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September 2023

Virtual Technology Changes Golf Course Design

By: Steve Eubanks

Whether it’s ChatGPT writing college term papers or movie buffs debating the plot of the latest “Mission Impossible” film, the subject of artificial intelligence, or AI, has hit a fever pitch. Some of that is attributable to the world’s richest man. Elon Musk has made some apocalyptic predictions concerning AI, the kind of machines-taking-over-the-world stuff that has been fodder for Sci-Fi novels since the 1800s.

“If AI has a goal and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course without even thinking about it,” Musk said. “It's just like if we're building a road and an anthill just happens to be in the way. We don't hate ants; we're just building a road.”

But the practical applications of computer learning are no longer the work of fiction. AI affects every aspect of modern life. And the speed with which it is advancing boggles the mind. 

Golf is a part of that world. Almost every new iron introduced in the last three years was designed by or with AI– everything from frequency-matched impact vibrations to how a driver sounds when it has been tested and corrected by a learning computer.

Self-driving mowers are next. Once an AI maps the area of a fairway or green, the computer will drive the mower, stop for play and finish the job without any water or lunch breaks.

That might sound far-fetched, but it’s closer than you think. According to a midyear report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, “AI in 2023 has reached a tipping point: Generative AI is so powerful and easy to use, it’s poised to change business models and revolutionize how work gets done. It may soon reinvent entire industries. Conventional AI is advancing too, delivering ever greater productivity and new revenue streams. If well deployed, both conventional and generative AI can drive sustained outcomes today, transformation tomorrow, and trust every step of the way.”

So could there someday come a day when you operate a golf course designed by a computer? Or is it possible that a remodeling and restoration project could be done entirely by plugging data points into a machine? 
“I sure hope not,” said renowned architect and former PGA Tour player Bill Bergin. “I feel like it would be like having a computer write a novel. It might be technically accurate, but can you really program human nuance? Can you program feel? The whole feel thing is still part of the art form of golf course design. Right now, for example, we’re grassing seven golf courses. Everything in the grassing stage is measured in inches – small increments but getting them right. Until you’re on the ground seeing it, feeling it, standing on the property with the wind in your face, you can’t appreciate what the finished product is going to be.”

The other aspect is precision and adaptability. A layout might have a green shaped like a kidney, but during clearing and excavation new rocks or minerals or sediment is detected. That’s when the architect has to operate on the fly.

“I had one developer build a putting green completely by GPS,” Bergin said. “He nailed it, but it meant that I had to draw it perfectly. There was no fudge factor in the field. So obviously, the more AI you use, the more precise the drawings have to be.” 

Would a computer have designed the 16th at Cypress Point? Given the equipment of the day, the prevailing wind patterns, and the soil composition in that area of California, almost certainly the answer is no. You also can’t imagine a machine getting all the data from the Fruitlands Nursery off Washington Road and creating Augusta National.

“Our profession is an art form,” Bergin said. “Technically we are a blend of science, sport and art, but art is still a big part of what we do. Do you want AI copying a masterpiece? I guarantee there are programs that can do it. But do you really want that?” 

That is not to say that AI and other technologies can’t be tools in the process. Architects like Bergin use computer modeling to create photos or videos of holes that do not yet exist. 
“There are two technologies that we personally use,” Bergin said. “The first is the PIX-4D software. That’s for mapping. We create topography maps with that and my designer who is also an illustrator can take that and make it three dimensional. He can also create a drone flyover that is completely animated.”

Imagine the presentation when a developer or a board of directors sees drone footage of the new golf course before the first tree has fallen.

Renovation and redesign work are also areas where this technology is invaluable. Designers can fly a drone over a hole as it exists now and then present side-by-side footage of what the hole will look like once the work is complete.

“There are different things that we do and different tools we can use. We’re still developing that. At Minnesota Valley, for example, we were doing a restoration of a Seth Raynor course and using computer animation to show people what the holes would look like when finished. It’s one more technique to let people know what’s about to happen.

“Visualizing from a plan to reality is something very few people can do, even people in the industry. Our whole selling point is communication and competence. And this technology helps with communication and competence.” 

Those tools make it easier to show your work before the work is done. But turning the design reins over to a program, no matter how advanced, is a day most people in the game can never see coming.

“I’ve never copied a green, not once in my 30 years in the business,” Bergin said. “That’s not to say that I don’t subconsciously go somewhere when I’m out in the field. The same is true of songwriters. Every once in a while, you’ll hear something that sounds like something you’ve heard before because all musicians are influenced by the artists that came before them. The same is true with writers. We all have influences.

“I don’t know where AI is going in golf course design, but I don’t want a program taking over the process, in part because I love what I do, but also because I feel like something will be lost in that process.

“I guess you could plug in a boatload of Donald Ross data and AI could probably spit out a Donald Ross golf course. But can it breathe soul into it? No, and I don’t think it ever will.”
 

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