Why robots (yes, robots) have a future in golf

From picking up balls to mowing fairways to delivering food at the turn, automated machinery is making golf course operations more efficient

Steel yourselves, golfers. The robots are coming.

Technically, they’re already here.

These are not the vengeful, time-traveling, Arnold Schwarzenegger-era Terminators from the movies who are trying to save and/or kill the unlucky John Connor.

This golf-related "Rise of the Machines" stars smaller, unimposing robots that do important but menial labor. Picture a bigger and more powerful Roomba (a home vacuum) that mows fairway or scoops range balls instead of sweeping up kitty litter from your kitchen floor.

I spotted my first golf robot during Korn Ferry Tour qualifying last year at Bull Valley Country Club in Woodstock, Illinois. While watching the tour pros warm up on the practice range, I spotted what looked like stretch-limo versions of metallic armadillos on wheels that slowly trundled across the range retrieving balls.

When a metal armadillo was full, it returned to a terminal — terminal, not Terminator — drove up a ramp, deposited its load of balls through an opening and went back to work.

The armadillo-like range-pickers were actually automated machines — robots — from Echo Robotics, based in Northbrook, Illinois. The Echo RP 1200 picks balls; the Echo TM 2000 cuts grass. I don’t know why, maybe just because they were new, but the range-picking robots were surprisingly mesmerizing.

Echo Robotics' offerings include the automated mower, left, and ball picker.

The Korn Ferry players seemed to enjoy them. A few pros had fun trying to hit shots in front of a robot to see if they could get that ball picked up, sort of like when Jordan Spieth made that crucial British Open putt, pointed toward the cup and told caddie, Michael Greller, “Go get that!”

It was inevitable that robots came to golf and here they are. The next step for a fully automated range is a robotic ball-washer, which has been developed in Europe and will be coming to America shortly.

"You can automate range pickers, fairway mowers — where does it end?" asks Joe Langton of Automated Outdoor Solutions, a Woodstock, Illinois-based firm that sells golf-related robots directly and also offers service agreements. "It doesn’t. In the next five to 10 years, 50 to 60 percent of all golf course maintenance will be automated."

For example, Langton says, Sweden-based Husqvarna has an automated mower that can cut 11 acres a day, fairway-to-fairway, rough-to-rough, and is run by a GPS monitor in the clubhouse that can control up to 20 machines at a time.

Robot mowers mean grass-cutting can be done at night — the top models are very quiet. In Europe, Langton said, some courses use robot mowers during daylight play and golfers enjoy watching them in action.

"They’re very functional and serve an absolute need in our industry," Langton says.

Robot pickers and mowers solve two issues. One is personnel. Nearly every business in America is having trouble finding workers and golf courses are no exception. The second is time use. Clubs short on employees often require an assistant pro, head pro or club manager to drive the range-picker.  Superintendents who mow grass themselves could be deal with more important jobs such as divot-fixing, irrigation, tee maintenance and other repairs if they had robot mowers.

"Golf is about customer service," Langton says. "I see automation giving a different look to a club where employees and members can interact and spend more time mingling plus employees can feel needed and wanted instead of doing mundane tasks. The potential is massive."

Robots play an integral part of a nearly $3 million renovation done to the practice facility at The Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Try not to drool when you read about the sweet Ibis range, a double-sided range with more than 80 hitting bays; five synthetic target greens and surrounds; a large curvy X mowed as fairway in the range’s center as an aiming point; multiple chipping, pitching and putting greens; an indoor golf academy; a club-fitting studio with full-time club-fitter; 10 covered hitting bays on one end of the range; and digital yardage devices on every ball crate showing yardages to the different-colored flags.

When golfing great Annika Sorenstam attended the range’s grand reopening last year, along with Martin Hall, the club’s instructor of golf, Sorenstam said, "I wish I’d had something like this when I was growing up."

