Golfers enjoying the green

Sports tech: Golf technology for clubs and courses

Image credit: TORO

Golfers, coaches, course owners and designers all look to technology to gain an edge these days.

When you see a golf course, the last thing you think about is technology. Grass, a bit of sand, a few lakes, maybe, and if you’re watching on television, lots of sky. If it’s a super, mega-rich course, you may well see luxury hotels, houses and even a shopping precinct. That doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t there. It’s just out of sight.

For a start, how can all that perfect greenery exist in some of the hottest, driest places on the planet? Or in some of the coldest and wettest? Look at the Lofoten Links course in Norway, the new Dubai Hills course or Royal Birkdale on Merseyside, where The Open takes place this July, and you’ll see the same rolling green expanses.

A top-level golf course has to look and play perfectly. It takes a lot of work and a lot of technology to make that happen.

For a start, ground staff have to make sure the fairways and greens contain the right amount of moisture. Erin Hills golf course, venue for the 2017 US Open, has fine fescue grass, which is drought-tolerant and needs less water than other grasses. Staff also use meters made by Spectrum Technologies to monitor moisture levels without making holes in turf.

The technology works out how much water specific areas of the course need, when these areas need watering, and for how long. Mapping software shows distribution of soil moisture over a wide area.

Calculations have to be precise. Too much moisture can produce soft turf prone to leaf and root diseases, and likely to get damaged by people and machines. Not enough moisture and the result can be higher surface temperatures, dry spots and the risk of wilt, a bacterial disease found almost exclusively on putting greens.

The Spectrum Technologies moisture meters have two volumetric water content modes: one for standard soils and one for higher clay soils. In volumetric water content mode, the meter converts a measured electrical signal into per cent soil moisture content. In irrigation mode, the meter displays relative water content on a scale of 0 to 100. It also calculates and displays water deficit and the water needed to bring the soil moisture content up to the required level.

Earlier this year, Spectrum Technologies released its latest model, the FieldScout TDR 350. This model has an integrated Bluetooth, internal GPS and a data logger that can record around 50,000 measurements with GPS points. A backlit LCD display enables golf course staff to use the meter in poor light.

A major tournament is extremely lucrative for local economy. In 2014, the US Open at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina generated around $238m for the local region. In the USA alone, the golf industry makes around $70bn a year. According to a study by Sports Marketing Surveys, 61.1 million people play golf worldwide.

California-based architect and engineer Matt Schiffer says around two dozen new courses are built each year. To keep up with competition, existing courses are always looking to improve facilities. Take too long and course owners lose money or customers, or both.

“Technology saves time and resources and makes the design process more efficient,” says Paul Kimber, an architect from Scotland, who worked on the Castle course in St Andrews between 2003 and 2008.

GPS enables designers to transfer accurate topographical detail to construction machines working on sites. Kimber thinks that this takes away some of the designers’ artistry in responding to situations on the ground, but golf course architect Caspar Grauballe believes that it just eliminates costly mistakes.

Grauballe adds that GPS data can also help renovators identify traffic on fairways, which might provide insights into wear and tear and whether bunkers are influencing play in the intended way. He also believes ball-tracking devices that provide insights into shots help designers produce courses that are challenging and fun to play.

Course designers have started using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) fitted with high-tech cameras and infra-red sensors to map potential new courses and to monitor facilities and terrain at existing ones. Drones can survey areas for elevation, identify flood-risk zones, provide details on obstacles and produce a basic contour plan.

“Drones are useful for redesign work, particularly on small areas where it’s not worth bringing in a surveyor for one or two weeks,” Grauballe says.

Gary Johnston, an architect from European Golf Design, Kittian Hill’s designers, adds that drones can’t take images if there’s a lot of vegetation cover. He believes future developments in radar that can penetrate vegetation would make aerial mapping more viable. “At the moment, such technology is too expensive for us,” he says.

Golfers, even the rubbish ones, can be extremely competitive. They want to win, but outside elite performers, golfers also want fair contest, hence the handicap system to enable players of different abilities to compete against each other. 

Imagine Manchester United giving Watford or Bournemouth a two-goal head start. Players use technology to give them an edge during matches, but also to hone skills in practice.

Callaway Design has developed a new iron golf club head that it says enables a player to hit the ball faster and further. A lightweight, strong cast-steel exo cage construction stiffens the club body, putting more impact load into the face. The rim around the perimeter of the club has been reduced to 1mm at its thinnest point. The head flexes at impact to add ball speed, distance and accuracy to on- and off-centre hits.

Designers use the chemical element tungsten to engineer each club’s centre of gravity more precisely. There’s also a new hybrid head made from a lightweight carbon composite material called triaxal. This enables weight to be redistributed around the club, making it more resilient to twisting at point of contact.

Golf club faces usually have horizontal grooves in them to impart spin. This is useful for wedges and other clubs that need to generate backspin, but less so off the tee, where slices and hooks, caused by sidespin, can be a problem. Grooves hold the ball on the club face as long as possible, but often clubs used for driving don’t have grooves.

The Bridgestone JGR driver has vertical microgrooves on the toe and heel to decrease spin on mis-hits and horizontal grooves in the middle of the club face. The wider grooves maintain spin on high impact. The rougher texture reduces spin on low hits.

Another company, Vertical Groove Golf, has designed a driver with vertical grooves only. These grooves, the company says, push concentric shockwaves away from the shaft, making the ball rotate forward not sideways, which enables players to strike the ball more cleanly.

Golf clubs also have shafts. Thin Ply Technology has put high-performance graphite tubes originally used in sailing masts for the America’s Cup into its shafts to provide clubs with better stiffness and rotation. The shafts are made from a low-density carbon fibre, which means more layers can be woven in. They are assembled by robots, not through traditional hand-rolling.

That’s the fairways sorted out. Yet things can still go horribly wrong on the greens.

To try and help players with putting, Hamburg-based Viewlicity GmbH is designing an augmented-reality putting system that enables golfers to see ideal putting lines on the green. Viewlicity is trialling an indoor projection-based golf assistant and Microsoft HoloLens. The company says its Puttview technology captures an accurate 3D model of the green and, wherever the ball is, algorithms calculate the ideal path to the hole. All information is projected directly onto the golfer’s view of the green. The app can be used on a tablet and includes animated target games.

All that remains now is for someone to design a pair of checked trousers and a silly hat that turns Joe Average into Joe Daley.  

Tech tools for golfers

The DT Smart Putter measures the slope of the green. By placing it flat on the green, the built-in surface level helps players gauge the slope. It’s only allowed in practice, not competition.

When synced with a smartphone, IOFIT smart golf shoes track a player’s swing and posture and provide feedback. Pressure sensors detect how the wearer’s weight is shifting during a swing.

The VPRODLX 1K golf rangefinder from Tectectec can measure distances on the course up to 900 metres, and helps players work out distances to flags, trees and water. One mode measures overlapping targets including wooded areas, another shows distance to the closest subject. A third, scan mode, allows users to steer clear of hazards.

American golfer Bubba Watson has been showing off a flying jet-pack golf cart. Never mind cruising down the fairways in the hovercart he tried a few years ago; now Watson and his sponsor Oakley have been inspired by Rocket Man. The test ‘cart’ can fly at 46km/h at up to 3,000ft, carrying the pilot and a set of clubs. Powered by a 200hp engine driving two fans, it takes off and lands vertically.

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