Bits and Bytes: Tools and Weapons: The Exponential Evolution of Computer Software over 150 Years in the Golf Industry

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In the 1899 edition of Punch Magazine that had been donated to Harvard University by the Pulitzer family, Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. patent office, stated, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

All readers recognize the folly of that statement. If one is in doubt, merely look at the evolution in the golf software industry over the past 50 years.

Research indicates that since around 1980, about 80 software companies of note, exclusive of golf index (handicapping) firms, have developed software for golf courses. Thirty-three have been sold, 20 liquidated, and two remain operational though no longer involved in the golf (Ticketmaster and Active). Click here for a list of the 80 firms.

Only four companies operating today (Club Prophet, Club Essential, Jonas, Micros) were incorporated before 2000. The 25 companies still in existence were formed after 2000, of which ten were incorporated since 2015. Click here for a chronological listing of the significant transactions and pronouncements.

Capitalism creates, capitalism destroys.

The evolution of software for the golf industry reflects an interesting parallel to the evolution of American society. Time often distorts one’s perspective. Who can remember what life was like when there weren’t computers, cell phones, or the Internet? Haven’t Venmo, crypto, NFTs, and blockchain been around for a while?

A review of the five distinct phases of software adoption in the golf industry is a nostalgic journey down memory lane with uneasiness about what may lie ahead.

1880’s to 1980: Pen, Paper, Fingers, and Toes

The St. Andrews Golf Club, located in the outskirts of New York City, is considered the oldest golf club document to be in continuous existence in the U.S., formed in 1888.

One can only imagine how business was transacted. AT&T was incorporated in 1875. The cash register was invented in 1879, resulting in the formation of NCR (National Cash Register) in 1884. Adding machines were introduced in 1886, and punch cards, principally for an employee, time clocks were introduced in 1890. Bookkeepers were most likely using ledgers in the cash and commerce economy.

Though the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants was formed in 1914, IBM in 1915, Hewlett Packard in 1939, Sperry-Rand in 1955, and Univac in 1962, the advent of the first computer in the United States wasn’t until the mid-1950s and then applicable, due to its cost, to large corporations.

Interestingly, in 1949, Smyth Systems, which migrated into the golf industry in the 1970s, used NCR cash registers with punch paper tape to process the inventory and accounts receivable at men’s specialty stores. That expertise in retail resulted in providing software decades later to the American Club, Doral, Homestead, La Costa, and Woodlands.

1980’s to 2000: Introduction of operational business systems to better manage the flow of customers, create efficiencies, and automatically record transactions and data

Though the first personal computer (Altair 8800) went on sale in 1974, followed by the launch of Apple 1 in 1976, IBM introduced its personal computer in 1982 that included many Microsoft applications developed since that firm incorporated in 1975.

Under the tutelage of ClubSystems (formerly Country Club Systems – Skip Toombs – 1,900 clients), Diamond Management Systems (Tom Diamond – 800 clients), and Smyth Systems (Robert Smyth – 400 clients), private clubs benefited from the rapid implementation of golf management software during the period.

In the early ’90s, Gary Jones Computing, a Canadian-based company, was formed, focusing on the private club and construction vertical markets. After Constellation Software acquired Gary Jonas Computing, it enabled Jonas to acquire Smyth Systems and ClubSystems group in 2004 and 2005, respectively creating a 40% market share that remains solid through 2022.

While the private club market embraced golf computers, numerous firms (Computer Golf Software – Neil Haynie), (Chelsea Reservations – Les Margolin), (EZ Links Steve McKenna – Andrew Weeks), (Double Eagle Systems – Tom Mox), (Fairway Systems – the author), and (Fore! Reservations – Harry Ipema) chased the fractured daily fee and municipal market – each offering a unique approach.

EZ Links call center was attractive to management companies and resorts. Fore! Reservations offered a low-priced solution, $2,000, that appealed to the daily fee golf courses. Fairways Systems, using ATT’s Dialogic multi-line phone boards, introduced touch-tone telephone reservations that were installed at 20% of the municipal golf courses in the United States, including Bethpage (5 Golf Courses), City of Chicago, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco (Harding Park) and San Diego (Torrey Pines).

