2005: Golf unplugged

By Michael A. Boslet

What is this heresy being spread by Greg Norman?

Golfers with laptops connected to the Internet while in the clubhouse – or on the course. Writing e-mails between sips of beers or swings. Keeping up with stock prices, business deals and who knows what else while playing at a golf course that is a wireless hub.

Such degrees of “connectivity” likely will repulse golfers who view courses as sanctuaries for escape. After all, isn’t it enough that thanks to wireless technology, one can surf the Internet while on the commode?

Apparently not, according to Norman. He envisions golfers wanting – and needing – access to the Internet when they’re playing golf. So certain is he of the merging of Internet with golf that he has invested $3 million in GPS Industries of Vancouver, British Columbia. GPS Industries is a GPS systems and Wi-Fi (short for wireless fidelity) network provider to golf courses. The company offers the Inforemer GPS system and a “wireless umbrella,” called InforeZone, that can span a golf course or even an entire community.

Instead of spending a work break at an Internet cafe, golfers could take their wireless modem laptops to a golf course turned “hot spot.” After hitting a bag of balls or following a putting session, they could retire to the clubhouse patio and log on – most likely for a fee – to the course’s wireless network.

“The golf world has to adapt to any environment,” said Norman, who touted the system back in January during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla. “We have to figure out a way to bring the masses back to golf.”

Whether wireless connectivity and a few bells and whistles on a GPS system will spark a participation increase remains uncertain, if not unlikely. Rather, the benefit of integrating Wi-Fi and GPS is about getting golfers to spend more time and money on the course. Starbucks, for instance, has surreptitiously created scores of 20-something latte addicts by luring them with free wireless Internet access. Norman and some golf course operators envision using Wi-Fi in a similar fashion, attracting business meetings to clubhouses, increasing corporate outings and persuading golfers with “technology anxiety” – or the fear of being disconnected for hours – to bring their laptops and relax at the 19th hole.

“Anyone can go and work at the golf course,” said Blake Ponuick, vice president of sales and marketing for GPS Industries. “Take a laptop to the course, have a bite to eat and be in touch with their world.”

At the Norman-designed Tiburón Golf Club at The Ritz-Carlton Resort in Naples, Fla., director of golf Jim Hafner said Wi-Fi will help calm the anxieties of business executives concerned about missing important messages.

“Our job is to attract players, and if our player is a business guy and he needs to be connected, we’re going to try to help him,” Hafner said. Tiburón even allows players to take laptops on the course. (The practice, however, has its downside: Computer-accessorized golfers take about 15 minutes longer to finish a round, according to Jim Owens, a course starter at Tiburón.)

There is no denying the growing importance of Wi-Fi to Internet users. According to a November 2004 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 25 percent of all American adults reported logging on to the Internet using a wireless device – up 47 percent from survey results obtained just 9 months earlier.

GPS Industries is touting the Wi-Fi component as a revenue source for golf courses, with users paying an hourly (about $5), daily ($10) or even an annual fee ($300) for Internet access. One of the company’s accounts – Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club in Mountaintop, Pa. – was planning recently to begin offering wireless Internet access to homeowners near the course.

“We could actually solicit those homeowners to be connected through us and be billed through us, and it would be less expensive than cable or an Internet company,” said Tony Barletta, Blue Ridge’s general manager. The facility has bought into the brave new world of course operations in a big way: It has spent $300,000 equipping 105 new golf cars with GPS Industries’ Inforemer system and turning the property into a hot spot.

Though Barletta is bettting on the compatibility of golf and Wi-Fi, Pew Internet researchers see a potentially divisive situation arising. “A portion of them (golfers) will think this is great, and a portion of them will be appalled by it,” said Lee Rainie, the Project’s founding director.

And even for its supporters, a question awaits: Will they pay for Wi-Fi?

Increasingly, Wi-Fi is being provided free, not only in coffee shops and hotels but by municipal governments that have turned several square blocks of cities into hot spots.

Jim Koppenhaver, who runs the golf market research firm Pellucid Corp., said he doubts that Wi-Fi will meet the revenue expectations set by Norman – who is one of his clients – and GPS Industries.

“In today’s environment, you are going to have a hard time making that pricing plan stick,” Koppenhaver said. “For crying out loud, you can get Wi-Fi at McDonald’s now.”

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