PGA Show Notebook: AI heading to a course near you

Course owner and operators bracing for the inevitable; Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez still giving back to the game; Three companies are celebrating after PGA Show awards

RBC Heritage 2021
Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

ORLANDO, Florida — Most business experts believe the onslaught of artificial intelligence will be here sooner than later, and the golf industry is certainly not immune to the technology.

That was the word from Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, as he spoke with organization members at a golf business conference as part of the 71st PGA Show last week.  

"The golf course owners were all in classes listening to information about artificial intelligence and how they need to meet this tidal wave that is coming," Karen says. "As owners/operators, they’re thinking, 'How and what do I do to incorporate AI into my business?’ Golf course owners and operators are always dealing with alligators, you know, fighting fires and all, while trying to be hospitable and providing a great product and service. But when you own a business, for example a golf course, you have a shield and a sword up.

"And with artificial intelligence, the opportunity looks amazing, and right now it is in our windshield," says Karen, who has been in his position for eight years. "So the questions are ‘How do we get ahead of this? How do we figure it out?' It feels like 1994 all over again when this thing called the Internet came out and it was like, 'How cute is this?' Golf course owners had no idea what was coming, no idea of the online tee-time agencies and how they were going to steamroll the industry in many ways, and how it had an adverse kind of situation within the industry, and how it changed everything."

Artificial intelligence is defined as the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.

Karen believes this type of technology could provide tremendous challenges for public golf courses, some of which still don’t even have websites or Facebook pages.

"There are some interesting — and I don't necessarily like to call them threats — changes that may be on the way," he says. "For example, artificial intelligence can analyze the golf swing and give you advice very quickly on what you should be doing. If I was a teaching professional, I'd be thinking either, ‘Oh no or how do I use this?' So, it's a huge disruption on that side for sure. And who knows about the customer service side, with things like ‘Will AI know that Jay Karen just walked on the golf property?’ etcetera, things we can’t our brains around what the possibilities are yet. We can only see the cute stuff in front of us, but the golf courses should be thinking that it’s going to be happening around me or happening to me."

Karen envisions the NGCOA helping golf course owners and operators "connect the dots" on the AI side of the business.

"We need to bring content into the golf space so we can get ahead of it instead of being behind it," he says. "So if we can help owners and operators get ahead of this stuff and leverage it, then we'll have done good work."

Based in Charleston, S.C., the NGCOA is the only trade association dedicated exclusively to golf course owners and operators. NGCOA members include owners, operators and general managers of daily-fee, semi-private, private and resort courses of all sizes.

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Thirty-five years after winning her last major championship, Nancy Lopez still captives a room as a voice in golf and arm of charity.

“I feel excited that people still want me to do things,” says Lopez, 67, who won 48 LPGA Tour titles and three majors, as she was promoting the Folds of Honor at the PGA Show as a newly appointed member of the charity organization’s board of directors.

The Hall of Fame golfer, a longtime military supporter, says she initially balked when Lt. Col. Dan Rooney called to ask her to be a part of the charity’s boardroom. Rooney, the only F-16 fighter pilot — with three combat tours in Iraq — and PGA Professional, founded Folds of Honor in 2007. 

"I hesitated a little bit because I never want to be a part of something that I'm not really a part of," Lopez says. "But I met Dan at an event many, many years ago and just loved him, what he stood for and what he talked about. I love my country, so this just hit home with me because I was like, ‘Wow, you feel frustrated sometimes living in our country, and I want it to be a great country,' and I felt like it was my way to get in touch with those good feelings.

"Every Folds of Honor event I’ve ever been to it’s a safe feeling, it’s a together feeling. I feel like we're all there for the same reason, and I love that because it's all about my country, about helping other people. And that's what I've always wanted to do."

Lopez, whose last major title was the 1989 LPGA Championship, knew accepting the appointment was the right decision.

"Nancy turned to me and said ‘You know, I won a lot of tournaments, and it put money in my bank account, but it didn’t really make a difference like this,'” Rooney recalls Lopez telling him. "I call it golf church, where I like to say ‘Don't speak my word, don't read my word, go live my word.’ And that's what we're doing. We're taking care of the less fortunate through the game that we love."

Lopez says her goals for 2024 are good health and to give back to a game she dominated for nearly a decade from 1978 through 1989 when she won all three majors and 42 of her LPGA titles.

"If I can do whatever I can for anybody that needs me within the Folds of Honor that makes me happy," Lopez says. "When I go to bed at night I go to bed with a smile on my face because I'm doing what God wants me to do. My story for this year is just to be nice to people, hug them and smile with them because a lot of them need it."

Ayro's electric utility vehicle can be customized to meet specific cargo needs, such as food and beverage or landscaping.

A turf management AI platform, an innovative electric vehicle and a novelty item used to celebrate golf course accomplishments were named the three best new products at the 71st PGA Show.

Coming out on top of the more than 100 new products displayed at golf’s largest trade show included Skim Turf Management, Ayro and Golf Shotz.

Poland-based Skim, founded in 2002, exhibited its breakthrough software that displays the power of aerial imagery combined with AI capabilities. This gives golf course superintendents the ability to optimize resources and save up to 24% on turf maintenance costs.

"This is something that is quite unique, a software solution recognized from a satellite to manage your turf parameters to improve your turf grass and safe money," says Skim spokeswoman Grace Barnowska-Olearczuk.

Company officials said training and building Skim’s AI backbone required more than 33,000 satellite images, 7,000 drone images, 5,000 visual assessments, 4,500 in situ tests, and 24,000 laboratory results.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Ayro took one of the top spots with its colorfully wrapped Ayro Vanish utility low-speed electric vehicle that can meet a multitude of fleet demands.

The multi-faceted vehicle displayed in the PGA Show’s New Product Zone was a mobile kitchen/bar unit that was wrapped by award-winning Cruising Kitchens out of San Antonio, Texas. The outfitters are expected to appear at the Super Bowl, according to Kyle Mazanti, Ayro senior vice president, business development.

"We're really lucky to have them as partners," says Mazanti of the wow-factor wrap company. “They wanted to do something kind of extraordinary. So, a golf ball and a skeleton logo, why not? It looks awesome."

The vehicle displayed at the PGA Show cost about $20,000.

"It has roll technology — which is roll-on, roll-off — and whole cargo solution can roll off onto a dolly, and a new one can be put on," Mazanti says. "So less vehicles, more cargo solutions, which keeps your costs down."

Finally, New Jersey-based Golf Shotz and its Wasted Wedge product was designed to look like a golf club featuring disposable shot cup holders mounted on the club's shaft. This enables an entire foursome to celebrate a birdie or long putt at the same time.

"You come to the PGA Show hoping that people might like your product," company founder Jeff Podosek says. "There were so many people that not only understood what we were about, but what we were trying to do and you could just see everybody that walked by our booth space grinning from ear-to-ear.

"I’m kind of over the moon a little bit. I’m kind of emotional about winning this award because there was a lot of heart and soul that went into figuring this out."