Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

GPS Systems: Yards Ahead of Their Time
by Don VanderVeenl

So you think the billions of dollars spent on the ill-fated Star Wars military defense systems was a complete waste of money? Think again, pard.

Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology is a growing phenomena in the golf industry as both a player enhancement and course management tool. The computerized systems provide golfers with an eye in the sky by using satellite technology that was formerly used for military purposes.

Golf carts equipped with GPS systems offer players information that includes distance to the hole, how far they hit their drives and even a few trivia teasers. Some systems are equipped for two-way communication with the clubhouse and provide electronic scorecards with graphics showing detailed maps of slopes of the green or other factors that may impact club selection.

The technology is becoming so advanced that it can do just about everything for a golfer that a caddy can without the excess baggage. As a course management tool, the systems do just everything a ranger does, except offend patrons.

"Everyone wants a ranger on the course, but they never want one to come up to them and say they are playing too slow," says Grant McKinley, owner architect of Brigadoon Golf Club in Grant. "With a (GPS) system, it can flash a message across the screen in a non-threatening way and point out to a group that it is two holes behind. It's an information tool for the golfer that is impersonal and non-offensive."

Some systems also serve as a waitress, weather person, commentator and/or on-course host.

Manufacturers claim the satellite systems can reduce the time it takes to play a round by 30 to 40 minutes. That means that a course can accommodate increased traffic. That equates into increased revenues.

Several of the systems also provide access for on-course advertising and the additional revenues it can generate. Ads can be sold and flashed on each hole or at alternating times throughout a round.

Two-way communication can flash weather warnings or provide leaderboard-like updates for outings and tournament play as well as refreshment orders.

Courses with GPS systems generally charge an additional $5 to $10 in greens fees per round, but patrons rarely notice the increase. And they don't have to tip these caddies.

The up-front investment for the GPS technology can cost between $275,000 and $375,000 for an 80-cart fleet, according to Tim White of Leading Edge Technologies in Chandler, Arizona, which markets the ProLink system.

"We think it's a mistake for any vendor of a system like this to assume that the course is going to recoup the cost by raising its prices," White said. "You either bring value to the table or you don't. This is an investment that pays for itself in faster rounds of golf and brings a better amenity to the golfer, especially to someone who is playing the course for the first time. The owner is getting some eyes on the course that can count the number of rounds played with the ability to match it to the receipts in the cash register."

Fewer than 250 of the nearly 15,000 golf courses across the country are currently using the GPS technology. It has created another growth market for the industry with about half a dozen companies marketing the systems that include trademark names such as PinMark, YardMark, ProShot and ProLink in Michigan.

Boyne USA was the first in Michigan to implement the satellite technology five years ago when it installed the YardMark system for its Heather course at Boyne Highlands. The Monument at Boyne Mountain and the fabulous Bay Harbor Golf Club have followed suit.

"We've liked it enough that we expanded it to Bay Harbor and we will continue to expand it on our other courses," said Bernie Friedrich, head professional at Boyne USA. "We've added one system each year for the last three years and will continue to do so until every course has one.

"We're still in the infancy of the technology, but people always ask to play the courses with the computers on it."

On some YardMark systems, a beeper will go off if a cart is driven too close to the green. It also monitors how far a cart falls behind or where it is located on the course.

"It has speeded up play," Friedrich said. "For those in the rough, it tells them how far away they are from the trap rather than the sprinkler heads and they don't have to agonize as much over club selection if they know exactly how far they have to go."

YardMark also displays different trivia questions to test the wits or provide some additional clubhouse fodder for those on the course.

"The unfortunate part is that it tells you the brutal truth of exactly how far you hit your driver," Friedrich said. "Most people think they hit it 20 or 30 yards farther than they actually do, but the computer doesn't lie."

Grand Traverse Resort is in the process of installing a ProShot system at The Bear, Spruce Run and the Gary Player signature course, Northern Knight.

Thornapple Pointe in Grand Rapids is one of Michigan's newest upscale resort courses. It opened in May equipped with the PinMark system.

"What I liked about (PinMark) was the combination of good graphic detail without it being obtrusive to golf," said Thornapple Pointe president and general manager David Manes. "It was giving me the information I would get if I had an experienced caddy, and presented that information better.

"There are no buttons to push and it is easy to use."

The PinMark system has a tournament package that is ideal for large outings. It provides up-to-date scores from around the course that flash across the bottom of the electronic scorecard on the cart.

The two-way communication system allows the clubhouse to monitor the pace of play. Weather messages can be provided from the clubhouse to the carts or distress messages can be sent in from the carts to the clubhouse.

Just like the Berthas that keep getting bigger and bigger, GPS technology continues to grow.

ProLink, manufactured by Leading Edge Technologies of Chandler, Arizona, provides a 7.5-inch electronic computer monitor that is integrated into the roof of the cart, providing golfers with a full-color map of each individual hole and precise distances to hazards and pin. The map and positioning changes from hole to hole.

ProLink's first two Michigan installations are being implemented at Brigadoon Golf Club in Grant and the Arthur Hills-designed Legacy at Ottawa Lake and new innovations and upgrades are constantly being added.

"They've taken the whole satellite technology to the cutting edge," McKinley said. "The others will have to catch up.

"It is superior in terms of technology, because it combined a radio signal in conjunction with the satellite. The accuracy increases from a 10-yard variance to one yard.

"The other systems I looked at had crystal emulsion. These (ProLink) systems look like you're watching television. It can zoom to the green and show the pitch of the green, how it rolls and where the pin is."

However, there is a price to pay for the advanced technology.

"The system costs more than the cart itself and is significantly more than the other systems on the market," McKinley said.

ProLink also offers a trial financing package which allows course owners to implement the system for a minimum of one year without paying any up-front costs or being tied into a long-term lease obligation. The Pay For Play Program incorporates a user fee into the greens fee and the course is billed monthly based on the number of rounds played using the system.

Because of the recent demand for its product and the materials to get them up and running properly, ProLink experienced some difficulty in fulfilling all of its 1997 Michigan orders in a timely manner.

For McKinley at Brigadoon, the temporary setback is worth its "wait" in gold.

"At Brigadoon, yardage is very important," McKinley said. "We get a sophisticated crowd out there in terms of golfing ability -- people have to be decent golfers to play it -- and as you become a higher caliber player, you become very yardage oriented.

"I wanted to improve the quality of the golf experience. Brigadoon needs to be as user-friendly as possible. With this system, you can walk up to the ball, look at he screen and know exactly how far it is to the pin without looking at any lakes or bunkers lurking in between. It takes out some of the subjective judgment out of it and helps you be a little more analytical."

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