The Washington Post

Sadly the golf world isn’t quite ready to embrace robotic caddies

(X) Golfers strap their bags onto the CaddyTrek, above, which will then follow them around the course. (FTR Systems Inc.)

Golf is a game that desperately needs a boost. For the eighth straight year more golf courses closed than opened. For whatever reason — be it the time commitment, expense or intricate rules of playing golf, the game’s popularity is at risk. Some have suggested playing with a massive, 15-inch hole, which would make the game quicker and easier to play.

The game’s leaders might want to think how to harness the latest technologies to encourage participation. Instead of being a victim of our shortened attention spans and attraction to flashy, high-energy activities, why not leverage technology?

For three years FTR Systems Inc., a small company based in Las Vegas, has attempted to sell the CaddyTrek, which is essentially a motorized stand that can hold a bag of clubs and will automatically follow its owner around the course. If a player stops on the fairway to hit a shot, the bag will stop behind him. Once the player hits his shot and walks toward the green, the bag will resume following. (see video here)

The bag uses a radio frequency and ultrasound to remain six paces behind its owner, who needs to wear a handset that clips onto a belt. The handset can also be removed from one’s belt and used as a remote control to manually guide the CaddyTrek. It is battery powered and should last for 27 holes of golf.

CaddyTrek looks cool, perhaps something that could threaten the role of golf carts, but sales have been far from brisk. At $1,795, it’s cheaper than a new golf cart, but still incredibly expensive compared to a push cart. In a rare feat for technologies — where prices generally drop over time — CaddyTrek actually became $200 more expensive in 2013 to cover the costs of making it more reliable. It’s far from a perfected product, owners have complained that it beeps loudly and struggles on certain terrain.

“There can be that issue with the signal getting bumped. But really it’s a finesse product and we’ve found that users who use it really love it and they also learn how to use it. If they’re playing a course and know their are trouble areas there’s simple ways to get around those,” FTR Systems director of operations Charlie Palmer explained to me.

While CaddyTrek in its current form probably will never become as common at courses as golf carts and push carts, something like the CaddyTrek might help win golf the attention of younger generations. What Millennial wouldn’t mind having a robot for a caddy?

The game’s leaders should also consider tapping into the coming drone economy. What if a drone tracked your shots, reducing the likelihood of lost balls, or videotaped tee shots and offered instant feedback via a related smartphone app.

The game of golf is far from dead, but finding ways to harness the digital revolution could go a long way toward invigorating it.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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