One Man's Plan to Goose The Game of Golf

New invention may help etiquette as well

Jim Shea, an avid recreational golfer from Bloomington, Ind., has decided he won't stand idly by and watch the sport he loves slow to a crawl. Rather than simply grouse about tortoises jamming the fairways, Shea has decided to put his background in educational technology to work.

The result is the Golf Mentor System, a multimedia kiosk that he expects to unveil at nearly 200 Florida courses during the winter months and go national with next spring. He hopes it will become a fixture in many clubhouses. "I've put a lot of my life and livelihood on the line," he says of his "grassroots" effort. "If we get these things in clubs around the country it will be a bigger legacy than a financial payoff."

The electronic mentor is designed to serve as a handy source of instructional information on such fundamentals as the pace of play, maintenance of the course, and basic courtesy to other golfers.

Golf's popularity, Shea points out, is feeding about a half million new players into the game each year. "A lot arrive with no understanding of what they're supposed to do on the course and there's nobody teaching them. There's no coherent national strategy."

A survey of golf course superintendents and professionals conducted by Golf Mentor Inc. (GMI) indicated that 70 percent believe slow play costs their courses revenue.

Most courses, however, are doing little to combat the situation. Some have turned to patrolling rangers to move golfers along, but Shea says they don't teach the sort of etiquette that makes golf more enjoyable for everybody.

Many surveyed, he adds, consider improving course behavior almost a hopeless situation. "I'd like to try something before we throw in the towel," Shea adds, "and right now not much is being tried."

There are various etiquette videos on the market, but Golf Mentor will attempt to catch players at the course right before they take their first swings. Some have suggested to Shea that in order to be effective the kiosks should be on every tee, or at least selected ones. While that may be ideal, he says it's more important right now to make a start, however modest.

But will golfers really spend time at the kiosks? Shea, GMI's president, thinks so, partly because he says instruction is handled in a friendly, nonthreatening way and partly because Golf Mentor comes loaded with an alluring array of helpful tips and information. "If you're having a tough time putting, it may be worth your time to go over to the kiosk to get some pointers," Shea says.

Users can opt for swing tips over the etiquette primer, but Shea hopes many will want to take the Fundamentals of Golf Challenge, a test on the basics of course behavior - things like how to repair ball marks and divots and rake sand traps. Ways for speeding up play are also addressed.

Shea prefers a 3-1/2 hour round of golf himself but considers that unrealistic for most people. On the other hand, a six-hour round like the one he played on a Florida vacation last year is so unacceptable that it triggered the Golf Mentor idea.

Many golfers spend five hours playing a round on crowded metropolitan courses. Shea says this is still considerably longer than the 4-to-4-1/4 hours many believe possible with only a three-minute savings per hole.

Golf Mentors shares some of the widely accepted strategies for saving time, such as limiting practice swings and positioning bags and carts near the green to eliminate unnecessary walking.

Kiosks will only cost courses a $500 installation fee due to national sponsorships that are expected to reduce the system's actual cost of $3,000 a unit.

The initial target area is Florida, and the state's numerous winter golfers. Shea says kiosks will be at many semi-private courses, which most often experience tensions between tutored and untutored players. "Studies we have done in south Florida indicate that members get really upset with daily-fee players," Shea says. "They think the fee players take too long and don't take care of the course."

Golf Mentor is providing bag tags to those who pass a test on the basics. Shea hopes many players will voluntarily take the "Challenge" to certify that they know the fundamentals. Some heavily played courses, he adds, might even require certification or issue preferred tee times to those who've passed the test.

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