An outlier in the 1990s was the installation of a golf reservation system by Aptech (Jay Troutman – Nancy Discecco) on the Myrtle Beach Grand Strand based on a request for proposal by George Hillard, Executive Director of the Myrtle Beach Golf Course Owners Association. The Grand Strand Tee Time Network (GSTTN), headed by Mathew Brittain, went live with 35 Myrtle Beach golf courses and 15 area hotels in 1992, licensing the T-Links software.

By 1994, Charleston, Hilton Head, Biloxi, Pinehurst, and Atlantic City join the Grand Strand Tee Time Network as regional golf destinations. In 1996, Golf Digest Information Systems invested in the software only to close the firm within a couple of years. Terry O’Connor, now acting Director of the GSTTN in 2020, purchased Quick 18 (Darrow, Halpin, Loustalot).

Who offered the first online tee time reservations? It is debatable whether EZ Links or Fairway Systems, with their online tee time software developed in cooperation with Microsoft and Oracle, were the first. Flip a coin.

What was unique, rather than selling an annual license, Fairway Systems provided all of the hardware, software, multiple telephone, and 24-hour support in exchange for a small fee per reservation, i.e., $0.25.  The firm was sold to American Golf Corporation in 2000 with the concept of introducing a national tee time reservation system.

With over 750 golf courses under the “control” of American Golf, an exclusive license for tee time access was provided to Book4golf.com. Three years and $30 million later, Book4golf was liquidated under the auspices of the Ontario Stock Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission. American Golf reacquired the license from Book4golf.com and sold it to Tee Time King in 2007, which in turn, in 2007 sold it to Active Network, who in 2014 sold it to Golfnow.com.

Del Ratcliffe, a North Carolina multi-course operator, rued in March 2022, had one of the firms offering hardware/software/support for only a booking fee been successful, barter may have never been introduced to the peril of golf course owners.

The dot.com boom/bust did not escape the golf industry. Around the turn of the century, GolfSwitch (Larry Lippon), GolfGateway.com (renamed Greens.com – Darrow family), Starplan (Bill Kravitz – Eric Yaillen), Global Golf Marketing (Steve Schwartz), Open Time Times Online (a Four Firm Alliance), and Spectrum Golf (Loustalot) all entered and within a foreseeable time closed or were sold. It is rumored Greens.com (Darrow family) lost $35 million with a diverse investor group, including reportedly NBA Star Charles Barkley.

2001 – 2010: Business to consumer markets with online booking, eCommerce, digital marketing communications: email marketing and text messaging, Web 1.0.

Sis Boom Bah! The fireworks for the next two decades were being staged.

While many golf courses raced to create a website – it was merely an informational marketing brochure of who they were, what they did, how many customers they had, and how to contact them.

This decade was marked by the introduction of online booking tee times with the proliferation of many third-party sites.

This decade forever changed the financial relationship between a software vendor and a golf course. Rather than licensing software for an annual fee, golf courses were provided the software in exchange for access to their tee time inventory: a barter exchange.

For the first time, software companies were using golf courses data and inventory to grow their own software business instead of focusing on growing the rounds and revenue of the facilities they served.

Barter, introduced in 6000 BC, was the first system of economic commerce that predated the monetary system. Barter then, and barter now, is a flawed system of exchange. It requires a double coincidence of wants (seller wants why the buyer has and the buyer has wanted the seller wants), and there is a lack of information about the standard unit of account, i.e., the fair market value of the goods and services being exchanged.

Golf courses have engaged in many forms of barter for many years, giving away free rounds for services, i.e., media advertising, accounting, legal and tax services, etc. With utilization, pre- Pandemic at 52% of capacity, it seemed innocent.

