Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

Technology and eCommerce
A Driving Force For Change in Golf

by Jim Neff

When Bill Clinton took the oath of office for his first term as President of the United States, there was a grand total of 50 web pages on the Internet. On March 10, 1995, Michigan Golfer magazine debuted on the Web as the Internet's first online golf publication. Now punch in "golf" on the Alta Vista search engine and you'll find 6,283,237 web pages on the topic.

Clearly, golf has exploded onto the Web like almost no other entity. As any executive can tell you, the golf course is a great place to conduct business. What the executives might not realize is that while golf courses seem passive and peaceful they are actually becoming high tech operations on the cutting edge of an eCommerce revolution.

It's now possible to take a golf lesson online, book a tee time with your Palm Pilot, get a buzz from your pager when the tee time becomes available, and ride in a cart that tells you what club to use from any given spot on the course.

Perhaps nowhere is this tech revolution more evident than in the tee times reservations services now blossoming on the Web. There are roughly 103 websites vying for a slice of the reservations pie. With so many entities after the same market, a shakeout is inevitable with many of the services merging. An example is the impending merger between Book4Golf.com and TeeMaster.com.

Most of the tee times sites have commonalities: free membership sign-up, information about courses, and confirmation procedures. The sites also tend to be graphics heavy and Java enabled, tech talk for "slow loading" and "you better have Netscape or Internet Explorer browsers in the 4.0 versions or higher if you want to see what's on the site."

To review each tee times service here would be information overload, but the following chart details many of the major players and the features they offer. We focused on what might be of interest to golfers: Is the membership free? Are Michigan courses available? Is there a Frequently Asked Questions page? Not all services offer every feature, so selecting a tee times reservations provider takes some research.

Now, with this information in mind, you can see the average golfer's dilemma. Which to choose? According to a recent National Golf Foundation/USA Today Golf in America online survey, only 42% of golfers said they usually obtain tee times, only 10% had ever used an Internet-based reservations system, and 78% said they would not be willing to pay anything extra to book a tee time online.

What will undoubtedly happen is that the "reservations derby" will come down to fewer companies offering more services, which will be great news for both golfers and golf courses. Golfers will enjoy all the benefits of booking online, something that is sure to make vacation travel easier. And courses will be able to offer their customers more interactive options and services, things that might be too information intensive to describe over the phone or in a print brochure.

A glimpse of what's to come is already evident. Greens.com

Chicago-based EZlinks.com gives you a free round of golf for every ten you book through them. You can also participate in Tee Time Auctions and bid on rounds at over 30 courses in seven states.

TeeMaster has real-time online instruction and an "Ask the Pros" e-mail service. It's also one of the few that allows you to book golf lessons as well as tee times. What's really cool is that you can do all this from your Palm VII hand-held organizer.

The Golf Network has one of the best pro shops online with its eGolf Mall. In addition to regular member benefits, you can sign up to be a Gold Club Member ($29.95) and reap some nifty discounts and services.

At The Golfer.com (formerly Select Tee Times), cell phone support is offered along with an Auto alert service that sends you a fax, page, or e-mail when your desired tee time becomes available.

Book4Golf's confirmation time is just three seconds, pretty impressive since its list of member courses is 932 and growing. You can buy stock in the company, too. Book4Golf is also just about the only golf reservations site that offers a "printer friendly pages" option so you can easily print its information on your home computer.

And Golfswitch.com benefits from the awesome power of the PGA of America through PGA.com. The array of information on PGA.com is as impressive as any site on the Net, and Golfswitch brings tee times reservations in all 50 states, the Caribbean, and Mexico into the mix.

All this might lead one to believe that the technological revolution ends when you walk onto a course, but that's far from the case. GPS technology promises to change the way courses are managed in the future.

ProShot Golf's (proshot.com) GPS displays not only yardages, but concentric yardage rings to the pin, and yardages to water hazards and sand traps. A video and audio function brings in playing tips from the course pro. According to Jim Szilagyi, Proshot is offered at more courses in the world than any other GPS system. In Michigan they have their system at Thornapple Pointe, Grand Traverse Resort, The Majestic in Hartland and the new Boulder Pointe in Oakland County. In addition , they also have the system in place at Grand Cypress Resort, Links of Spanish Bay, Doral and at the Valldaramma course in Spain to name but a few. Proshot has also partnered with Toro, Scorecast and acquired PinMark Golf as they continue to stake out their claim in the GPS world.

ParView (parview.com), for example, uses a network of 24 satellites for its Global Positioning System. Golfers using the system can see an overview of the hole and green, get pin placements and yardage readings, and even have their scores electronically calculated (including figuring in the handicap). The ParView system is now offered at the Eagle Crest Resort in Ypsilanti and Hidden River Golf and Casting Club in Brutus. Eagle Crest Resort is the facility which hosted the Golf and Ecommerce Workshop, with host pro Tom Pendlebury and staff member, Darron Edwards.

Management systems such as these also allow courses to position rangers, alert golfers to severe weather, and even regulate the pace of play.

Technology has also filtered down to the most basic element of golf business -- selling a single piece of equipment to a single golfer. In Michigan, Boyne Country Sports (skigolf.com) has online retailing for golf equipment, as well as some great travel deals at the Boyne Resorts.

If you want to "e-Bay" your way to golf gear, visit iBidGolf.com, the Internet's Golf Auction. Here, equipment old and new is up for bid and good deals abound. It's a great place to score vintage equipment, too. Along the same lines is Golf-Ads.com, a site that specializes in the buying and selling of used gear. You can post a free classified ad for equipment you'd like to sell and browse the ads for items you want to buy.

Finally, if you want to go to one spot for (literally) everything golf, and be amazed by technological flash and dash, the future is now at LiquidGolf.com. The site bills itself as the "Golf Super Hub," a virtual community, and that might be putting it mildly. Every tech whizbang known to man is on this site, and they all relate to golf. You can book tee times through Book4Golf, buy gear at the Virtual Pro Shop, book travel, sign up for a gift registry, and get golf instruction via streaming video. Most impressive is the "LiquidGolf.com Tour" game which is so realistic it includes hooks, slices, and lets you choose a balata or hard cover ball. You can even compete in online tournaments, long drive competitions, and closest to the pin contests.

In the near future, the golf industry will utilize these technological and eCommerce tools to add value to the golf experiences they now offer. For golfers, it means more and better services and options. It's a game where everyone scores a birdie.

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