In the emptiest corner of the Northern Cape province of South Africa, an array of gargantuan deep-space radio antennas are looking for answers to the most pressing questions mankind has ever asked.
These ultra-sensitive MeerKAT telescopes, which are being built to search up to 9 billion light years away, are so precise that they can detect a cellphone signal from Jupiter nearly 500 million miles from earth. By adding hundreds of the receivers together and pointing them toward the recesses of space, researchers hope to find evidence of alien life, the Big Bang or other untold secrets of the universe that may be lurking in the distance.
And strangely, this ambitious project has a meaningful connection to the golf world.
The same South African engineers who built those MeerKAT telescopes – and who previously created FEKO, a code for high-frequency engineering applications like radar that is now used by NASA, Boeing, BMW and others – happen to like golf. Dissatisfied with the traditional driving ranges they would frequent in their off-time, the group began to wonder whether their extensive knowledge of radar may be beneficial in reimagining the way someone goes out and hits balls after work.
Simply put, the idea translated into fitting ranges with the sensitive radar inspired by the MeerKAT so that any golf shot of any length could be measured perfectly with detailed ball analytic data, regardless of weather. Rather than relying on sensors within golf balls, camera-based technology or an expensive launch monitor that can only serve a limited number of people, it is essentially built-in GPS for a driving range.
Whether a player kicks a ball 10 yards or hits a drive 330 yards, both can be recorded and sent to the player’s phone in real-time. For instance, if you were to hit 50 7-irons three weeks ago and wanted to compare that to the 50 7-irons you hit today, you can evaluate everything about those two sessions while being given a “range handicap” that indicates whether you have improved over time. Particularly appealing, a player with a lower range handicap can compete in games against someone with a higher handicap and be put on a level playing field.
It’s not quite discovering extraterrestrial life, but the radar concept led to a new consumer brand called Inrange, one that co-founder Nick Longley hopes can be a real game-changer for the industry.
“As is the case with a lot of engineers, they were big on building the technology but they weren’t quite as sure what problem the solution would be fixing,” Longley said. “When we did our initial research to see what that would be, we found that most ranges don’t appeal to both golfers and non-golfers in a way that this concept could.”
Of course, as they realized from the onset, improving the driving range experience has been a popular endeavor over the last decade-plus. Led by golf entertainment venues like Topgolf and Drive Shack, more than 23 million people participated in off-course golf activities in the U.S. two years ago, up 10 percent from the previous year, and the category hasn’t slowed down since. As has been written about in this space before, it’s now common for ranges around the world to market themselves as more than just a bucket of balls and a field with targets.
Still, for all of the entertainment ranges, launch monitors and simulators that exist, Inrange people say they noticed areas they could improve upon.
From the player perspective, their initial surveys showed that both core golfers and non-golfers were not getting the most out of their practice experience, regardless of where it was. Core golfers, the type who are determined to practice and improve their games, aren’t receiving enough hard evidence or feedback on how their practice went. And non-golfers, the type out on date night or casually trying to pick up the game, struggled to be engaged for long periods of time.
“The problem we really identified is that core golfers aren’t able to walk off of a range and know how well they played,” Longley said. “They want to be able to look at carry yardages, launch angles, shot dispersion charts, historical performance and other things they can geek out on. It keeps them coming back. But the non-golfer doesn’t care about that, so we developed a second platform called Inrange+ that comes at it from a proper entertainment ‘gamification’ perspective. If you have four people in a bay, we want to be the social grease that keeps them entertained with games where everyone can play for hours and then they want to go home and tell their friends.”
Early returns on Inrange, a young brand that received funding in 2017, are promising. Greenwich Peninsula Driving Range in downtown London was the first facility to introduce the technology, and despite being double the cost of a bucket of balls at competing ranges in the area, the venue is usually packed. What was once a wine bar has since been transformed into a hipster burgers-and-brews type of hangout where both obsessed and casual golfers can be seen hitting away until past 11 p.m.
Rather than attempting to get people in and out of the bays as quickly as possible, the idea is to make a more premium experience that is worthy of more time being invested.
“In two years, we have yet to hear a person complain about the price so that’s how we know we priced it too low,” Longley joked. “And the range of people we see, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Golf is still niche, but it doesn’t need to be. It can be like going to the movies.” – Nick Longley
Inrange has partnered with three sites in the UK, two in South Africa, one in Abu Dhabi and now two in the U.S. – one of those being at the David Leadbetter Academy at ChampionsGate outside of Orlando, Florida – with the hope of expanding to over 30 sites by the end of next year. After that, they are planning to be at several hundred ranges across the world.
One of the advantages Inrange hopes to capitalize on when partnering with ranges is that unlike a built-from-scratch entertainment range that requires upward of $20 million to construct, radar can be fit into both covered and non-covered ranges for far less. In thinking about how to break into the U.S. market, Longley says that smaller price tag could make municipal courses a promising partner.
“A lot of people think that municipal courses aren’t useful for the majority of the community,” Longley said. “But the opportunity for some of these cities who may be struggling to say, ‘OK, let’s take nine holes away and put in a range that can be accessible for a wide swath of the community,’ is something that could be amazing. Golf is still niche, but it doesn’t need to be. It can be like going to the movies.”
It will be fascinating to watch this idea move forward from its infancy to what could be a Topgolf-like emergence in the industry. Just as the MeerKAT telescopes continue to listen to activity billions of lightyears away, it will be worth keeping track of Inrange’s progression.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?