In 2001, Cypress Golf Solutions (Brett Darrow – known by some as the King of Barter) changed that. Cypress Golf Solutions creatively purchased the URLs (uniform resource locator – a unique address given to the Web) for every area code in the U.S., i.e., golf212.com, golf303.com, golf415.com, etc. Franchises were sold around the country, i.e., Loustalot licensed the California area codes: golf213.com, golf415.com. Darrow oversees Arizona: golf602.com.

Cypress heralded itself as the top innovator in providing a matchless full suite of products to course owners and operators to increase revenue through management of customer relationships, email marketing, network distribution, tee-time booking engines, and website design.

Comcast, the owner of Golf Channel, purchases Cypress Golf Solutions and its GolfNow brand from Brett Darrow and his franchisees for a reported $41.3 million. That same year, Golfnow facilitated the booking of 2.4 million rounds. The company’s operations were re-located to Golf Channel’s Orlando, Florida headquarters.

Numerous firms, principally Golf Now and EZ Links, launched a plethora of affiliate websites focused on booking online tee times: Citi Prestige, Deal Caddy, Golf18, GolfAdvisor, GolfBids, GolfNow, Go Play Golf, GolfMiles, MasterCard Priceless Golf, LastMinuteGolfer, Lastminute Golfer, Military Tee Times, TeeOff.com, Teetimes.com, Teeofftimes.co.uk.

2010 – 2022: Cloud computing, Sensors, IoT (Internet of Things), Mobile Apps, GPS, Web 2.0 This period could be labeled the “Decade of the Consumer Tee Times Wars.”

Leveraging the same strategy used by Jonas to become the dominant firm in the private club market, Comcast’s GolfNow acquired massive market share by their acquisition of Active Network (Alex Barnetson – a consortium of Fairway Systems, Jencess (Kirk Jensen), Tee Time King (Chris Mulvihill), Crescent Systems (Neil Trogden), Fore! Reservations (Harry Ipema) and Click4teetimes.com.

Although Club Prophet was provided $100,000 by GolfNow, disconnects is its application programming interface to third parties like GolfNow and EZLinks. This strategic move was made as GolfNow’s acquisitions rendered it a direct competitor in the sale of point of sale software.

During this decade, the PGA of America canceled in 2013 its partnership with GolfNow and formed with the National Golf Course Owners Association, a Tee Time Coalition to monitor the abusive practices of software firms using barter that results in the release of a comprehensive study concluding that barter is predatory to the economic interest of golf course owners. In 2019, the PGA of America withdrew from the Tee Time Coalition, resulting in its collapse as the entity was co-founded by each Association.

Beyond the din of the tee time wars, there was some progress in the development of technology led by Pacesetter Technology (George Stavros), Tag Marshal (Craig Kleu, Bodo Sieber and John Willmore), and Gallus (Jason Wilson) in the IoT (Internet of Things: think Ring doorbells, controlling your house temperature from your iPhone miles away, etc.)

Pacesetter Technology introduces geofencing with member-based mobile apps that enable the club to provide a hyper-personalized experience with name recognition software. Beacon technology divides the clubhouse into a zone that alerts management and staff as members enter a room or approach a table with push notifications to staff to ensure the preferences can be delivered crisply.

With time being such an essential component of one’s experience on a golf course, Tagmarshal developed a highly sophisticated operations platform to monitor the pace of play. The software reduces the average round by 17 minutes, as evidenced at Erin Hills, Links at Gateway, and the Wisconsin Club. The software includes course and analytic reports, a geofencing mobile, the easy assignment of tee times, and produces a heat map of where golfers have traversed the course. The heat map feature has broad implications in optimizing the maintenance costs of a course by allowing the agronomic crew to reduce the course’s footprint.

During this decade, communication with the golfer via multiple channels (desktops to laptops to iPads to iPhones, Mobile apps) came to the forefront.

One firm leading these initiatives was Gallus. Their mobile app provides check-in and payment, facility calendars, event and tournament registration, golf shop, in-app messaging including push and text-based notifications, loyalty rewards, on tap Food & Beverage, range GPS, scoring with live leaderboards, and tee time booking.

2023 – Onward: Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Web 3.0.

