Established in 2012, Stamford, Connecticut-based Arccos Golf has become one of the most exciting companies in the sport, thanks to how it helps golfers of all abilities lower their scores by being able to track and analyze their shots. That way, they can make smarter on-course decisions. Decisions, by the way, that are driven by data and not a poorly grounded perception of one’s own game and abilities. And as a result, they can better understand what parts of their games they need to devote more practice.
Employing sensors that are fitted onto the tops of club grips and synced with the Arccos Golf app, the product incorporates automatic shot-tracking with artificial intelligence and strokes-gained analytics to provide what company officials say are “unparalleled insights” informed by “the richest data set in the game.” Taken together, those features offer yet another affirmation of the sage assertion Francis Bacon made more than four centuries ago in his book, “Meditationes Sacrae”: knowledge is power. Especially if you have hit an approach shot to a tucked pin in the midst of a tight match and want to be sure of how far you actually carry your 9-iron.
Arccos Golf is largely the brainchild of its CEO and co-founder, 41-year-old Salman “Sal” Syed. A native of Pakistan and the father of a 3-year-old daughter whom he and his wife, Rachel, are raising, he combined an aptitude for advanced mathematics with a love of golf to make his business a reality and then a raging success. Fast Company magazine ranks it among the World’s Most Innovative Companies. And Arccos, which is named after the inverse cosine function that is featured in the Arccos algorithm, boasts partnerships with Microsoft (for A.I. and cloud computing) as well as with Ping, TaylorMade, Srixon and Cobra (for smart clubs) and Club Champion and TXG (for smart fitting). It also is used by hundreds of thousands of golfers who appreciate how the app uses vast stores of data to show how they can go from, say, a 15 handicap to a 10, or from a 10 to a 5.
In the latest installment of the 19th Hole, Syed talks about the birth and growth of Arccos as he also reflects on his upbringing in Pakistan; his college days at Ohio Wesleyan (where he captained the men’s tennis and cricket teams) and Yale (where he earned an MBA while playing obscene amounts of golf at the university course); what it was like to be a Muslim in America during 9/11; his passion for Golden Age golf course architecture; and how his own company’s product helped him drop from a 7-handicap to a plus-2 and win the 2021 men’s championship at Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut.
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in the city of Lahore. My dad was a major in the army before he left the military to go to business school. After that, he went on to start what became the largest media and internet company in Pakistan. My mother was a gynecologist, and I had one younger brother. We moved around a lot until I was 6 or 7 years old, as military families often do. Then, we settled in Lahore.
I was a mischievous child and not very interested in my studies. That displeased my mother. But in time, her disappointment made me work harder. I won some awards for my academics and was able to get into Aitchison College, which is located in Lahore and where a number of the country’s prime ministers have been educated. It takes day students and boarders and goes from first grade through high school.
I really wanted to go to university in America and was able to get a full academic scholarship to Ohio Wesleyan. I thought about going there for one year and then transferring. But I loved the school, so I stayed.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. Only the international students came early, and the campus seemed very empty. I had never been out of Pakistan before and had never really been without my parents, so I felt very lonely. I just laid awake at night and wondered what I had done. Moments like that made me grow up a little faster because I was so on my own. Back home, I had led a very privileged life. I had never done my own laundry. I had never cooked on my own. I always had someone else doing things for me.
But when the American students showed up, things got better. I really loved being in America. There was something about the country that spoke to me. The culture. The independence and the appetite for taking risks. I soon felt I was American all the way through.
I had been in America for two years when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. I was the only one on my floor with a TV, so everyone huddled in my room that day. What happened was so shocking and disheartening, and as a Muslim, I hated that it was done in the name of Islam. But people at school were great to me. There was a lot of diversity of thought and backgrounds at Ohio Wesleyan, and there was also a lot of support. I had an incident or two with people outside of the college environment, mostly in bars. But that was it.
I did not see or feel the extremism of Islam when I was growing up in Pakistan, but it certainly became more apparent there. A friend of my dad’s, who was governor of the Punjab Province, was assassinated after terrorists infiltrated his security detail. We also had a close family friend who was killed along with nearly 100 kids at a school she ran as the principal. Another friend was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for several years.
I see the dark side much clearer than I’d like. I am not exactly sure how it impacts me other than my not understanding what makes people act that way. I know religious extremism is a big problem. It ruins lives. But I don’t know how we put a lid on it. What happened on 9/11 was horrible. And it has split Pakistan, affecting not only freedom of thought and expression but also the freedom of just going out and being safe.
