Written By: Tony Covey

We’ll save the discussion about the largely abysmal state of the golf industry for another day. For the sake of this discussion, all you need to understand is that things ain’t what they used to be. More than perhaps ever before, success, maybe even survival, may depend on a company’s ability to cultivate loyal, maybe even devoted, repeat customers.

Somewhere a guy I know is nodding.

The thing about loyalty is that it isn’t always as pure as we’d like it to be. Sometimes (ideally) it’s earned, but sometimes it can be all but forced upon us.

Golf companies have made subtle loyalty plays before. Cleveland offered a killer trade-up program a few years ago that should have enticed more golfers than it did. It was a good idea…well worth a shot.

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Proprietary shaft adapters are another great example. Add enough shafts with TaylorMade tips to your collection and Big Bertha is a whole lot less interesting.

Unfortunately for themselves and the consumer, golf companies have done an exceptionally poor job of managing and maintaining whatever loyalty just-the-tip buys them.

TaylorMade changed. Callaway, Nike, and Cobra too. And when they did, none of them had the good sense to offer something as obvious as a free tip swap with the purchase of a new club.

So much for building loyalty.

How about next time guys? If you like the idea, run with it. A six-pack and a thank you note is all I’m looking for.

Oh…and you should probably stop discounting clubs in April. That really pisses people off.

I’ve gone and digressed again. Anyway…

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Golf and. . . Everything Else

Depending on the narrative, one can easily draw parallels between the golf industry and countless others. You’ve heard the analogies before.

TaylorMade is Apple, and Callaway is Microsoft.

Titleist is IBM and Callaway is Apple.

Somebody is always Apple.

Coke vs. Pepsi, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. Cheeseburgers? Sure, why not? Parallels are everywhere (if you want them to be).

The who’s who really boils down to the point you’re trying to make, and so now is probably a good time to start making mine.

Nike vs. Nikon

I’ve always found similarity between golf and the camera industry. In both cases you’ll find an abhorrence for spy pics, an archaic approach to embargoes, mostly strict enforcement of MAP pricing, a dwindling number of consequential players, and if my read on the future is correct, we’ll one day add mostly proprietary device interconnectivity and intraoperability that more often than not will all but force today’s customers to be customers for life to the list.

I know…that’s a lot of words, so let’s just move on to the part about cameras.

When it comes to a DSLR setup, you don’t so much buy a camera as you buy into a camera system. Nikon lenses work with Nikon bodies. Canon bodies work with Canon lenses. Flashes too.

nikon-system

The same is true for Sony and Pentax. And while you do have Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron offering 3rd party compatibility, there’s no chance my Nikon lenses are ever going to functionally connect to a Canon body.

8 years ago I bought Nikon, and since I’ve got more than 3K invested in lenses, I’m Nikon for life. eBay is such a losing proposition that I might as well just get a Nikon tattoo.

I’m Nikon’s bitch.

It’s not far-fetched to think that as the digital technology of golf evolves (and it will…and rapidly) golfers too could find themselves not simply choosing between clubs, but choosing between interconnected golf systems.

Buying your next TaylorMade driver could make you TaylorMade for life.

The Dawning of the Digital Sensor Era

Please, before you dismiss me entirely, just take two more minutes out of your day to look at what digital technologies already exist in golf today.

The number of players in what we call the high-tech digital swing trainer market has nearly quadrupled in just 3 very short years.

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Consider what PING has done with their iPING and nFlight Motion apps. The former uses an iPhone cradle, while the latter leverages one of those swing trainers we just talked about (Sky Pro). It doesn’t take much to power these ideas.

Trackman, FlightScope, and Foregsight. Ernest Sports ES14 and the Voice Caddie SC100. The launch monitor market is exploding too.

That’s barely the tip of the iceberg. In golf, sensors are already everywhere. Even if no one noticed, the fact is, golf went digital years ago.

Mizuno created their sensor-based shaft optimizer half a decade ago. Fujikura brought us the ENSO system. Cobra’s GEARS system is like ENSO with a Titleist K-Vest. Prazza and Top Golf have already put sensors into golf balls (if Prazza can, why can’t Titleist), and Game Golf can track every shot you hit during your round…all 106 of them.

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It’s only a matter of time before the golf companies get in on the action and start bundling all this technology together into functional systems that could ultimately serve as near-mandatory loyalty programs.

It’s not a matter of if. A wealth of different technology-driven patents suggests it’s only a matter of when.

By the way, when is almost certainly very soon.

The Intellectual Property

Nike has been experimenting with sensors inside golf club heads for years, and it recently filed a patent for an Article of Apparel Providing Enhanced Body Position Feedback.

The patent drawing says it all.

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Callaway has an application for a Method and System for Shot Tracking that would transmit data from a club to a receiver. Maybe that’s an iPhone or an Android device. Thinking big, it could also be a golf bag with a Bluetooth receiver and an LCD screen.

Cobra is working on putting sensors in the club head, and also has an application for a Golf Club Grip with Device Housing that would essentially allow another sensor to be placed under the grip of any (or all) of your golf clubs.