Driving Range 2021.jpg
The expansively renovated practice facility at The Club at Ibis, located in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The Club at Ibis has a state-of-the-art range. Call it "a destination range" because it’s that good. It ranks with Atlanta Athletic Club and Michael Jordan’s exclusive Grove XXII club in South Florida and a few others among the country’s best modern practice facilities.

When the Ibis range was scheduled for renovation due to a need for improved drainage, the club decided to go all in. That included robots for maintenance.

"If we went the robot route, the robots could clear the range while members were hitting," said Ben Bauer, the Club at Ibis’ director of golf before a recent job. "Then we got into The Great Resignation in South Florida. As long as the robots are functioning, we’re good. We don’t have to pay them benefits, a 401k, or buy them uniforms or lunch. They allow our staff to provide more personal touches instead of being out on the range driving a picker."

The club has two robot mowers and four robot range-pickers. Besides being efficient, the robots add to the range’s wow factor.

"Over the holidays when members’ kids and grandkids came to town, people would stop and watch the robots go back and forth," Bauer said. "The technology is so new, it’s impressive. I remember thinking, This is pretty cool."

When prospective Ibis members used to tour the facilities, which feature three Nicklaus Design golf courses, the practice range was a drive-by item. Now it’s a 15-minute stop, including a look at the range robots.

"It’s a real conversation piece that has enhanced our golf experience," says John Jorritsma, Ibis’ director of sales and marketing.

The robots have been a hit, visually and financially. "The return on investment is relatively short, a year or two for us," Bauer said. "We saved two employees, one on maintenance."

Automation doesn’t come cheap, as you may have guessed, but the return usually pays off in less than two years. A robot range picker costs $19,500 to purchase plus $2,200 for a charging station, $2,200 for installation and another $2,200 for the ball deposit ramp. A robot mower sells for about $15,500 plus $2,200 for a base station and $2,200 for installation.

A more popular method is to buy a service contract from Langton’s company — the equivalent of what people do with their cell phones instead of paying up front. Under a service contract, a mowing and picking solution starts at $3,000 per month. That equates to $2.44 per cutting hour and $3.44 per picking hour. The contract includes new mower blades and fixing any problems that arise.

"Because the technology was so new, we didn’t want to have to maintain them or figure them out," Bauer said. "They’re machines, things happen, The range mowers push the balls aside as they go so our range balls don’t get chopped up. Our X-shaped fairway has to be cut to a different height and these mowers raise and lower their blades automatically. It’s been good for us."

Echo is the industry standard for robot range-pickers. Husqvarna, a Swedish company, is a strong competitor in robot mowers. Its Ceora model is its new top-of-the-line mower. Husqvarna also has heavy-duty mowers that can handle hillsides with up to 70-degree slopes. The mowers are monitored and controlled by an app.

Another option for clubs is Mowfleet, a lease deal that delivers Husqvarna robots on a trailer so customers can deploy robots into areas without power outlets. The robots do a ten-hour shift and then get picked up.

Between the robots and the range renovation, Ibis members have proven the build-it-and-they-will-come premise. Bauer said members hit 40,000 to 50,000 balls before the renovation on a busy day. Post-renovation, the range has become more popular and the number of balls hit can reach 70,000 or 80,000. Members who used to show up 15 minutes before their tee times, Jorritsma said, now often arrive an hour early so they can use the updated range. Each robot picker can retrieve about 12,500 balls in 24 hours, by the way. At Ibis, the robots are parked nightly for two hours so the range can be irrigated.

How far will “the rise of the machines” go in the golf business? Possibly pretty far.

"I believe our restaurants are looking into a robotic server," Bauer said. "It’s a robot that can bring drinks or food to the table. At Jordan’s Grove XXIII club, there are drones that fly food out to players on the course."

A public course in Mesa, Arizona, has also tested drone-delivered refreshments. At least one Topgolf facility in Texas is using Echo robots for mowing and picking.

So far, robots have a bigger golf footprint in Europe than in the U.S. But robots in golf are a trend that is not likely to soon be … terminated.