I have always played sports. Tennis. Squash and cricket, too. My dad introduced me to golf. It was a very big sport in the Pakistan military, which was when he got into the game. He and my mother also belonged to a country club, and I would play with him and his friends. The golf culture there was very similar to the one in the states. Hats off inside. Shirts tucked in.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I started thinking that while I had a good technology background, I did not have a very good one in business. And as I was getting married, I knew it was time to get serious.
I graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 2003. I majored in computer science and mathematics and minored in economics. I was also one credit away from minoring in physics, as well.
Over the next 10 years, I worked at a series of software startups. The last of those was in Pittsburgh, which was where I met my wife, Rachel. We were engaged six months after we began dating, and then a year later, we married, in the Heinz Chapel. As a tribute to my father, we held the reception in the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. Both are beautiful buildings.
My father was here for our wedding, but my mother was unable to travel, as she was suffering from brain cancer. She was only 64 years old when she passed away. But before she did, we had a second sort of reception in Pakistan. Nothing traditional, just a dinner party and dancing afterwards. It was a lot of fun.
When I was in Pittsburgh, I started thinking that while I had a good technology background, I did not have a very good one in business. And as I was getting married, I knew it was time to get serious. So, I applied to business school, at Yale and Duke, for the academics they have and also for their really good golf courses. I ended up going to Yale. Our honeymoon turned out to be orientation week, which means we never really had a honeymoon. Or maybe we did, and it is still going on.
I received my degree in 2012, and, yes, I did play a lot of golf on the Yale course. I think better and work better when I play. Golf helps me to focus, and that leads to making better decisions.
One time at Yale, Jimmy Dunne (the investment banker who was a partner at Sandler O’Neill when the Wall Street company lost 66 of its 171 partners and employees in the terrorist attacks on 9/11) spoke to one of my classes. He was so open about all he had gone through that day and about how whenever he had to make a big decision afterwards, his first thought was: what would Osama bin Laden not want me to do. It was very powerful, and I asked him afterwards if he wanted to play Yale with me. Unfortunately, he couldn’t.
But we ended up playing golf together at Seminole sometime after that, when Arccos was just getting off the ground. One of my angel investors re-introduced us, and I had an opportunity to show Jimmy how the app worked. Unfortunately, there was a malfunction early in the round, and I went from being in full sales mode to shutting down and being kind of quiet. At the end of the round, Jimmy said I deserved an “A” for getting on the course at Seminole with them but an “F” for my performance during our game. He said I should have kept talking, and kept selling, and that just because one thing didn’t work it didn’t mean that everything was not working. I told him he was right, and he later told me that he liked how I did not get defensive when he made those comments, and how I listened and learned. Then he became an angel investor himself and now sits on our board.
We talked another time about being an entrepreneur and setting out on your own. He said that doing your own thing meant the highs would be higher and the lows lower, and that your passion for what you are doing will ultimately see you through.
I became a member of Tamarack in 2015. It has a great old Charles Banks course, and I am now the green chairman. I also joined Oakmont in 2020, thanks to an introduction Jimmy made to Bob Ford (the former head professional there and also at Seminole) and also Ed Stack (executive chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods). I’ll play about 100 rounds a year, with half of those at my two clubs and the rest on the road. Along the way, I have recorded five holes-in-one. I travel a lot, and I play a lot of work golf. I am also a panelist for Golf Digest and rate as many courses as I can for them.
One of my good friends is John K. Solheim, the president of Ping. He is an amazing leader for golf, and I love his humility, the way he thinks, how he listens and then acts. We met some years ago, and I gave him a quick presentation of how Arccos works and then followed that up with a phone call. I asked him to give me one round with Arccos to show him what it can do, and he totally got the value of data and how it can be applied when we finally played together. Ping became an official partner not long afterwards.
Of course, I came to appreciate the value of the data long ago. And it had everything to do with my working my handicap down from a 7 to a plus-2, and to winning the club championship at Tamarack a couple of years ago. I had confidence in every shot I hit that day because I knew how each club in my bag performed for me on that golf course. And that came from all the unbiased information I had been able to access through our app.
We’re doing well. We now have some 60 employees and have grown fourfold in the last three years. But in many ways, I feel as if we are just in the first inning. We continue to innovate, and we will continue to introduce new product.
My hope is to maintain that kind of growth. I also hope that in 10 years, it will be alien for people to be playing golf without the data we can provide them.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
Special Offer: Save $45 on an annual subscription to GGPBiz and start getting premium golf business journalism delivered straight to your inbox.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?