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September 2019

Rise of the Machines

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Artificial Intelligence Influencing Golf’s Future

By Scott Kauffman

Early 40 years ago, in a sequel to his 1970 book titled, “Future Shock,” noted futurist/author Alvin Toffler predicted mankind would transition out of the Industrial Age into the Information Age, or “Third Wave” as he called that 1980 follow-up book.

Toffler, of course, couldn’t have described today’s digitally driven, data-overloaded world any better. For many, this Third Wave, or Information Age, might feel like a tidal wave as society copes with the never-ending onslaught of information. Indeed, from the infinite limits of cloud technology to the ever-evolving power of the internet, today’s information is being distilled and delivered at speeds unimaginable even in Toffler’s time.

So how does one stay afloat in this Third Wave and not only survive as a business, but thrive? Many experts might tell you the answer is artificial intelligence or AI. In fact, Thomas Siebel, the billionaire tech CEO who founded Siebel Systems, recently said on CNBC “whoever wins the battle on AI dominates the war.”

To be sure, that comment was in reference to the China-U.S. trade war and ongoing threats about technology theft. Tech theft notwithstanding, the comment still underscores the import of AI in general. And it’s something the golf industry is slowly adopting from greens maintenance to clubhouse operations to the manufacturing of next-gen golf equipment.

In the simplest of terms, AI is the science of computers emulating humans. And the way computers can start acting or behaving like humans is through a concept called “machine learning,” a field of computer science that uses statistical techniques to give computer systems the ability to “learn” with data without being explicitly programmed.

Basically, there aren’t many problems in all facets of life and business that can’t be solved based on data. In other words, nothing that an algorithm can’t figure out – in a matter of milliseconds – or automate if you will.
Therein lies some of the technology behind a new autonomous greens mower scheduled to be released later this year by MTD Products Inc., called Infinicut RGX.

After several years of proven methodical, targeted research in the field by select clubs, MTD Products’ representative Tony Whelan describes the demand this way: “We have a fairly good book of business who are ready to roll and want them now. We are going to have the first units coming off for those first customers probably later this year.”

While AI-influenced mowers are creating a buzz in golf maintenance, Charles Stricklan is helping courses achieve more efficient retail/marketing solution through AI in his LoyaltyTrax system that serves as a “virtual marketing/membership and loyalty rewards program.”

“AI is only useless data unless there is a simple, effective and efficient way to use the data in a meaningful way to market and then to measure the effectiveness of the use (marketing efforts) of the data,” says Stricklan, whose Scottsdale, Arizona-based Lions Gate Companies LLC invested more than $500,000 to develop and refine the LoyaltyTrax system to allow for both on-demand and real-time marketing based on AI-collected data. 

“We’ve all seen it. We check our email in the morning and there is an email offering from a golf course for at Wednesday morning special. But, if the course had an effective and efficient AI system like LoyaltyTrax in place, they would know that you never play during the week and are a weekend player, probably because you work for a living.

“So, as a result, when you keep getting these emails, you decide to opt-out of their email program out of frustration. Our system allows the course to segregate the AI data and create specific player/customer profiles and market to them – again – in both real time and on-demand.”

This same type of artificial intelligence and machine learning helped Callaway Golf Company design one of the most popular new drivers earlier this year called Epic Flash. According to Golf Datatech, the new high-tech driver has been the No. 1 selling driver brand in the U.S. since it hit retail outlets in February.

When asked about the influence of AI and Machine Learning on its future, a Callaway spokesperson said, “The feedback we’ve received for using Artificial Intelligence to create our Flash Face Technology has been tremendous, and as with many of our other technologies and innovations we will continue to explore AI with our (research and development team).”

And why not? A new driver face design typically takes eight to 10 iterations, according to Callaway. Through machine learning, Callaway’s computers cycled through 15,000 face architecture iterations, learning from each one, before arriving at Flash Face.

“We couldn’t have come up with Flash Face using conventional engineering principles,” said Dr. Alan Hocknell, senior vice president of Callaway research and development. “We wouldn’t have gone in this direction without AI because it’s non-intuitive compared to previous face technologies, including our own VFT and X-Face. The wave configuration isn’t symmetrical, nor does the pattern seem logical. Yet the ripples work together in a complex manner to maximize ball speed.

“There’s never been anything like Flash Face before in golf equipment, and the effect on performance is intense. … Flash Face isn’t something a human would have arrived at any time soon. Without the help of AI and machine learning we couldn’t have come up with this design.” 

Scott Kauffman is a golf business writer and the managing director of Aloha Media Group.

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