announced. C&RB
Summing It Up
• Instant reminders from GPS screens are proving to be one of golf courses’ best deterrents to wayward cart drivers and avoidable cart-related course damage.
• Benefits now being touted by courses using GPS range from elimination of course rangers to revenues from display-screen advertising.
• Hand-held GPS units marketed directly to consumers are emerging as competition to club-provided systems; some course pro shops now rent or sell hand-helds as an alternative to using cart-installed readouts.
• Getting and keeping players on course with the electronic assistance of GPS is an especially valuable feature for new courses, courses with multiple layouts, and courses with tricky terrain.
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