Technology to the rescue

New advancements have helped golf courses operate more safely and efficiently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • How technology helped golf
    Courtesy of southamptongolfclub.com

Golf is booming. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many sports and leisure activities, golf is an exception. The sport allows players to be active, connect with nature and be social — all in a safe and relaxed environment. 

Many course operators are finding that technology can provide a safer and more enjoyable experience for players — from the moment they enter the grounds to the moment they leave. 

“Golfers can certainly book tee times and lessons through mobile devices, but courses can also extend peace of mind through the reservation systems, as they restrict the number of players and manage safe space between them,” said Devin Meister, demand generation manager at Clubessential Holdings. “They can also build reservation settings that allow groups that are social distancing together to safely gather and play.”

Clubessential’s clients can also provide mobile check-in or kiosks that allow golfers to check themselves in, thereby minimizing contact. Golfers can also pay for self-serve items such as bottled water and golf balls without contact. 

“Along with creating safe experiences in real time for golfers and staff members, the reservation systems and check-in kiosks also capture golfers’ activity so that courses not only understand who just reserved tee times but also who checked in,” Meister said. “This ensures golfer details are captured and logged for the best possible records to support contact tracing needs.”

Jason Wilson, CEO of Gallus Golf, summed up how golf is moving forward in three words: “Mobile, mobile, mobile.”

Wilson said golf courses absolutely need to take advantage of mobile technology in these times. And the key lesson is that technology investment should not be an afterthought. 

“It saved courses,” he said at Golf Inc.’s virtual Strategies Summit in September.

Mike Cole, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Members Club Sarasota, said one of the biggest benefits of current technology has been that it allowed operators to maintain contact with members and players as the pandemic unfolded.

Initially, information was “very fluid,” he said, so it was critical to update members via mobile apps. Before smartphones, that level of communication was difficult, if not impossible. 

The future is now

ClubCorp is fully involved in the digital age. Members of ClubCorps clubs can use the company’s mobile app and website for a wide array of services that they would have otherwise heave to call their clubs to arrange. These include tee times, statement and payment access, dining reservations and bookings for events and activities. Members can also access ClubLife Marketplace, an online e-commerce platform that combines a virtual pro shop with travel and club experiences, as well as offers from ClubCorp’s vendors.

“Through COVID-19, we’ve seen a significant increase in members using our digital platforms for various club services. At some clubs, up to triple-digit increases have been noticed,” said Mark Gore, senior vice president of golf operations for ClubCorp. “We anticipate this will continue to rise.”

Troon-managed daily-fee and resort courses are either requiring guests to prepay when they schedule tee times online or they’re providing them with the option to do so. As a result, upon arrival at a course, guests simply check-in with outside service staff and proceed straight to a practice area or the first tee.

“Our partners at EZLinks GolfNow were quick to respond with a number of ways to implement prepayment options on our courses’ websites,” said Kris Strauss, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Troon. “And many of our operators were swift to implement them, even if they simply gave guests a choice to prepay.”

In the entirely new operating environment that has developed at courses across the nation as a result of COVID-19, many are using the touchless, prepaid technology that GolfNow offers for tee times. For more than a year — well before the pandemic — the company had been innovating its payment technology. But once the coronavirus hit, GolfNow moved quickly to meet the increased demand for prepaid tee times.

“No other technology has been as important to golf courses getting back up and running than GolfNow’s touchless, prepaid technology,” said Jeff Foster, senior vice president for GolfNow, a division of Golf Channel. “More than 550 courses are either offering a prepaid option or have signed up to implement the technology, a number that continues to grow.”

One such course is The Country Club of Arkansas in Maumelle. It implemented GolfNow’s prepaid technology in order to sell rounds in the safest, most “no-touch” way possible. Non-members must book and pay at GolfNow.com or though the reservation section of the country club’s website, which is powered by GolfNow.

Since his club implemented the technology, general manager Tim Jenkins, PGA, has noticed many positives: Customers no longer have to wait in line in the golf shop; each golfer is assigned a cart ahead of time; virtually zero “no shows” have occurred; and foursome reservations don’t turn into twosomes, a previously common and expensive issue. 

“We need to know who is coming before they arrive so we can deliver them the best possible service and overall preparedness,” Jenkins said. “We’ll most likely continue to use the prepaid technology even after the pandemic is over.”

Jessica Lewis, director of web and product development for Billy Casper Golf, noted that golf has a reputation for not embracing technology aggressively enough. 

“You know the saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog a new trick’? COVID threw that out the window,” she said.  

Tech advantages are not limited to operations. Modern technology can be used to make marketing more effective too. 

“This has been a big year for adaptation,” said Trevor Coughlan, vice president of marketing for Jonas Club Software.

And it had to be, given how fast changes are occurring, he said. 

More than 80% of people have smartphones, and they are using them in a big way.  

“We’re shifting to digital connectivity,” Coughlan said. “We’re plugged in all the time.”

As COVID brings more people to golf courses, it creates a great opportunity to engage with these new customers, said Brendan McCarthy, national director of marketing services at KemperSports. 

Courses should survey them to glean as much information as possible and establish connections with them, he said. 

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