As the world goes on, the golf experience may revolve around three concepts:

  • Diversification of recreational options with the installation of tangible objects to uniquely define the facility, e., think of an Art Exhibition, Life Preservation Centers.
  • Data Segmentation
  • Personalization

To look to the future, a brief glimpse at the past is appropriate.

Sabre Airline Solutions, a Sabre Holdings company, is the world’s largest provider of products to help airlines market, sell, serve and operate from planning to execution. More than 200 airlines use their broad portfolio of decision-support tools. Its core software has not changed in 40 years. What has dynamically changed is how users interact with their software via windows-based data input.

Jonas is Leveraging its functionally robust enterprise solutions by aggressively introducing mobile and browser-based front-end interfaces for user and member flexibility to facilitate remote accessibility, personalization, and business intelligence.

An example of artificial intelligence would be the dynamic pricing of tee time inventory. This feature has long been desired as the panacea for golf course operators to optimize their revenue.

Jeff Levine, Senior Vice President with Arcis first implemented this concept at Tour 18 Dallas and Tour 18 Houston. With a whiteboard posting seven days of tee time availability, they changed prices frequently based on demand.

Many software companies have implemented “capacity pricing.” Their systems adjust rates based on variations in demand by the hour and by day. However, true dynamic pricing remains elusive.

Today, in partnership with Landscape Unlimited, Metolius Golf (Ross Liggett) is addressing business intelligence, automated reporting, and data aggregation platform. Every day, relevant business data from the course is uploaded automatically into a web-based dashboard that the golf course manager can monitor anywhere, anytime. Based on metrics defined, golf course owners are automatically alerted to deviations from the defined benchmarks.

Based on those defined standards, Metolius marketing algorithms automatically post to social media, the course’s website and sends tailored email messages based on the customer’s demonstrated historical behavior.

Some futurists envision that artificial intelligence may be used to screen member applications to calculate their personal brand reputation score, robots to greet and pace clubs on a cart, holograms replacing starters, self-driving golf carts that track the location of a player’s ball based on an embedded chip, a Top-Tracer feature that provides the golfer immediate statistics on their swing speed providing club suggestions and the correct line for their putts, screens with visualization exercises tailored to the golfers’ health and wellness profile, a self-operating halfway house where the food and beverages are delivered thru window turnstiles based on phone orders, and carts that are self-washed and stored, and autonomous mowers to maintain the golf course.

It all revolves around the collection of data. Today, a massive amount of consumer data is being aggregated and sold. Will these futuristic ideas come to pass that create elaborate files based on a golfer’s historical spending and preferences? The trade-off is clear: convenience vs. privacy.

While some would debate you can have both, it is unlikely. Thus, many of these concepts may never advance.

If that isn’t futuristic, what about pondering whether Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other blockchain cryptocurrencies become the primary monetary currency?

First, a definition. A blockchain is merely a list of records, called blocks, linked together using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. The data in any block can not be altered retroactively without altering all subsequent blocks.

One entrepreneurial endeavor, LinksDao (Jim Daily + Adam Besvinick), is creating the modern golf & leisure club by offering membership by NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to create a global community in which one of the world’s greatest golf clubs is acquired by a cryptocurrency. Memberships, offered on December 31, 2021, sold out. They hope to open their acquisition and be operational on their first course in 2023. Will they be successful?

What is known the software developed in the future will have a central tenet: providing the customer with a consistent experience where they are empowered to serve themselves and leveraging technology to create personalization in that experience.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who Will Become the Fairest of them All

In writing about technology, it is easy to become overly impressed with new features, the latest sales pitch, and the promise that the adoption of such will exponentially increase revenue, labor expenses will be reduced, and economies of scale will be created to enhance the golfer/member experience and boost the financial performance of a golf course

While it takes discipline and common sense not to be seduced by the allure of forthcoming software, two books, “Crossing the Chasm,” by Geoffrey A. Moore written in 1991 and Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma – When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” written in 1997 provide logically and reasoned advice as to the challenges today’s software firms face in the evolution of their software

Operating a golf course is not a single business – it represents the amalgamation of an entertainment complex that offers a restaurant, a special events banquet setting, a recreational athletic venue, a clothing and equipment department store, all of which is framed around the responsibility to manage a > 150-acre farm that is subject to the perils of weather.

