Successful Golf Academy, David LeadBetter, Drives Home Why Harnessing Complex Business Data is Par for the Course
Carl: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise Podcast, where our guests share how they stay connected in their business lives. I'm your host, Carl Lewis from Vision33, and my guest today is Ben Riches with the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. Welcome to the podcast, Ben. Please tell us a little bit about yourself, especially about the David Leadbetter Academy and your role there.
Ben: Thank you, Carl, for inviting me to be a guest. The Leadbetter business has been around for nearly 40 years. We're a golf instruction/education company; we teach golf instructors how to teach golf and golfers how to improve. If any of your listeners are like the average golfer, they know this is the most ridiculously difficult sport that frustrates everyone who plays it, even the top players. It’s a great industry to be in because nobody ever perfects the game, which keeps us in business.
David was originally from the UK (like me) but established his name in the 80s and 90s as the premier golf coach to the top tour players and had a huge amount of success with golfers in that era, including Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, and Nick Price – that’s why David set up the business.
Carl: What kind of background do you bring to David Leadbetter Academy?
Ben: My background is in sports marketing and sponsorship consulting, working in London and New York for several clients who wanted to use sports to promote their brands. I’ve also worked a lot in the Olympics, World Cups, and the NFL. I joined David five years ago to help him restructure the company and transition the business from the family-owned and operated business it’s been for 30 or 40 years into a commercially structured company that will last another 40 years. We successfully did that last year, including bringing on an investor from Korea, a company called GOLFZON, that’s now the majority shareholder and owner of the Leadbetter Golf Academy business.
Carl: I love golf. My children get tired of me watching golf on television because I like it so much. But things have changed a lot in that sport and continue to change. Technology is one thing that’s changed the game in the last 20 to 25 years. What is Leadbetter Academy, and golf in general, doing with things like artificial intelligence and robotics? How does golf look at that technology and what are you guys doing with it?
Ben: It's an incredible sport for technology. There's a huge investment and interest in understanding more about the golf swing, and that's the crux of it. When David started in the 80s, it was just him and his eyes. Fortunately, David has a gift for understanding the movements and patterns required in a golf swing. Fast forward to now, when we teach golf at 40 locations in 15 countries – obviously it’s not just David teaching. He found a system and philosophy for teaching the game that others find easy to deliver for their own instruction. So, the initial automation was ensuring that the philosophy and teaching system was uniform across all our academies. We have over 100 coaches teaching under the Leadbetter name right now.
Consistency was the first challenge. How do you make sure that coaches the world over are delivering the same coaching? Originally, we used workbooks, training seminars, and apprenticeships that were geared at making sure coaches could deliver David's style of teaching. Technology changed how we do things. Before video conferences and data sharing, you had to be in front of your students to coach them. Now, we have students all over the world sending videos and communicating with their coaches wherever they are. It's made golf instruction simpler because you can communicate with your students more clearly and efficiently.
But it brings challenges, too. Making sure you understand what the golfer is doing just from looking at a video, and not seeing a golfer in real time to understand the patterns and movement, brings other gaps. We can share videos. We can communicate with students around the world. But we can't see what they're doing, so a lot of the work now is about analyzing the swing and collecting data in terms of how the body, the club, and the ball move to fully analyze what's going on with a golfer.
Telling you the setup at a typical Leadbetter Academy will give you an idea of our coaches’ technology. We have launch monitors, which essentially are radar, like rocket launch technology, that analyze a huge number of points within the golf swing. The company is TrackMan, and their radar tracker will pick up every point of the ball and club, from the point of address to impact and where the ball is going so we can see cause and effect. We can actually see inside the body to understand what it's doing.
We have a force measurement so we can see how much force a golfer is imparting into the ground. It’s a contributing factor to how they play the game and what they should be doing, so there's a force dynamic we look at. We have sensors and data we can put onto the body that detect body movements and indicate how the muscles are working. We do brain mappings and can understand which part of the brain is triggering and firing as a golfer is playing. We even have a cognitive scientist who helps us understand thought patterns within the golf swing.
There's a lot of data, and the danger is that it becomes too complicated and confusing for the golfer – more information isn’t always better. The instructor’s job is to take the data and create a practice program that allows our golfers to think of nothing but the important things as they play.
This is challenging for the golf coach because although they have all this data at their fingertips, it’s how they deliver it to their students that’s the most important thing. We work with our coaches to make sure they understand that the art of being a teacher isn’t about how much you know, it's about how you communicate. I think our ability to understand that is the difference between us and our competitors.
Carl: So you track the data performance of a golfer over time, pre-instruction and post-instruction, to see if they made improvements against standards/goals.
Ben: There are two important things. First, we take a data set from when a golfer's playing at their best, which surprises people; they think, “I need instruction when I'm playing badly,” but we take a full set of data on what they're doing when they're performing at that peak. Say it’s a tour player who won a tournament. We'll get them in the next day and collect the data, which creates a benchmark, or a blueprint. If they're ever off their game a little bit, we go back to that point.
