Could RFID technology mean the end of lost golf balls?
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Could RFID technology mean the end of lost golf balls?


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If you’ve been to a Topgolf facility or one of the other, similar high-tech golf range/entertainment complex, you may have wondered how the driving range-cum-pinball-machine layout tallies up the flight data on your shots. Well, as you might expect, it’s a tricky problem with a high-tech solution: RFID.

RFID stands for “Radio Frequency Identification," and it is achieved by means of an electronic chip that’s buried in the center of every range ball in use at these facilities. A far cry from the beat-up range pills at your usual low-tech driving range, these electronically equipped units trigger sensors in the dispenser at the hitting bay and in the range targets, gathering the data that is used to measure ball flight and post scores.

From the range to the course

But what about in day-to-day play, out on the course? What can a chip-equipped ball do for the golfer on the actual field of battle? Well, the short answer to that question is: right now, not much.



There have been small inroads made in the use of this technology in golf balls to be used out on the course, and as one might imagine, the obstacles of implementation and cost have been stumbling blocks in the path of progress for its widespread adoption.

A Dutch firm called Prazza, which is a player in the field of commercial-vehicle tracking—think of it as Lo-Jack for keeping truck drivers honest— made a chip-equipped ball and a finder unit a few years back, but eventually gave up on the idea. The cost of the finder unit was in the $300-plus range, and a sleeve of three golf balls was $30, or about two-and-a-half times the cost of a premium ball like the Titleist Pro V1.

The Prazza ball had a detection range of about 100 meters and worked by sending a signal to the detector, which produced a beeping noise that allowed the player to home in on their ball. The beeping sound was annoying to other golfers, by all accounts, and the finder had no volume control. Prazza tried to license their technology to ball manufacturers with no success because you wouldn't buy as many golf balls if you could find your lousy shots more often.

rf-golf

Currently there is one manufacturer offering an RFID-equipped ball and matching finder, a UK company called RF-Golf. Their system consists of two three-ball sleeves of their chip-equipped balls and the finder unit; this basic kit sells for £199.99 in the United Kingdom and £219.99 outside the U.K., with additional sleeves available for £21.99/£28.99 per sleeve, or £38.99/£46.99 for two sleeves.

The RF-Golf system’s ball is activated by impact with the club head and stays active for 25-40 minutes. Pressing the “Locate” button on the finder unit activates a silent meter which indicates signal strength – the closer you are to the ball the higher the meter reading. Once you have found your ball, placing the finder unit close to the ball (within 1 centimeter, or a bit less than half an inch) deactivates the chip and you are ready for your next shot.

Pricey as the RF-Golf system is, if you play a lot of golf and lose a lot of balls it may just pencil out. There is, however, a fly in the ointment. Despite an exception in the USGA equipment rules which allows chip-equipped balls, the use of the finder unit is deemed to fall under the auspices of Rule 14-3 as an “…artificial device or unusual equipment” that might assist a player in his play. So there you have it – you can use a ball with a chip in it, but not the gadget that helps you find it. Of course, if you are not playing in a competition or in a round that you will submit to determine your handicap, you are free to do as you please, and hang the rules.

The future presents opportunity

What about other uses for RFID-equipped balls besides just helping you find your ball in the rough? The potential exists for a ball that records your round—strokes, distance, maybe ball speed and spin—but that capability still lies in the future, and even when it does come around, guess what? The USGA says you cannot gather or use that information during your round—at least not now. The technological integration seems inevitable, though the major golf ball brands likely don’t want this type of product to come to market. Anyone in the business of selling mass amounts of golf balls probably doesn’t want you to find every ball you hit. Stay tuned, though—just as technology is changing our favorite game, the USGA is coming around, slowly, to the realities of new technology. Just maybe, finding every ball you hit may be coming sooner than you think.

This article is brought to you by 18Birdies, a free mobile golf app designed to make the game more social and fun. Features include GPS+ that is powered by Google Maps, digital scoring, side-game bet tracking, Social Feed, stat keeping and more! 18Birdies is available via iTunes and Android. See how 18Birdies is reimagining golf by visiting their blog!

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About the author

Gary McCormick