A golf club, no matter the era, has always consisted of a grip, shaft and head. All of our memories, our enduring emotions within the game, revolve around the use of those three inanimate elements to hit a ball.
If it were up to Arccos, the game’s history books will forever record a fourth component – a sensor attached or embedded in the grip of every club sold serving as a ceaseless data-gatherer that stores intricate specifics of each shot hit, fundamentally altering the core of what it means to be a golfer.
“I think it will be a seminal moment looked back on in the history of golf,” said Sal Syed, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Arccos. “Right now, your on-course experience ends when your round ends and it lingers in your memory, but we’re going to expand that. You are going to have a digital golf life in rich detail where you are going to have a better understanding of what you did five, 10, 15 years ago.
“Maybe this is taking it a step too far but if you look at the Gutenberg Bible, that was the first time something was written down. We are permanently writing down your golf history.”
“You are going to have a digital golf life in rich detail where you are going to have a better understanding of what you did five, 10, 15 years ago. ... We are permanently writing down your golf history.”
While the vision is lofty for a company that only delivered the first generation of its product less than seven years ago, Arccos has the right to believe it will attain a significant place in the game’s chronicle while serving as an ally to all sectors of the industry. There already have been 400 million shots taken using the sensor technology across 6 million rounds from users in 194 countries. They have captured 31 billion data points, making it the largest on-course data set in the world. Partnerships with Microsoft, Cobra, Ping and TaylorMade have advanced the mission several times over, helping reach the masses as users improved their handicaps by an average of five strokes in 2020.
In a game where educated guessing is considered a sacred art form, Syed and the Arccos team believe every golfer – from the novice who shoots 140 to the Dustin Johnsons of the world – can optimize their game with big data. Last year the company came out with a rangefinder powered by artificial intelligence that can adjust yardages based on real-time factors like wind, temperature or humidity. Now that uphill, into-the-wind 7-iron on a 55-degree day may only travel 120 yards instead of your typical 150, insight golfers largely have been blind to for as long as the game has been played. For those familiar with the PGA Tour’s strokes-gained kingdom, the Arccos platform has collected more information from a more varied skill set. That means giving a 30-handicap a detailed roadmap of how to get to a 20-handicap. Or, coming in the near future, an analysis that will break down why you perform better with certain gear, like knowing you are 1.2 strokes better off the tee using a Titleist Pro V1x instead of a Pro V1.
“When (Ping president) John K. Solheim got the new G425 driver, he played three rounds with it and he wanted a strokes-gained comparison with accuracy, distance and everything else,” Syed said. “And we gave him a report that said he is gaining 0.8 shots per round because of the driver switch. I think eventually most golfers are going to make decisions like that.”
The Arccos story started with the question of why golf had been mostly void of analytics. One of their original investors, the late Michael Vlock, put it this way: If he was presented with a future of golf turning to big data or a future of golf continuing the way it has been played for centuries, he would bet on the big-data option every time.
Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, put it another way when meeting with Syed: If he were to rate all sports based on analytics potential, golf would be an 11 or 12 out of 10, ranking above baseball or basketball. His reason being that golf has one player at a time with a static ball, as opposed to baseball which has to account for both a pitcher and batter, or basketball which has to account for 10 moving players at all times. That singular data focus makes golf ripe for an analytics boon.
In stepped Arccos. Syed, who received his master’s degree in business administration from Yale, had worked at several startups as a software engineer but always had a passion for golf and is a plus-handicap himself. Part of the reason he went to Yale in the first place was for its golf course, a C.B. Macdonald-Seth Raynor collaboration considered among the gems of the northeast.
Amidst the start-and-stop beginnings of the company, Syed worked together with fellow classmate Clinton Grusd to develop the foundation of the business and product concepts, plans and strategies that are used by Arccos. Syed and several of his business school friends convinced Yale to pay for 10 students to go to Bandon Dunes on a golf summit and, in return, Syed helped invite some of the top donors and alumni back to Yale. Within that environment, a case study was done in the business school about the future of golf. About 60 to 70 people attended the summit, including Callaway’s senior vice president of research and development, Alan Hocknell, who had been working on the technology that would eventually form the starting point of Arccos.