When you were playing your best, these are the positions you used, here’s how your body was working, here’s how you held the club, etc. That’s essential because that becomes the holy grail. No two golf swings are identical – every golfer swings differently, so it has to be a blueprint specific to a golfer or it won’t work for them.
The second part is that not all golfers learn the same way. Some need to see data and evidence to comprehend what they need to do. For golfers like that, it's critical that we show them how to improve, not just explain it. With technology, we can say, “Here's a bad swing, here's a good swing, and here’s the difference.” Other golfers hate that. They don't want to see their swing, and they don't want to confuse anything. It's based on feel for them, so they want to ignore the data, ignore the videos, feel what they're doing, and see it that way. It's very individual.
But you can't stop technology in the progression of this data; we’ll only get more in the coming years. The key is managing that responsibly to make it easy for the golfer to learn.
Carl: You mentioned you have several projects in process now. What's your favorite that’s going to have the most impact?
Ben: I'll give you two because we have a lot going on and both are my favorite – and both are equally important. First, we're working with a group called Alphawave; they’ve developed a radar system to track golf balls on a driving range. Right now, most of the technology for ball tracking comes from a piece of hardware you put behind the golfer. The new one will be installed at our academy in Orlando; essentially, it’s a radar grid that will track every single ball hit at our golf academy and golf facilities from any point.
That’s removed the need for hardware, and Alphawave offers seamless data collection. As a golfer, or a student, they can come to our academy. They lock their coordinates where they're hitting from, and then the Alphawave system tracks every ball they hit and gives them a report of what their practice session has been from the ball data.
We can do two things with that. One, we can set practice programs for our golfers so we can tell them, using the Alphawave system, “We want you to practice these shots.” Before this technology, we relied on anecdotal data or a coach standing next to the student and watching them. Now we have a readout at the end of their session to tell us how close to the practice program we set them. You can measure and see progression. It’s an exciting project.
There's no reason you couldn't put that technology that into golf courses. In the future, you’ll be able to play golf at any course, and every shot you hit will be tracked, measured, and then reported to you. If you're a good golfer, that might be less important, but it could help you learn how many balls you've hit into the water and how many bunkers you've been into. Any data can help you improve.
The second project is with our new parent company GOLFZON, the Korean firm that collects a ton of data every day. Their core business is in simulator golf – basically, indoor screen golf. They collect every swing of every golfer that plays on their simulators; in an average year, they collect data from 55 million rounds of golf. Assuming an average round is 90 shots, they collect all 90 shots for 55 million rounds of golf. They capture a video of the swing as well as the ball and club data.
We can now get into big data analytics and understand the patterns we see as instructors that golfers are typically doing. And then create programs to help these golfers improve. It's becoming more obvious that we can use computer learning and AI to do some of the analytics and coaching for us. So, if the computer can tell you your faults, we can program a set framework of what a golf swing should look like and create a practice program to say, “Here's how to improve the swing deficiencies.” Then we'll track it, measure it, and make you a better golfer.
That's a new way of learning the game that removes the risk of the golfer not knowing what's going on in their game. As coaches, it makes our jobs more efficient because we can get to the root of their problem more quickly – why they have a problem in their golf swing, or a swing deficiency – and then create a practice program that's measured, monitored, and challenges them to get better.
Carl: That's remarkable. I’m trying to remember when I first learned to hit a draw. How difficult it was to go to a range, try to practice, try to learn, and you could hit 100 balls trying to hit a draw, and maybe you'd hit one or two good ones. But your eye can't necessarily pick out – did it move in the direction I wanted it to? Whereas if, in the system you're describing, if you can pick up the flight of the ball that well, you could come up with things like, “Today I succeeded 25% of the time in moving the ball left to right, or right to left, or whatever my goal was.” Then you can look at the actual effect and the angle of the club, etc.
Ben: I think that's it. To draw a ball, there are things you have to do as a golfer that comes down to physics. Essentially, it's the position of your body in relation to the club, which affects the spin on the ball. If you can measure that and show it to a golfer so it doesn't confuse them, you can help them improve their game. Right now, most of the available technology just confuses golfers because it's only numbers that don’t apply to their golf swing. But if you can put it in layman's terms and coach a golfer and teach them what to do, you're onto something.
I think that's what we're excited about doing: creating habits and a new way of training, a new way of practicing golf. If we have a goal as an organization, it’s to eradicate the wasted shot. And, every single day around the world, golfers with no real clue on how to practice go to a driving range, grab a bucket of balls, hit them aimlessly with no real plan, and get worse. Golfers come to us and say, "I hadn't really played for six months, but I teed it up and played brilliantly." And it's usually because they're not practicing bad habits – they're more naturally attuned to what they need to do, and they use their athleticism to get the ball going straight.
