GPS beams into the golfing world

A Vancouver technology company is changing the way golfers play the game and how courses make money.

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology is a concept that is starting to be talked about more often around golf courses. That’s because it’s dramatically changing not only how golfers measure their distance to the pin, but also how much revenue courses are able to generate.

Since 1996, GPS Industries of Vancouver has been developing hardware and software that utilizes the satellite-based radio navigation technology and applying it to the golf course.

The company’s Inforemer system features display units with 10-inch screens that are mounted on carts and display various information to customers. This includes key data such as how far away they are from the pin, the front or back of a green, and how close they may be to a water hazard or bunker.

Patrons can also order food and beverages and have it ready for them when they approach the turn or so-called 19th hole. The orders and other communications are keyed in through a “virtual keyboard”; touch screen interfaces cannot be used because exterior light makes them impractical.

There are added benefits for those playing in tournaments, says Alex Doaga, executive vice-president and chief technology officer for the 94-person outfit. “It’s nice to have an idea of what other golfers are doing. The Inforemer allows you to first of all keep your own score and secondly, to see how everybody else is doing.”

GPS Industries has sold the system (which goes for about $250,000) to approximately 300 courses, ranging in size from the “blue-collar, $30-a-round course all the way to high-end resorts and private, super-exclusive ones,” says Doaga. The Inforemer was recently purchased by the Doral Resort and Spa in Florida, host of numerous PGA events.

Interest in the product among the smaller courses is motivated by the additional revenue that it can generate, primarily through the sale of ads that are displayed on the units’ screens. These operators also like the fact that they can push more golfers through their courses, thanks to the speedier pace of play the system affords.

“GPS can speed play up because people aren’t looking around for what their yardage is,” says Bob Mulcahy, president of AMF Golf Management, a New Jersey-based organization that represents golf pros in the U.S. and Canada. “People can sit in their cart on a cart path, see that they are 153 yards from the green, and know what clubs to bring over to the ball.”

High-end resorts also leverage the advertising opportunity, but use the units additionally to promote their own facilities, such as bars and restaurants.

The product was originally intended to be a handheld unit when company founder Robert Silzer created the concept in 1996. The biggest problem the firm faced in those early days, according to Doaga, had nothing to do with formidable competitors or engineering challenges. Rather, the biggest obstacle was the U.S. government.

“The U.S. military was altering the GPS signal to make it less accurate for civilian use,” he says. The company overcome that by enabling correction signals to be transmitted from a base station. “You need a radio receiver to communicate with that base station, though.”

The headache was fully alleviated in 2000, when Uncle Sam relaxed its control over the signals and opened the GPS commercial floodgates.

Mulcahy says GPS units have overcome an uncertainty that existed three or four years ago amongst those who believed the technology might offer an unfair advantage for some players. While the units have been welcomed into a game long on tradition, Mulcahy points out that there is still ample room for growth.

“More traditional clubs have caddy programs, so carts aren’t really a factor for them. And (other) people walk and carry their own bag.”

For its part, GPS Industries in January finalized the buyout of its main competitor, Uplink Corp. of Austin, Tex., and will now set about amalgamating the two entities, while also looking to sell more systems to China and Europe.