With the typical public and private facility generating only annually $1.4 million and $4.5 million respectively, the diversity of labor expertise required and the multi-faceted accounting systems necessary to produce actionable financial data precludes the introduction of economies of scale. The ownership of a golf course is indeed a small business.

Golf courses operate on such a thin thread as most are risk-averse. The golf course owner and, in turn, their managers’ orientation is likely grounded in the principle of safety: remaining in business, being employed, and conserving resources.

Golf software companies face inherent challenges in developing software for the golf industry. There is no standard general ledger of accounts for a golf course or best management practices on how to use the software. Therefore the financial statements, SKU set up, departmental classifications are completely different at every club.

Because of the depth of features and function current software firms provide, private clubs and public courses only use an estimated 30% of the software’s capability currently installed, i.e., a car being capable of reaching 200 mph, being driven at 60 mph.

Software firms are faced with the difficult strategic decision of whether their platform of offerings will be horizontal, providing all features and functions at a golf club (Jonas/Club Prophet) or Vertical (Foretees, Sagacity, Brownback, Pitch). The development of horizontal platforms is expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating.

Golf course owners are part of the late majority in adopting technology as defined by Moore – only when it is required to remain competitive. The most progressive courses and clubs are ten years behind. The average club is perhaps 15 years behind.

Here are some examples.

The culture of a club/course that is steeped in tradition is a reflection of their adoption of technology. Some historical private clubs still take food orders on paper pads and post them in the kitchen. Some historical private clubs still provide members paper “chits” of everything they signed for monthly.

To Christiansen’s point, outstanding software firms are so focused on doing everything right for their current customers that they are blind to the evolving disruptive technologies.

Finally, despite our comfort as to the overreaching presence of the Internet, the remote location of some facilities precludes their use of cloud hosting. At the entrance to the club, they have access, two miles down the road to the clubhouse, they may not and may be facing the cost of

$100,000 to install cable or fiber optics. Cellular and satellite services are still not reliable in 20% of the U.S. Software firms, like Club Prophet, have 70% of the clients using the cloud. However, amongst their 1,600 clients, they have some who can’t run in the cloud and must provide and support local area networks, central file centers, and SQL databases.

The future path of technology is certainly not straight. Perhaps we should all take solace in Yogi Berra’s quote, “The future ain’t what it use to be,” and while evolutionary change within the golf software may be unlikely, it will be exciting to observe and participate in what emerges.

Author’s Note:

 

This article was structured to provide a macro view of the golf software industry over the past 50 years within North America. Given the fluid nature of the industry and in that the vast majority of these firms chronicled were privately held, we believe that the article fairly represents in all significant and material respects the principal events that have influenced the industry.

 

Every reasonable attempt has been made to confirm the information herein. However, no representation is made that the article is completely accurate. Important events and firms that may have had an impact could have been inadvertently and regrettably omitted.

Upon reading this article, we would appreciate it if you would be so kind to provide the author at [email protected] with updated information and corrections such that, in time, the story will be more completely reflect the transactions and significant events that have influenced the evolution of the golf software. Thank you.

Credits:

This article was made possible through the insights, perspectives and fabulous memories of Jim Fedigan (Constellation Software), Alan Fisher, Devin Meister (Club Essential), Ross Liggett (Metolius), Joe Oswald (Jonas), Jason Piersall (Club Caddie), Del Ratcliffe (Pitch/Ratcliffe Golf Services), Tom Robshaw (Club Prophet) and especially Harvey Silverman, Silverback Golf Marketing who provided a curated list through 2017 he had prepared on behalf of the NGCOA as part of the Tee Time Coalition formed to address the abuses of barter and apparent detrimental effect on a golf course’s revenues.

 

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