High-Tech Hilton Head: From Watching the Pros to Playing Yourself, Island Golf Is Thoroughly Modern

By:Bob Gillespie

Date:5/16/2017

Not long after the William Goodwin family purchased Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island in 2005, the Goodwins came to Cary Corbitt, Sea Pines’ vice president for sports and operations, with an unusual request: They wanted to remove GPS systems from golf carts on the resort’s three golf courses.


The reason? Being able to ascertain shot distances into greens removed the “purity” of the golf experience. And so, out came the GPS.


That notion seems counterintuitive at a time when more and more technology is finding its way into golf on Hilton Head, and especially at Sea Pines’ annual PGA Tour event, the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, played at Harbour Town Golf Links. Or perhaps the Goodwins anticipated how golfers would be able to find yardages via their smartphones or with laser range finders – so who needs GPS in a cart?


At Palmetto Dunes Beachfront Resort, though, GPS devices are still available in 152 carts at the resort's Robert Trent Jones and George Fazio courses. And there's more, much more. If you enjoy listening to tunes while playing golf, Palmetto Dunes sells small Puma speakers that fit in golf carts, enabling players to plug in their phones or Bluetooth devices while using power from a USB port on the cart. Speakers will soon also be available for rental.


Palmetto Dunes also has experimented with various alternative ways of transporting players around its three courses. Segway Golf Transporters, which carried players and their golf bags, have been replaced with a dozen Golf Bikes – two-wheeled bicycles equipped with fat tires (for traction on lush fairways), each with a rack for the player's golf bag. Clark Sinclair of the resort's PGA staff, says the bikes are especially popular with women players looking for more exercise than a cart but a bit less than walking.


On the other end of the transportation spectrum. Palmetto Dunes offers "Fun Carts," which carry four players and their bags. The carts, Sinclair says, are especially popular with families – parents and up to two youngsters stay in the same cart – and also for team-building outings by corporate groups. The dozen carts can handle groups up to 48. For more information on all these conveyances, visit PalmettoDunes.com or call 800.827.3006.

But Hilton Head’s technology isn’t limited to transportation. At Sea Pines’ Learning Center, located at the Plantation Club, Tim Cooke uses all manner of sophisticated gear to make teaching a demanding game more efficient.


Cooke, Sea Pines’ director of golf instruction and named one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 instructors for 2017, uses high-speed video to record players’ swings in order to point out flaws and fixes. There’s also such launch-monitor equipment as TrackMan, also used by PGA Tour players, including South Carolina’s own Dustin Johnson, to “dial in” distances they hit each club; a device called FlightScope that gives readouts on a shot’s height, spin rate and overall carry; and Cooke’s personal favorite, the Swing Catalyst, which uses pressure plates to indicate the shifting of weight by players during their swings.


“Video is helpful (because) a player can see what his swing looks like, which is a comfort for many students,” the English transplant says. “We get to communicate that information to the students, and also the measurements can help the instructor, too.”


Cooke, who instructs all levels of player but focuses on better amateurs and professionals, says there is technology to fit each golfer. “Tech has a bad rap of being overused, but it can facilitate quicker improvement,” he says.


It’s not just for lessons, either. When fitting players with new clubs, “(buyers) never get out of here without radar on the ground behind them,” Cooke says. “They can see which club they hit farther and straighter.” For more on instruction, email Cooke at TCooke@seapines.com.


When it comes to spectators attending the RBC Heritage, there’s a plethora of tech devices that make the experience better – and in a tech-savvy society, it’s hard to do without those. The most accessible is the RBC Heritage app, available for free from the App Store. Fans can use their phones to find schedules, tickets, maps, parking, live scoring and even safety and security resources.


But you don’t need a phone to get all the latest information on players’ scores and other statistics. All you need is to check out one of the large electronic scoreboards positioned around Harbour Town. There – and online for fans following from home – is displayed not just names and scores, but in-depth statistics for the avid fan.


The man behind that during the RBC Heritage is Scott Ross, who helped create ShotLink around 2000. Today, golf stats are more than birdies and bogeys; spectators can find out distances on shots and length of putts, as well as advanced stats such as greens in regulation, strokes-gained putting and around greens, and putting accuracy.


“The Tour saw a need around the end of the 1990s for a new scoring system, because the old ones were slow and error-prone,” Ross says. “It was time for the Tour to catch up with the technology.”


On each hole, volunteers will man lasers that measure tee shots, second (and third) shots and putt distances. Walking scorers keep score for players, and the results are available on the internet in real time.


Pre-tournament, each course is mapped by a surveyor. That and the equipment enable ShotLink to establish ball locations “down to the inch,” Ross says. “We get a complete picture of every shot by every player.


“Fans’ experiences are improved; they can look at a scoreboard and see Matt Kucher has a 10-foot, six-inch putt for birdie. Shots into the green – it’s all on the scoreboards.” The data is also used by CBS and other networks covering golf, and fans at home (and spectators with smartphones) can follow moment-by-moment on PGATour.com.


And there’s more coming soon, via ShotLink+, which will be even more sophisticated. “Right now, we track where the ball ends up; ShotLink+ will track the breaks and movement of the ball (on the greens),” Ross says.


Are golf fans spoiled by all this information? Ross laughs. “We see comments on Twitter at events we’re not at”: the Masters, US and British Opens. “People say, ‘We miss having all the information.’”


For those who want more traditional golf – well, the Sea Pines carts are still GPS-less. For more information, visit www.seapines.com.

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