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Blue Sky Thinking - The SkyCaddie SGX

10 years on since the deregulation of Global Positioning Systems paved the way for satellite-based rangefinders, savvy scientists are now developing exciting new applications for both on and off the golf course. Dominic Pedler reports on the revolutionary SkyCaddie SGX.

It was no surprise that the US President who formally opened the floodgates for the commercial exploitation of GPS devices was a golfer.

It was Bill Clinton back in 2000 who decreed that domestic users of the technology should, within a few years, be granted access to the levels of accuracy previously reserved only for the military. And while the Washington press releases spoke specifically of the boost to positioning devices for “automobile drivers, boaters and hikers”, the canny Clinton would no doubt have known that golfers would be among the prime beneficiaries.

The SkyCaddie SGX GPS includes a 'Smart Club' system

Still, the former President would surely be surprised that despite the economic downturn, such distance measuring devices (DMDs) have not only thrived but are currently the only growing category of golf equipment hardware in today's market. And, beyond just yardage readouts, he would be equally amazed at the various ingenious spin-off applications envisaged by the top designers at the sharp end of the golf market.

Taking the prize for thinking outside the box – literally – is the revolutionary SkyCaddie SGX which gives an exciting glimpse of the future in which GPS rangefinders are truly personalized to act as a portal to a host of online opportunities connecting golfers to golf courses, instructors, new equipment and to each other.

But more on that later as, when it comes to the whole credibility of DMDs, the most crucial factor is the accuracy of the data. Anyone who has taken a selection of different branded GPS units out to, say, the 150-yard marker on a particular hole on a 'mapped' course will know that they not only present their data in a variety of ways but, rather more alarmingly, they don't all agree on the figure of 150 yards.

Indeed, some may be as much as 15 yards out from this supposedly incontrovertible figure, rendering the data utterly worthless for the task in hand. It is a harsh reality check confirming that Harriet Harman's Equality Bill certainly does not extend to golf GPS.

For while Clinton's bill allows manufacturers to use satellites with military precision for yardage measurements, the fact is that the crucial reference points on the golf courses themselves (the front and back of the green, the lip of the bunker, the end of the fairway, the end of the lake, etc) are arrived at in different ways by different operators, resulting in a potentially significant discrepancies in accuracy and consistency.

For example, 'mapping' through satellite photography relies on images that not only may be several years out of date, but whose data is delivered through a complex jigsaw of individual digital pixels that can lead to significant distance distortions in terms of the final picture as a whole.

Then there is the whole issue of aerial photography (whether from satellites or helicopter flyovers) being often compromised by tree-lined fairways than can hide bordering hazards and the vital extremities of greens.

SkyCaddie argues that the only way to reduce this potential margin of error in mapping is to individually walk every golf course, with high tech equipment that logs the key reference points on every hole. In doing just that for almost 30,000 courses worldwide over the last eight years, their team has walked over 250,000 miles, with all but 27 of the UK's golf courses among their databank ready for instant download.

A SkyCaddie mapper at work

In fact, the basic distance data to the front, middle and back of the green for all these courses are preloaded onto the SkyCaddie SGX – though with a rather fundamental catch that needs explaining.

Unlike some rival units which also come with their own 'front, middle and back' information for some 20,000 courses without any further financial commitment, the SkyCaddie data is inaccessible after 30 days unless you subscribe to an online membership package.

While this seems like a seriously disingenuous swizz, there are several important justifications that go well beyond sheer commercial exploitation.

The first factor relates, once again, to the accuracy of the data. “Membership is our customers' insurance policy that their GPS unit is operating on the most reliable and updated data possible,” explains SkyCaddie chairman, Richard Stamper, referring to how some rival systems using often outdated satellite imagery also risk ignoring new hazards – and even new routings – that are part of the evolution of many golf courses.

“In 2009, we actually re-mapped 497 of the 2,900 courses in the UK and Ireland that we had previously walked, and we are in the process of revising important changes alerted to us by another 87 clubs.”

Stamper goes on to explain that SkyCaddie only maps a golf course with the permission of the clubs concerned, thereby developing a relationship as an approved partner who is automatically kept in the loop over all course revisions. [It seems that the few remaining non-participating clubs – notably Sunningdale in the UK, and Bandon Dunes in Oregon, USA – object typically on the grounds of protecting their caddie programmes.]

Quite apart from the obvious course revisions, the updated online downloads that SkyCaddie membership affords also enables golfers to enjoy a whole variety of new distance features that is now also part of their team's mapping routine that goes far beyond the 'front, middle and back'.

In respect of 50 of your favourite courses at any one time, membership entitles you to view distances to doglegs and ideal landing areas and a new standard of green mapping that includes figures to false fronts, ridges and tiers within greens – details that are unattainable through satellite photography. The on-board HoleVue function then allows you to zoom-in to any point on the hole, for example to check your distance to the 100-yard lay-up point on a par-5, thereby bringing a new dimension to your strategic decision-making.

The SkyCaddie SGX's full colour screens are viewable in birght sunlight

All the above are displayed on the SGX's full-colour, 3-inch LCD screen viewable in bright sunlight and configured for one-hand operation.

Again the viability all comes back to accuracy, as Stamper explains. “It is only worth striving for these features if the golfer has confidence that the distances are accurate. Our formal 'error factor' is such that 95% of the time our data is correct to within 1-3 yards,” he says, explaining how the SGX's Truepoint technology involves a special omnidirectional GPS 'engine' that locks quickly onto the appropriate satellite with an accuracy far higher than that of SatNav.

But the second factor behind the membership drive relates to SkyCaddie's vision for taking the technology far beyond distance measuring into a brave new world of personalized performance profiling and online interaction that even extends to equipment custom fitting.

This will develop in due course through ingenious technology allowing each of the clubs in your bag to interact with the GPS unit via a tiny 'chip-equipped disc inserted in the top of the grip. The unit can then gather data on when, where, and how far you hit each club in the bag, thereby gradually compiling a complete statistical profile of your individual game.

And, as I eluded to in my recent Orlando report, the same technology recognises when you've left your sand iron by the last green, and activates a warning signal!

Meanwhile, the full potential for exploiting your own personal data, sync'd and stored with SkyCaddie online, is truly exciting. For example, the company is discussing a tie-up with a respected independent equipment testing facility whereby golfers could eventually receive personalized new gear recommendations according to the match between their individual launch conditions uploaded to a databank of lab-tested clubs and balls.

Already the online capabilities under SkyCaddie's Club SG banner include instant analysis of your scoring data (with 1,000s of scores uploaded by golfers before the service was formally advertised). This is just a small part of the company's high-tech platform for promoting interaction between golfers and an online community of friends, courses and coaches developed in conjunction with programmers from a leading social networking site.

Not so long ago, DMDs (whether GPS-based or the laser-based units alternatives which we have not covered here) were regarded by many as a bit of a gimmick, while purists continue to question their place in the tradition of golf. While this is understandable, the arguments against are dwindling with each new generation of device. Quite apart from the slick 'iPhone chic' of units like the SGX, this is down to the growing realisation that accurate DMDs can even play an important role in the battle against slow play – in particular the curse of watching the fourball in front going through the 'find-the-sprinkler-head' ritual on every hole.

When you look at the big picture, it makes SkyCaddie's claim they are in the business of delivering “game improving technology” not quite so fanciful as it may sound.

And it's not just your game. With worldwide golf participation levels in need of a serious boost, it's arguably one potential panacea for the game as a whole.

April 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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