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Satellite link on the links

Golfers are getting high-tech help from global positioning systems offered by several companies, including one in Sarasota.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 1998


SARASOTA -- Frank and David Solinko walked toward the golf cart, ready for a round free of worries about how far their shots would go, the distance from the hole or pin placement on the green. They wouldn't even have to keep score by hand.

Call it swinging with the satellites, as in global positioning satellites. GPS systems, using a satellite about 11,000 miles in space to track a foursome on Earth, are making their way onto courses across the country.

The satellite's signal was pulled in by an antenna on the roof of the golf cart that the Solinko brothers rented at the Bobby Jones Golf Complex in Sarasota. A video display screen mounted on the cart translated the data into yardage figures. The screen showed a graphic of the hole, and the yardage figure changed as the cart moved down the course. Whenever the cart stopped, the display gave the golfers a reading of their distance to the green.

The brothers had mixed reactions to the high-tech gadgetry.

Frank wanted nothing to do with a space-based system that calculated how far he was from a birdie. "I don't have a problem doing it the old-fashioned way," he said.

David liked the system, though he worried about the precision of the distance information.

Precision, though, is one of the keys for the GPS system, originally developed for the military but increasingly finding its way into business and recreational uses (see related story).

A crowded field of companies makes GPS products or software packages for golf courses, offering systems that not only help golfers but also give course managers tools to keep their operations running smoothly.

Some systems even provide two-way data or voice communications so golfers can order food and drinks or call for help in an emergency and the clubhouse can send out an alert if a lightning storm is on the way.

"Golfers like new things that can help their game," said Ray Grady, general manager of the Bobby Jones Golf Complex, a municipal course that has used a system from ParView Inc. for two years. But that doesn't mean everyone embraced the system from the beginning.

"We spent a lot of time teaching," Grady said. "Once comfortable, they really liked it."

In fact, during the busy winter season, some golfers will wait for one of the 125 ParView-equipped carts rather than use one of the extras the course brings in to cope with the crowds.

ParView (www.parview.com) was started in 1994 by David Chessler, who was named Florida's 1998 Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration. Its systems are on 35 courses from Florida to Hawaii, including the Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Chessler said. The company is adding two or three courses a month.

The company expects revenues of $6-million this year, has had two private placements of stock totaling $4-million, has grown to 23 employees and is shooting for a public offering in a few years, Chessler said.

Chessler, 30, started the company in Georgia and came to Florida because of all the courses in the state. He set up shop in Sarasota because he fell in love with Siesta Beach.

He says his system has speeded up play at many courses (cutting about an hour off a round at Bobby Jones), which means more paying golfers for courses, not to mention increased food and drink sales.

Chessler acknowledges that some purists don't like the GPS idea, but says "this is golf's introduction to technology."

One of the big players moving into the market is John Deere (www.deere.com/cce/golfturf/html/jdapp3/03jdapp5.htm), which has a line of products for golf course maintenance and in September bought Player Systems Corp. of Charlestown, Mass. Player Systems calls its GPS system Skylinks and serves 30 courses, though none in Florida.

"It's information technology and it's a business tool for courses," said Richard Beckman, director of sales and marketing and one of Player Systems' co-founders. "It's not a gadget."

Beckman said some courses see GPS systems only for yardage measurement. "It takes time to learn what these systems can do. There's a lot more meat to this than meets the eye."

For example, in addition to the distance measurement and course management, Skylinks allows courses to customize and control water, fertilizer and pesticide use, Beckman said.

But the technology is not for everyone, and many courses have not taken the plunge.

"The problem is that they're still relatively expensive" for courses to use, said James B. Singerling, executive vice president of the Club Managers Association of America.

ParView charges a course $4,500 a month for a five-year lease of 80 carts equipped with black-and-white displays. It soon will offer a color version that for the same lease will cost $6,000 a month, Chessler said.

At some courses, part of the cost is passed along to golfers. At Bobby Jones, cart rental has increased by $1, to $11.75, since the system was introduced; carts that don't have the system are $10.75. Innisbrook has not increased its cart rental fees.

ParView and the courses also sell ads for display on the system, splitting the revenue. Chessler says golfers are an affluent and attractive market for advertisers, and he expects advertising space to be at a premium. Among its advertisers, ParView signed a deal with Citibank to promote its Jack Nicklaus Visa card.

Ad space costs $200 to $400 a month for one course. Ads can occupy the entire 8.5- by 11-inch screen or take up only a 3- by 5-inch section. For example, an advertiser can "sponsor" a full hole, getting two small ads and one full-screen shot. The first ad would appear after the cart leaves the tee area, the second about 200 yards from the green and the third about 50 yards from the green. ParView estimates that ads are displayed for about 15 minutes at each hole.

Beckman would not say what Player Systems charges for its systems, though he described it as being on the high end of the market and comparable to ParView. He also said the system may not be for every course.

"These are expensive systems," he said. "We fit best with clients who want to squeeze the most out of their investment."

Some courses have little interest in the system if most of their members play regularly and don't need electronic guidance on familiar territory, said Singerling of the course managers association.

Singerling says GPS systems have other possibilities. For example, they could be used as security devices in gated communities that have golf courses. When delivery trucks and other vehicles enter the communities, a device could be put on the vehicle, then tracked from a guardhouse. If the vehicle didn't go where it was supposed to, Singerling said, the guards could react.

Chessler says security is an area that his company is exploring, working on a system that would cut power to a cart someone might try to take off a course.

Both Chessler and Beckman said a key goal for their companies is customer service.

ParView, for example, does a remote computer check of all courses' carts every night and calls the courses the next day to report if any systems are down.

Chessler says business has been so good he hasn't had much time for golf.

"I used to be a good golfer before I started this thing," he said.

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