It’s when you think about this game that it goes wrong. I think that's our challenge – to stop people thinking and give them the guidelines. I like to say that if you had two golfers, one with a bucket of balls and no plan and they hit a hundred balls, essentially, they would get worse. You take the second golfer, stand them next to that first one on the range with a bucket of balls. But this time, David Leadbetter's standing next to them telling them what to do and how to do it, and that second golfer will get better. That's what we want to do – clone David, or make David's knowledge accessible to golfers the world over using technology.
Carl: That’s exciting. You’re on the cutting edge with some of that, which is a fabulous and I've been there when David's been instructing, even in a group; he’s marvelous and brings things down to such simple ways that it makes it easy for any golfer to follow his advice. I also liked when you're looking at thousands of golfers, over thousands of rounds, and coming up with what’s typically wrong with this part of the average golfer's game. Let's create a lesson or lessons that address that problem. It’s a much more focused way of learning than grabbing a bucket of balls and just whacking them.
Ben: Yes. Getting people to practice is the first challenge. People don't have enough time, maybe they're not fortunate enough to live near a golf course, and for certain places, like Asia, the golf industry is booming but there isn't a huge amount of land for practicing. Typically, when they get to practice, it might be a driving range or an indoor facility. And for us to make it easier for them to understand what's going on is a big opportunity. Golf's a wonderful sport. It lasts a lifetime. There are very few sports you can play from three to 93, and every generation can play together. There are so many great aspects to golf; we want people to play more.
The biggest challenge is that it's a difficult and frustrating sport, so if you're playing badly, you're less likely to play. Whereas we think if we can help golfers play a little bit better and understand their swing, they'll get more pleasure out of it and they'll keep playing and they'll pass it on to the next generation. That's our goal as a business. And you're right, Carl, David has a gift of communicating things very simply. And what he knows about the golf swing probably eclipses anyone else's collective knowledge. But he doesn't just bust out and fill you with information you don't need; he gives the information clearly and concisely, which I think is a gift.
Carl: I feel that sometimes people who teach golf or other sports get bored with the basics and look for fancier ways to do things. When I've been around David, he's still very excited about the basics and his way of approaching them is the gift he brings. When you’re putting these things in place, have you had surprises? Have there been challenges?
Ben: There's always resistance to change, and what we're trying to do is change the dynamic of teaching golf. David said he faced the same challenges when he started. He's a pioneer, and pioneers typically go in a direction maybe others haven't thought of. So yes, there's always pushback and resistance to doing things a little differently. That comes with the territory. We're quite happy to be challenged and hear from the industry about our teaching philosophies. We're very confident in what we know.
There are things that, if every golfer did them at the start of their swing and through the basics of the swing, half the problems (maybe more than half) wouldn't be there. It's that simplicity that’s so important. And, that's probably our biggest challenge is not overcomplicating things and maybe not getting carried away with the huge amount of new technology that's coming into golf, and try to make sure that we're only using technology if it enhances us as teachers, and not just using technology for the sake of it. I think that's the challenge that maybe we have to keep looking at. We teach all over the world, and it's easy to get a little carried away with what you're doing.
All we're trying to do is to help golfers hit the ball a little bit more consistently, a little bit straighter, and get the ball into the hole. That's not rocket science. Although, sometimes you end up with rocket scientists working on that task; it's a fine line we tread between pushing the boundaries of what could be done and bringing in things like AI and radar technology to analyze the golf game without taking the fun out of it. I think that's the key. People have to keep enjoying this game or they won’t keep playing.
Carl: It's still a great place to take a walk.
Ben: As long as the golf doesn't ruin your walk.
Carl: That's right. Just looking outside my window and it's a sunny day, and I live three miles from a golf course, it beckons me occasionally.
Ben: I'm sure.
Carl: Well, Ben, I appreciate spending time with you today. I know the golfers in my audience will be very intrigued by what you shared, and I hope to visit the academy again soon. I’ll see if these new things are in place or at least on their way. And maybe once they get working, we can have you back and you can tell us how it all worked out.
Ben: I’d love to do that. We'll use you as a guinea pig!
Carl: That would be a challenge for the machine.
Ben: The Carl swing. We'll have ‘Carl’ as default.
Carl: Yeah – the athletic 65-year-old I am! Everybody would want to model after it.
Ben: There you go. And thank you, Carl, for the support. Vision33 has been our partner over the years, and we couldn’t have transitioned from a small, family-owned business to being part of a big company like GOLFZON without getting our systems in place. You guys installed Business One for us, and then the Square integration; those were key factors in us as an organization transitioning to bring in an investor like GOLFZON to look at our company seriously. It doesn't matter what you're doing out on the tee, teaching golf – if the business isn't efficient and effective, we have no company. So, a big thank you for all of your support.
Carl: It's been our privilege, and we look forward to that continuing for a long time. Anyway, it's easy to make these podcasts too long, but I like to keep them short and to the point and say to everyone: “Do us all a favor, especially yourself, and stay connected.”