Lost in TaylorMade’s innovation video at this year’s PGA show was a shot tracking system that’s not unlike what golfers are doing with Game Golf. Safe bet the tech that eventually powers it will be built into the clubs themselves.

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Attachment-Free Living

No, I’m not talking about Tinder (if you just said “what’s a tinder“, you’ll likely be among the last to get on-board with all of this). Anyway…

Right now most of the consumer technology requires some sort of attachment, but much of what the golf companies are working on wouldn’t require any external device.

No snapping, no clipping…the same capabilities offered by 3rd party devices and countless other bits of functionality will be built directly into the clubs, the balls, the apparel, and even the shoes.

Holy shit, won’t that be something?

I guarantee at least one of you just mumbled jackass. It was probably the what’s a tinder guy.

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A Real World Scenario

Admittedly, this is all one giant What If, but as I’ve said before, innovation always starts with a what if, and in this case the golf companies are already working on the answers.

So how’s about you just play along for a minute, mmkay?

What if your driver alone could provide you with head speed, path, face angle, face to path, dynamic loft, angle of attack, spin loft, shaft acceleration, release info and even the precise impact location on the face for any or all shots you hit?

On the range or on the course. It doesn’t matter.

What if the same were true for every club in your bag…fairway, hybrids, irons, wedges, and putter too?

Think of the fitting implications alone.

What if your golf ball could provide you with ball speed, launch angle, spin rate, axis tilt, apex, angle of descent, carry and roll?

What if while all of that ball and club data was being mined, your shirt, pants, glove and even your hat were all working in concert to gather info about the movement of your arms, hips, shoulders, legs, and head throughout your swing…throughout every swing.

Don’t forget about your shoes. Weight transfer, ground forces, all of that stuff could be captured too.

Go ahead…drop an f-bomb.

What if it all worked without you have to clip, attach or otherwise bond one thing with another? What if it all of the pieces just worked together out of the box?

Yeah man…maybe not tomorrow, but this is going to happen.

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The Competing Dialects of Golf Technology

It’s not all rainbows, unicorns, and Labradoodles. What if to pull all of this data together your clubs, balls, apparel and shoes all need to speak exactly the same language?

Your Nike Covert 4.6 driver won’t be able to communicate with your Titleist ProV1.3 ball.

Nike likely wants it that way. Titleist too.

If you want to leverage all that technology will offer (and not everyone will), you’re going to have to choose.

It could be a Callaway system, a TaylorMade-adidas system, or a Nike system, but to leverage all of this technology to its fullest, you’re going to have to buy into somebody’s system.

And once you buy into that system…they’ve got you. They’ve got you good…and if you invest enough, in not much time at all, they’ll have you for life.

How often do you replace every single club in your bag (at once)? Looking for a new driver? You want one that will work with the same system as your irons, right?

Want to try a new golf ball? Only if it works with the driver you just dropped four bills on, that’s for damn sure.

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Will you buy shoes that can’t talk to your pants?

I know…it sounds totally bonkers. That last example is on the extreme end, and certainly the level of commitment is going to differ from golfer to golfer, but at a minimum, the communication between clubs and balls will eventually be enough to keep a segment of golfers from playing the field.

We’ll be loyal because the technology mandates it.

Golfers Don’t Care About Technology!

I’ll accept the argument that golf will be dead before any of this stuff catches on, but don’t try and tell me (as one reader recently did) that golfers don’t care about technology.

Really? We don’t care?

What about the guys using GPS (and Tinder) on their phones?

Try arguing “don’t care” to the guys at SwingByte, SwingSmart, SwingTip, and the growing number of other Swing-somethings making money with digital/high-tech swing trainers.

Digital lie/loft, and swingweight. Trackman, FlightScope and GC2. Technology is everywhere in golf. Not only do golfers care, many of us can’t get enough of it.

Sure, there will be holdouts. There are ALWAYS holdouts, but let me bring this all back to the camera industry one last time.

I’ll Never Shoot Digital

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When digital SLR bodies first hit the market, there was plenty of backlash from the hardcore film guys.

I’ll never shoot digital“. Thousands of devoted camera enthusiasts, professional and amateur, echoed the refrain. Hell, I said it.

You jackass, I’ll never shoot digital. –Me, before I bought a digital camera (which I now use exclusively)

Seriously…Google that nonsense. The internet never forgets.

Over time the technology evolved to the point of undeniability. A detail here or there could make an argument for the purity of film, but digital was…is…unquestionably better.

The I’ll never shoot digital crowd…most of them…most of us came around…and rest of them are dead.

You may not embrace the digital era of golf equipment…not day 1, but history has taught us time and time again that for all but the most fervent of detractors, never is just another increment of passing time.

How’s that persimmon working out?

Progress ALWAYS wins.

I’d never shoot digital. I’d never own a computer. And I’d certainly never need a cell phone…camera phone…or a smart phone.

Google Glass, my ass! Never.

I’m no stranger to never, so I understand what you’re saying. You’d never use Tinder to hook-up. You’ll never play a golf club, a golf ball, wear a golf shirt, or even a golf shoe with a digital sensor in it.

There’s no need for it. There never will be.

I’m sure you believe that. And so I’m sure you won’t…

But you will.