Many recreational golfers head to a golf course or a driving range to unwind — and for some, the sport gives them a chance to unplug from the digital world. But makers of wearable technology are enticing golfers to stay connected with electronic gadgets that promise to improve players’ games.
GPS golf watches, for example, show maps of golf courses and display the golfer’s current distance from each hole. Small sensors placed on gloves or clubs can analyze swings, and some wearables track performance — such as how far the ball travels and how accurate the golfer is on the fairway — in real time.
“There’s a ‘wow factor.’ A lot of people like technology, and many are willing to try anything to better their golf swing,” says golf instructor Brad Redding, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, who regularly uses swing analysis tool Swingbyte when he coaches his students.
Wearable technologies are becoming mainstream with the recent release of the Apple Watch, and the increasing popularity of fitness trackers. In fact, analyst firm IDC predicts sales of wearables will more than double this year, jumping from 19.6 million units in 2014 to 45.7 million by the end of 2015.
The technology is even starting to gain traction in golf as amateur and professional golfers alike have started to embrace wearables to improve their games and gain a competitive edge.
PGA Tour players Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood use Game Golf, shot-tracking technology that automatically records shot information, such as club performance, shot dispersion, greens in regulation, sand saves and the number of putts per hole.
To use the technology, golfers wear a GPS tracking device on their belts and attach a small, coin-sized sensor to the end of each of their clubs’ grips. After a player hits a shot, data is sent to the cloud, and the results are made available through a computer, smartphone or tablet.
Jon Sinclair, a golf coach and the owner of Sinclair’s Golf Training Center, in Euless, Texas, says the technology is the closest thing amateurs have to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which tracks and records every Tour shot through its technology partnership with CDW.
Sinclair’s training center is extremely high-tech, featuring high-end equipment such as 3D motion-capture systems and TrackMan to improve golfers’ swings. Sinclair encourages his students to use Game Golf so they can track their scores over time, which allows him to evaluate performance.
Using the Game Golf’s map, Sinclair can visualize all of a golfer’s shots for each hole and can then analyze all of the data, such as how far a shot traveled and which club was used for each shot.
“I use it for any level of player. I can see how they are hitting with certain clubs, how they’re managing a course, and if they could have played it better,” Sinclair says. “I can help them game-plan better, based on their strengths and weaknesses.”
Sinclair can also analyze historical data. For example, if a student gets good performance from a driver at the driving range but can’t duplicate that on the golf course, Sinclair will suggest switching to a different driver.
Fitbit is the current market-share leader in wearables, and while its fitness trackers aren’t specific to golf, golfers can use the Fitbit Surge watch or the Fitbit Charge HR wristband to track heart rate, distance walked and calories burned while spending a day on a golf course.
Garmin produces GPS golf watches that show full-color course views of 39,000 international courses. It provides layouts of each hole, including traps and water hazards. Meanwhile, a wearable headband called iFocusBand, can detect a golfer’s stress levels. The technology, used by more than half a dozen PGA Tour golfers, including Jason Day, measures brain activity through electroencephalography technology.
Sensors in the headband send brain-activity data to an app on a smartphone or a tablet, which then provides the golfer with audio or visual feedback on his or her state of mind. For example, red means the golfer is stressed and thinking too much, while green means the golfer is in a calm state.
The goal is for the golfers to train themselves to calm their minds as they’re about to hit the ball, says Jason Goldsmith, a partner at iFocusBand.
“It measures the electricity in the brain, and what we’re trying to do is train them to get themselves to where they are not thinking about how to do it. They are just doing it,” he says.
Several tech startups sell wearables that provide swing analysis. For example, Zepp Labs’ technology attaches to a golf glove, while SkyPro’s and Swingbyte’s technology clasps onto golf clubs.
The wearables, which cost about $150, don’t provide the level of detail that a high-end, $25,000 swing-analysis system such as TrackMan provides, but they do provide sufficient detail at a fraction of the price, golf instructors say.
Redding, owner and director of instruction at Brad Redding Golf at The International Club, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., uses Swingbyte as part of his instruction. The device’s lightweight sensor wirelessly transmits 3D images of swings and critical swing data, such as club angle and speed, to users’ smartphones or tablets. Through the captured data, users can see multiple angles of their swings.
During a lesson, Redding, a PGA Master Professional in Instruction, may use the technology to show a side-by-side comparison of the student’s current swing versus an optimal swing. After a lesson, he lets the student use Swingbyte during practice.
“They can make 10 swings and then stop and look at their phones. And from the app, they can see the images and see why one swing was better than the other. It gives good feedback,” he says.
Kris Hogan, a Class A LGPA golf instructor, who occasionally uses Swingbyte with her students, says the data from the technology can reinforce concepts that she teaches her students.
For example, if a student has trouble hitting a ball straight and is hooking the ball, she teaches the relationship between the swing path and the club-face angle and how the two affect a shot.
“Students sometimes say, ‘I don’t believe I swung it that far to the right.’ That it didn’t feel like it. And then they see it on the app,” says Hogan, who teaches at the Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club, in California. “Sometimes students just need validation and need the hard data.”
Some PGA Tour players take advantage of wearables or other technology during practice rounds, but they are not allowed to use technology, even cell phones, during the actual competition.
Steve Evans, senior vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour, says that the Tour may allow players to wear wearable technology in the future.
“We haven’t explored this yet, but it’s possible we could use wearable technology for data collection, as long as the players don’t have access to it during the competition,” he says.
While Tour players wouldn’t be able to use the data in real time, they could use it to review their play after a tournament. And when more historical data is available, they could use their statistics and other players’ statistics to prepare for upcoming tournaments at specific golf courses.
“The data collected could help players determine strategy for the golf course for the upcoming week,” Evans says.
The PGA Tour would approve wearables only if players find the devices unobtrusive.
“We try very hard to protect the bubble around the player, and we’d be concerned if we asked them to wear something on their belt or attached to their shirt, and they felt it was awkward,” he says.