How AI may impact golf in the near future

Artificial Intelligence is seeping into nearly all areas of the game, but how far will it go?

Picture the scene. Without having to leave your living room, you are able to practice and refine your golf swing under the guidance of a friendly avatar or instead you can choose to play a virtual round of 18 holes at Augusta National Golf Club — or at most any other elite venue of your choice.

Thanks to the transformative influence of artificial intelligence (AI), much of this scene is already possible and during the years ahead this “living room experience” will become even more impactful and beneficial.

As AI becomes ever more entrenched in almost every aspect of our lives with the capacity to reshape our society and our industries, it is worth considering its increasing influence on the game of golf.

Phigolf manufactures a portable home golf simulator.

There are several areas where AI will significantly change the game over the next decade and these include club technology and fitting, the fan experience, virtual reality training, golf course maintenance and analytics.

Golf fans who watch the sport on TV are already benefiting from AI tools such as the PGA Tour's ShotLink system, which tracks roughly 32,000 data points for every tournament and instantly translates that data for broadcasters who use it to provide real-time player performance insight for viewers.

State-of-the-art servers were initially installed and configured by the CDW Professional Services team to store and analyze this data aboard the ShotLink Nerve Center truck. However, those servers are no longer on site at tournaments since the system was moved to a cloud-native architecture. Golf fans and journalists around the world can access ShotLink data digitally to keep up with tournament rankings, while players can track their progress over time to help improve their game.

At this year's Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, the PGA Tour reintroduced its improved "Every Shot Live" product which is powered by AWS and enables fans to view every shot from every player during an event. Driven by the new-look ShotLink 2.0 platform that was rolled out earlier this year, a total of 120 on-course 4K cameras, some independently fixed and others manned by people, capture ball-in-motion data from tee to green and tap into other new data points.

The end result: a massive upgrade in the Tour's scoring and data collection which has reshaped the game from a statistical standpoint.

"The more data that we have, the easier it is for us to tell stories along the way about what's going on at every hole, so this pushes all of that along," said Ken Lovell, the PGA Tour's senior vice president of golf technologies.

The PGA Tour and AWS have also collaborated on creating a new experience with the AWS Generative AI Innovation Center, and this has paved the way for players, fans and broadcasters to understand shot percentages, the likelihood of making putts and much, much more.

For a top player, generative AI in the future will provide analytics to explain why a fairway is best missed to the left rather than to the right or which side of a green would statistically lead to a greater chance of a three-putt.

For the average player, however, the greatest impact of AI is likely to come via virtual reality training.

"AI is the future when it comes to training aids," said Brian Verdugo, CEO and Founder of data mapping company iGolf. "How many beginner golfers would prefer to avoid judgement by better players as they start learning the game? There is a massive appeal in the ability to enter a private room with a simulator and work with a friendly avatar customizable to one's personal style of coaching.

"The end result: positive affirmation instead of a tougher, more motivational approach. A fit for everyone? Of course not. However younger generations will likely be more comfortable with newer approaches to learning, and AI will be one of them."

iGolf's app provides GPS maps, terrain data and a variety of golf course information.

iGolf has significantly increased its focus on the golf simulator space for the first two quarters of 2024, and made a huge splash at the 2024 PGA Show in January with the news that it has improved the resolution of its 3D data from 10-meter by 10-meter grids of data points for elevation levels to grids of one-meter by one-meter for a large number of golf courses.

iGolf has already established a strong global presence in golf data mapping spanning more than 20 years, and is perfectly positioned to license companies Golf GPS maps for nearly 40,000 golf courses in 150 different countries. With the massive improvements made over the past year in 3D resolution, the tech company can now offer existing and future clients a much wider range of support.

Verdugo expects golf's launch monitor industry to expand at a considerable rate over the next five years as some key players spend lavishly, raising awareness and looking to make serious headway.

"An industry that has been dominated for decades by the best hardware is now shifting towards software innovation that supports quality products while creating gamification hooks that will lure new players into the game," Verdugo says. "The end result: the next generation of serious golfers who are the torchbearers for the traditional segment of the greatest game moving forward."

A strong gamification hook has already been established thanks to the ground-breaking Phigolf Home Golf Simulator. The main features of Phigolf include some of the most realistic graphics and gameplay anywhere, plus a unique swing analysis algorithm that allows users to improve their game.

Add to that the opportunity to play virtually on any golf course around the world and the benefit of a home simulator that costs just $249, considerably less than the price point for traditional simulators, which can range from $5,000 to at least $40,000.

For Jae Yang, general manager of Phigolf's global marketing and distribution operation, the main appeal of the Phigolf Home Golf Simulator is its strong focus on entertainment and its ability to introduce newcomers to the game in a very relaxed environment.

"We wanted to be more of an in-home rather than a driving range experience - think Topgolf compared to Toptracer," Yang says. "And I think we have succeeded. We are trying to get you to swing that club in the living room by yourself, with a bunch of friends drinking a beer, or with your children, introducing them to know what golf really is.

"Golf can be a very intimidating sport, to walk onto a golf course not knowing what’s what for the first time ... I remember that feeling. I was a little bit afraid to even pick up the club and hit that tee shot, looking at those people behind me waiting for me to hit that ball. But with Phigolf, you don't have any of that. You get to learn how the game is played, albeit in a virtual world, but you get ingratiated into the game."

The other area of the game where Verdugo expects AI to make a significant impact is in golf course management.

"Even as digital golf has grown substantially, golfers by nature will still want to play golf on golf courses — whether a local home course, country club or travel destination," Verdugo says. "Historically, golf courses have struggled to maintain a consistent profitable financial model, due to the high costs of developing and maintaining the vast amounts of land that golf courses require. AI may be the long-term solution.

"When it comes to golf course management, computer systems can now analyze how people play the game and highlight areas that are unused. The USGA has been leading the way in this technology for several years. Un-trafficked parts of a course could be identified as areas that no longer need water, fertilizer and maintenance. By using golf cars, autonomous lawn mowers, motion sensors and a connected irrigation system, AI would be able to monitor patterns and behavior 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing both real-time changes and recommendations on how to improve efficiency for golf course owners and operators."