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5 ways new technology is coming to the golf course

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Thursday marked the start of the 80th annual Masters tournament, the most revered “major” in men’s professional golf. And it’s the first year in which fans can watch the entire thing live-streaming on an iPhone, in 4K video quality.

For a tournament that can’t even be found on TV for the first six hours of play, the new Masters app is a big deal. Because of the tournament's TV rights, fans couldn’t find the action on television until 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, when ESPN began airing it (mostly produced by CBS, with CBS broadcasters). ESPN had it from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. On Friday, for the second round, it’s the same: no television broadcast in the morning, then ESPN from 3 to 7:30. The broadcast goes to CBS on Saturday and Sunday.

For many potential viewers, it’s simply too hard to keep track of that shifting schedule. This year, rather than miss out, they can watch through the app. And that’s just one of many ways that technology is popping up in golf, a sport that has arguably resisted change for too long.

These innovations are crucial for the sport as it seeks to escape a brutal period in which almost every metric for the sport has been flat or down: youth participation, according to the National Golf Foundation; TV ratings, until last year’s Masters when viewership at last saw a 23% bump; equipment sales, which have declined so precipitously it has forced Adidas to consider selling off TaylorMade, the industry's No. 1 equipment-maker by market share; and course openings in the U.S., which have been outpaced by course closures for nine years straight.

Technology might be able to help— in attracting new fans and in servicing the pros. Here are 5 examples of new golf tech.

The Masters app

The app first launched in 2010, but this year it allows for individual tracking of specific players so that you can open it up and immediately see where your favorites are on the course and the leaderboard. It’s pretty detailed: The app will show you that Rickie Fowler, say, has just teed off at the eighth hole, and show you a shot tracker with the precise distance. Tap “LIVE” and it’ll show you video, in 4K quality. There is also an enhanced version of the app for iPad and desktop this year that offers picture-in-picture to follow the full field in one window and a single player in a second window.

The ability to track a specific player has the potential to lure new viewers who have an affinity to one or two golfers who aren’t in the top handful, and thus may not show up often on the television broadcast. And it’s not only fans who can get excited about that: Tom Watson, the 66-year-old pro playing in his final Masters this year, told us he loves the tracking feature on the app because, “On CBS they follow just a handful of players for the entire day, it feels like, and you never get to see anyone else.”

Wearables

This year, The Masters and IBM, which powers the app, launched the app on wearables like the Apple Watch and Android Wear for the first time. Wearables as a whole, including fitness trackers, are popping up more often on the golf course. A slew of new apps have emerged for golf instruction and shot tracking (like Arccos, Visulax, SwingSmart, and Zepp, to name a few) and even for booking tee times and keeping score (Golf Now). Soon enough, don’t be surprised to start seeing more FitBits, Garmin bands and Apple Watches on the wrists of the very best players.

GoPro cameras

Last month, the PGA Tour announced a new deal with GoPro. Those are two entities that couldn’t be more different: an 86-year-old organization rooted in tradition and decorum, and an extreme-sports camera company that just went public two years ago. But the deal will bring a little bit of extreme edge to golf: GoPro’s fisheye-view HERO cameras will now appear at PGA Tour tournaments throughout the year to shoot stunning footage, which in turn will create viral content for social media to bring more attention to golf. The overall message here? Golf can be cool. Many have predicted that the inevitable next step is drones on the course. "We're not up to using drones yet,” Norb Gambuzza, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president, told us, “although there is a lot of discussion of it.”

Skratch TV

Much of the footage recorded by those GoPro cameras will feed into videos at Skratch TV, the online video network launched by the PGA Tour and digital media firm Bedrocket last year as a way to court young, social media-savvy sports fans. The web site posts inventive video clips from tournaments, as well as “Originals,” like Phil Mickelson throwing footballs or Paige Spiranac, a 23-year-old Instagram sensation who has repeatedly been called “the sexiest golfer alive,” golfing inside a baseball stadium. The videos are attempts to make golf go viral.

IBM Watson

Chip-maker IBM (IBM) has been criticized in the past for not quite knowing how to make use of its smart computer system, IBM Watson. Now it’s found an interesting use case in golf: Watson can produce insights on swings, strokes, and shots, plus analyze social media trends, all live on the scene from The Masters. As a result, IBM, which didn’t sponsor any golfer previously, inked a new endorsement deal with 66-year-old Tom Watson, who has won The Masters twice, is playing in it for the final time this year, and says he loves technology and social media.

It may look like a surprising choice for a sports endorsement deal, but it makes perfect sense for what the entire game of golf needs to do to ensure its future popularity: get the cynical youngs and the old stiffs both on board with golf technology to grow the sport’s global appeal.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.  

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