Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

How golf startups are bringing innovation to a tradition-steeped game

Open Rounds
Open Rounds founder Jonathan Wyeth

Like a duffer teeing off into a stiff wind, startups that want to sell to the golf industry face a few challenges.

One is that golf as a pastime is not growing, and the number of courses has been shrinking steadily since the recession a decade ago. Many courses are managed by country clubs for the benefit of the members, rather than for optimal efficiency or growth. And it’s an industry built on tradition — the first golf course, St. Andrews, traces its roots to the early 15th century — rather than novelty.

But when entrepreneurs believe they’ve identified a business opportunity, challenges don’t deter them. So even in Boston — hardly a hotbed of the golf biz —you can find startups hacking away at ideas that might someday go pro.

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One company, OpenRounds, wants to make it easier for private golf clubs to help their members get access to other private clubs in different regions. That’s known as “reciprocal golf,” explains founder Jonathan Wyeth. “If you’re a golf club member in Boston, your club can set up a round when you travel to Boca Raton or Las Vegas.” That gives the member an extra benefit, and the course he or she visits earns extra revenue from that round. Wyeth’s company is “streamlining all that activity, so the golf professionals and staff can manage it all,” he says. “The staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to set up those rounds for hundreds of members in a week. They’ve traditionally done it, but they don’t advertise it.”

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In some respects, OpenRounds’ business resembles the travel site Priceline, where you might be able to get a sweet deal on a room at the Ritz-Carlton, but the Ritz doesn’t necessarily want everyone to know that. Wyeth says that the clubs that work with OpenRounds don’t want him to drop their names. “A top-notch club doesn’t want to be viewed as a discount provider, or revenue-starved,” he says. But OpenRounds does give it additional revenue from guest fees. And for every round of golf the clubs in the OpenRounds network sell through the service to visiting guests — typically about $175, Wyeth says — the company pockets a 20 percent commission.

Wyeth started the company in 2014, but says it just began to build momentum last year. Golf club members have access to about 150 courses in the OpenRounds network, mainly along the East Coast. The company has raised about $600,000 in funding, and has three full-time employees.

Waltham-based FAIRWAYiQ makes software focused on other aspects of running a golf course: maintaining it efficiently, and eliminating backups caused by slow foursomes. How? They install a wireless base station, and then put wireless sensors onto carts, mowers, and other equipment. That creates a picture of where everything is at a given moment.

Many golf course managers, says CEO Dave Vanslette, try to keep things running smoothly “by driving around hundreds of acres of property to observe potential inefficiencies in the operation.”

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One inefficiency is a slow group forcing everyone else to wait — something courses typically have an employee deal with in a delicate way, since no one likes to be rushed while they’re having fun. Course rangers “have always had those conversations,” Vanslette says. “But now they can say, ‘It’s not us saying it. It’s the system. We really just need you to pick up three minutes.’ It becomes a lot less confrontational.”

And putting sensors onto maintenance equipment allows course managers to better understand how much time it takes different employees to complete a task. Knowing where the carts are can also help groundskeepers maintain areas that aren’t being played. Vanslette says, “If you want to water the greens efficiently, we can tell you, ‘Here’s the Waze-like routing. You go from the 12th hole to 4 to 6 to 10, and do it in between play.’”

About 40 golf courses in the United States and Canada already are customers of another Boston startup, GreenSight Agronomics, which leases small airborne drones outfitted with infrared cameras. The drones lift off each day to create a detailed map of the terrain. Greensight’s software can pinpoint areas that may not be receiving enough water, or are falling prey to a fungal disease that can discolor the turf, and display images on a smartphone or laptop. Pricing for the service starts at about $500 a month.

GreenSight CEO James Peverill says that golf course “superintendents are finding that managing using live daily data is just easier and more convenient, with the added power that they can ‘scroll back in time’ to see how things have progressed.” The lawncare giant Toro Company put $2.5 million into GreenSight last October, and Peverill is in the midst of raising more capital. The company has 28 employees, and recently has been granted waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration that allow its drones to operate outside of a human operator’s line of site — which gives the aircraft more freedom to fly over large areas.

Can any of these startups survive and thrive, perhaps one day rivaling big brands like Titleist and Callaway, both of which operate production facilities in Massachusetts? Most are just three or four holes into an 18-hole game, so it’s a bit early to be wagering on winners.

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“Golf is very strongly rooted in its tradition,” which can make it a tough place to introduce new products and concepts, says Mike David. David is the executive director of the PGA’s Indiana section, which has worked with OpenRounds to help the company enter the Indiana market.

But, David adds, to attract millennials and other new players to the game, “there is definitely a need for companies that have new ideas. Hopefully, the golf industry starts to take notice — and I think they have, to a degree.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.