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Golf By GPS
By Leif Enger
September 7, 1999
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Golf courses are proliferating around Minnesota. There are now at least 450 statewide; 70 new courses have opened in the past five years alone. Such growth begets an inevitable battle for patrons, with courses promoting low fees, or natural beauty, or nearby attractions. The latest lure for the golf-obsessed is satellite technology, global positioning to be exact.

"If the people ahead of you are taking a long time, and you're waiting on every tee, and you'd like a ranger to come talk to them. This'll send a message back to the pro shop, and they'll send somebody out to see what the problem is," says one supporter of GPS golf.
THE PRESSING ISSUE on the second hole of the Legacy course is the sand trap. Can it be cleared from the tee?
Ogren:If you want to take a shortcut to the green? You have to go right over that trap.
A decision this big requires accurate information. Steve Ogren taps a computer screen built into the golf cart and up pops a color map of the hole, with precise distances enumerated from the cart to the pin, to the green, and to the loathsome sand.
Ogren: So to clear this trap, you have to hit it 188. If you feel you can hit it 190 in the air, that's the line you should take.
We won't learn today whether Ogren can hit it 190 in the air. He's not golfing, He's working, aquatinting newcomers to the courses latest gadget, a global positioning system, GPS, in every cart. The Legacy is one of two courses in the state that have GPS; the other is at Izaty's resort south of Mille Lacs.
Ogren: As we were driving here, a satellite that's orbiting the earth is tracking our golf cart. It measures the distances from the transmitter in the cart to a coordinate that's punched in for the pin on that day. So it's telling us the distance from our cart to the pin at all times.
The Legacy is a brand-new course, part of Cragun's resort near Brainerd. It has a hundred carts, outfitted with GPS at $4,000 apiece. It's an enormous investment, but in an area crawling with new courses, Ogren says satellite gear is one way to burst from the pack.
Ogren: There's always people from the old school who like the purity of the game, but that's the minority. Most people absolutely love stuff like this.
These machines, afterall, do much more than measure distance. Say you're hungry. The clubhouse menu appears magically at the ninth tee. Push a button, order a sandwich. Say your heart gives out. Push a button, and a medic trundles - or more ideally, runs - right out with a defibrillator. Say you're just in a hurry. The GPS gives you a discreet way to rat on the overly hesitant.
Ogren: If the people ahead of you are taking a long time, and you're waiting on every tee, and you'd like a ranger to come talk to them. This'll send a message back to the pro shop, and they'll send somebody out to see what the problem is.
But isn't golf supposed to be a game of tradition? Of garrulous, status-quo duffers? Like George Nye, vacationing from Florida. He looks like a duffer.
Nye: I'm 80 years old, with one leg. When you've played golf as long as I have, tradition isn't as important as getting all the aid you can.
Well, how about Bud Risser? Another Floridian. Doesn't look progressive; and his name's Bud, after all.
Risser: : I like being able to order lunch from the cart. It sounds strange, but it's actually useful. And I think (it) costs you a half hour a round waiting for people pacing around, trying to figure out their shots.
As it turns out, just about everyone here this afternoon thinks GPS golf is the best innovation since they quit stuffing the ball with feathers. But a story like this one needs a curmudgeon, and ours is Ian Ferguson, a Scotsman transplanted to the Twin Cities. The Scots, as you may have heard, invented golf in the mid-15th century, playing it so fanatically that King James II banned it outright; his royal archers were neglecting their bows and arrows. It was later banned by an English invader concerned the game was an expression of rebellious nationalism.
Ferguson: We play the game with a passion. We're very much into anything that improves the game. But I draw the line at gadgets.
Like golf carts, for example. Ferguson is against carts. Asked about GPS, Ferguson hints at a dark use for his five-iron. He says golf is best pursued with sticks and a bag. Nothing else.
Ferguson: It's very much, I believe, a personal thing. The human spirit against the elements, and against the greens, and against your own psyche as it happens on the day.
In Scotland, Ferguson says, the golf course is hallowed ground, despite being home to the occasional sheep; his experiences on American courses have been marred by golfers with cell phones and erupting pagers. Which brings up GPS again. What could be handier than sending an electronic message asking the loafers up front to move it along?
Ferguson: The easiest thing to do is to actually speak to them. It may be novel, but I don't think they need to be paged. I don't think we need to send them an email. I think it's simple to say, "Could you speed up your game, or let us play through?"
Golf curmudgeon Ian Ferguson. A representative of the GPS company employed at Legacy issued a dare to Ferguson, challenging him to play a round with the equipment at the risk of enjoying himself. Ferguson says he's up for it. seldom has a denizen of the Glaswegian hamlet of Coatbridge dodged a dare. However No date for the event has been set as yet.