How IoT Is Redefining 21st Century Golf—and Making it Cool Again

By Didem Tali, Contributor

Modern golf is a far cry from around 1000 years ago, when a nobleman of the Northern Song Dynasty drove balls into holes with a crafted stick. Called chuiwan, meaning “to hit a ball,” this early version of golf quickly became a popular sport among the elite who ornamented their wooden clubs with jade.

And while the golf clubs of the 21st century, might not resemble their decorated chuiwan ancestors, there is something that makes the modern clubs even more novel: Nowadays, they are connected to the internet.

Golf came of age in the United States in the 1920s and emerged as one of the world’s most popular sports. In 2011, its peak year in the U.S., the economic impact of golf—at $68 billion spent for goods and services—was larger than many spectator sports (like soccer, tennis, and basketball) combined. Yet in recent years, the popularity of golf has declined.

From 2012 to 2017, golf course and country club revenues in the United States have grown by less than one percent annually. Researchers from IBIS World credit the decline to a waning interest from younger generations, many of whom consider the sport too difficult to learn or etiquette too stringent.

Dr. Paul Bailo, an amateur golf player and an academic at Columbia University who specializes in applied analytics , believes golf is misunderstood. Bailo argues that golf is a complex game to master and that many beginners are intimidated by the golf etiquette established generations ago.

Simply put? “Golf became ‘uncool,'” Bailo said. However, he believes the sport might have an unlikely savior: the Internet of Things (IoT).

Golf’s Unlikely Savior

Technology experts predict the dramatic growth in IoT devices from wearables to self-driving cars, will shake up industries from agriculture to healthcare. Golf is no exception.

“IoT has the potential to give a complete makeover to the game,” Bailo explained. “It can provide a whole new ecosystem to make golf more efficient in every aspect.” According to Bailo, IoT innovations for golf could apply to a wide range of areas, such as the ease of learning or improving the game, or making courses more environmentally efficient.

“Wearable technologies, automatic feedback, and intelligent golf cards make it easier to understand the game,” Bailo said. “They also enhance the performance.” While Bailo still remembers the days when he had to keep score manually, today he celebrates the way IoT can digitize the tedious elements of the game (and make it more fun). Many companies have already begun.

Topgolf’s Austin, Texas location

Topgolf, a sports entertainment company with golf venues in the US and UK, for example, has taken on the mission of gamifying golf (and turning it into a party). The company—complete with driving range competitions, an open bar, and top 40 music—uses data delivered from RFID chips inside each golf ball to fuel competition between players.

At Topgolf, after a player strikes the smart golf ball, the internal chip delivers real-time data of how far the ball traveled and scores how they measure up to their friends. Already, the Denver Post described the company as “golf for millennials” and in 2017, a whopping 51 percent of the TopGolf guests were non-golfers.

Executive Chairman of Topgolf, Erik Anderson, attributes the company’s success to overcoming the barriers of playing the traditional game, “[Golf] is very linear, and there’s a lot of rules, and it can be pretty intimidating. When you look at Topgolf, you can come into a place, it’s warm, it’s inviting, there’s music, there’s no real rules. You can hit the ball as poorly or as well as you can. You can share on Instagram. It’s a very parallel experience.”

Zepp Golf offers an IoT-powered smart coaching system. A small sensor attached to the golfer’s glove measures and analyzes their golf swing to identify areas where the player can improve, such as how to adjust their club speed, club plane, tempo, or backswing length. The chip instantly sends customized feedback via the Zepp mobile app and offers training programs and video tutorials that are tailored to the player’s ability.

Alternatively, Arrcos offers a set of connected golf club sensors (paired to a mobile app) that lets consumers track the distances reached for each club, ideally, helping golfers to improve the accuracy of their drives and overall score.

IoHole-in-One?

IoT has also infiltrated the higher golf echelon circles. Bryson DeChambeau, a professional golf player (who won the NCAA Division I championship and the U.S. Amateur in the same year), has improved his game thanks to a smart, connected golf grip.

Developed by the Microsoft technology partner Sensoria, the Smart Grip detects his grip position and levels of pressure. It also monitors his golf strokes on different clubs, and passes real-time data onto a cloud computing system. With this data, DeChambeau is able to optimize his grip, which gives him a distinct advantage over those who rely strictly on feel.

Yet according to Andrew Baker, executive director of Industrial & Healthcare at Maxim Integrated, an electronic device developer, there is an additional benefit to the adoption of IoT golf products: They are appealing to young people who want to lead a more active lifestyle outdoors.

“There is a general shift towards living healthier and more active lifestyles,” Baker explained. “People want to have insights into their bodies and activities, and wearable devices [like those in golf] can help motivate them.” Baker believes that through data and tracking, IoT can “gamify” golf again, making it more appealing to old and newcomers alike.

If Topgolf is any indication, early IoT golf entrepreneurs are already on their way.

“Let’s face it,” Bailo said, “IoT can make this game ‘cool’ again and get younger generations out there on the green.”