However, when Chip Brewer was hired as Callaway’s chief executive officer, the then-struggling company decided to focus more on their core product. That led to Callaway contacting Syed and asking if he would like to license the technology the company had been developing. Although in reality it took Syed about nine months to convince them an agreement should be made in the summer of 2013.
During that time Syed worked on the investment side and also found new team members, reaching out to Yale’s electrical engineering school where he met Evan Park. It soon was clear that the sensor technology they licensed was only a good starting position but nowhere in the realm of what they needed it to be in order to release it to the public. The Callaway sensors didn’t have Bluetooth Low Energy and Arccos needed to generate a whole new hardware platform where all 14 sensors paired in and out on an iPhone. It took about 18 months from that point to get to market after the team had gathered countless swing data, asking anyone and everyone to hit balls for them – the company was technically based in Stamford, Connecticut, but the team traveled with the weather in the early days, caravanning across the country to demonstrations.
“Usually in my research, you come up with something novel and make it work once and then you publish it and move on,” Park said. “This was totally different to where you are creating a consumer product that needs a 99 percent success rate. And a lot of the technology we were trying to make was either in its infancy or didn’t exist … that’s not to mention that every golf swing is different and the algorithm we created had to account for that. We needed as much data as we could get.”
The early Arccos team was convinced that their approach would be a leading force in the revolution of data in golf, but one of the fears was that golf wasn’t ready at the time. The PGA Tour had only introduced strokes gained putting and, while Arccos launched their own strokes-gained platform with their first product in 2014, the golf audience was behind and didn’t fully understand what it was getting itself into.
“There was a lot of doubt around whether this will mesh with golf culture,” Syed recalled. “We had to really simplify it where we weren’t even exposing the strokes gained, we were turning it into handicaps because that’s what golfers were used to.”
Still, while the technology may have scared some, the vast majority gravitated to the concept of data making headway in the game. Tom Williams, the executive vice president of Arccos who joined early in the company’s startup, remembers being encouraged by the support throughout the process.
“What really impressed me, having been in the golf industry for a while, was just how great the reception was to the vision,” Williams said. “We were going around and meeting with various media outlets and people were getting that data was revolutionizing all of these other industries. It’s commonplace now, but six, seven years ago, you could see where it was going.
“I was blown away. This has always been a great story, we just had to back it up.”
The Arccos platform has collected more information from a more varied skill set. That means giving a 30-handicap a detailed roadmap of how to get to a 20-handicap.
Another part of the challenge throughout the company’s existence has been conforming to USGA rules. For example, Arccos can’t use a gyroscope to measure orientation and angular velocity. That meant the company has looked to pioneer novel technology – in the second generation of the product that launched in late 2016, the battery life had to be lengthened, the sensors had to be smaller (less than half the weight) and more accurate, and they had to invent an entirely new protocol that used high frequency communication instead of Bluetooth Low Energy. The first generation of the sensor also asked users to replace batteries. But once Arccos began partnering with multiple original equipment manufacturers who wanted the sensor embedded into the grip rather than attached, having users replace the batteries wasn’t going to be feasible, which helped force the innovation. That, along with Cobra being the first forward-thinking OEM to believe in what Arccos was doing, proved to be a critical turning point.
“The OEMs wanted the sensors to last as long as the clubs did,” Syed said. “Our generation-one sensors were only lasting 40 rounds. We had to figure that out. … What came out of the next generation was sensors that would last 10 years, which sounded too good to be true, but that was a big breakthrough.”
As the product has evolved to become more accurate with data capture, one of the core messages within the Arccos team has been the promise of delivering dynamic data rather than the static data of launch monitors, SAM PuttLabs or the many other information devices in the game. While those provide value, every decision a golfer makes ultimately comes back to how they play the game on the course, and that Arccos data is becoming inherent in how an OEM decides to manufacture their clubs or how a clubfitter goes about the fitting process.
“We’re the one true source of what is happening on the golf course,” Syed said. “I think what we are coming to realize is that the data we have, everyone else in the industry is going to want to unlock that to make their own products and services smarter. Golfers are going to get better and it’s going to help the industry.”
Syed is fond of saying that Arccos is only in the first inning of what they believe is possible. Given the meteoric rise in less than a decade, it would be difficult to doubt that.
Golf’s old reputation of being averse to technology is on thin ice, and the weight of on-course data is slowly sending it into the deep waters below.