Emerald Dunes is one of the country's top public golf courses. It took high-tech management and marketing systems to get it there

You've just boomed a 250-yard drive down the right center of the fairway on number 9, nicknamed the Green Monster, the prime handicap hole at Emerald Dunes. A birdie 3 would give you a 41 for the front nine and a shot at breaking 80 on this top-ranked, Tom Fazio­designed course. Alas, the hole plays 420 yards from the blue tees, and there's water all down the right side. Time for a bit of heavenly help.

You park your golf cart beside your ball, but instead of stepping off seven paces forward to the 150-yard marker, mentally computing your distance (to the center of the green) as 170 yards, and reaching for your 5-iron, as you would at other courses, you consult your electronic caddie. Suspended from the roof of your cart is a small color screen linked to satellites orbiting 11,800 miles overhead. A quick glance at a diagram of the Green Monster shows not only how far you've driven but how far to the flagstick: 153 yards. Push a button, and you superimpose a close-up view of the putting surface, which informs you that the pin is on the right front, where the green slopes back to front. You select a 7-iron and swing confidently. Your ball lands just in front of the green and rolls to within three feet of the cup. Hello, birdie putt.

What sounds like a golfer's wild fantasy is everyday reality at six-year-old Emerald Dunes, in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the satellite-aided 7-iron, courtesy of a product called Prolink (from Leading Edge Technologies Inc.), is just one of many high-tech advantages that are par for the course. Emerald Dunes is one of the most technologically advanced links in the country. "Many golfers tell us they've played their career round here," says president Ray Finch, flashing the smile of a 5-handicap golfer.

Finch has good reason to be upbeat. Golf magazines regularly rank Emerald Dunes among the nation's top public golf courses--precisely the Charleston, S.C., native's goal when he flew to Palm Beach in the late 1980s to scout sites for a high-end course that would offer a top-quality golf experience from bag drop to the 19th hole. And an essential part of what makes Emerald Dunes a jewel of a place to play a round is Finch's decisive measures in making the course a showcase of technology-driven management and marketing. The duffer and the scratch player alike can appreciate the features and conveniences that help Emerald Dunes outshine your average links: a state-of-the-art automated reservation system that guarantees prompt bookings and precise tee times, a computer tracking system that helps keep play well paced, a space-age electronic caddie in every golf cart. But it takes an entrepreneur with an eye for the cutting edge to savor the beauty of the computer-driven realm Finch commands behind the scenes, a system that allows him to deliver premium satisfaction to his customers and corporate clients while at the same time giving him greater control over his operations and expenses.

From the start it was Finch's vision to create a world-class golf course in West Palm Beach that would draw the bulk of its business from nearby luxury hotels like the Breakers; the Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach; and the Four Seasons Resort, Palm Beach. Naturally that meant matching the exemplary service of those four-star resorts so that the hotels would promote the course when booking their corporate packages. Retaining the highly regarded Tom Fazio to design Emerald Dunes earned Finch some necessary cachet, and the course's glitz factor shot up notably with the quarter-million dollars more that went into the creative earth moving and landscaping that fashioned its signature Superdune, a 50-foot-high tee complete with roaring waterfalls. Finch readily admits, however, that his best investments have been in high tech.

"Ray is fearless," says Neil Haynie, president of Computer Golf Software Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla. "He's a good client, a laboratory. The excellence of his golf course is proof he's been right on."

Not that Haynie is an impartial observer. It was to his company that Ray Finch turned early on, in search of an automated system that would help him cut costs and run a leaner operation. Computer Golf Software had just the ticket: a soup-to-nuts software package of its own design that enables golf-course managers to generate daily revenue reports, compile point-of-sale data, streamline billing and accounting procedures, and monitor inventory. The package has a comprehensive event-management component, and it also offers regular players the benefits and convenience of an all-hours automated reservation system called Teletee. The tab? Finch says he spent about $75,000 on his comprehensive Computer Golf system, though Haynie points out that Emerald Dunes elected to purchase more hardware than most other courses. Installation costs for similar systems, Haynie says, usually break down to $25,000 for software, another $25,000 for hardware and wiring, and $10,000 for Teletee. Ongoing fees run about 10% of the software price a year and include two hours of telephone tech support monthly and an annual system update.

Teletee began paying dividends on that investment right away for Finch, who recalls that on his first visit to the West Palm Beach area he couldn't find a single public course that took reservations. "You had to stand in line, put your ball in a hopper, and wait for it to come down," he says. At Emerald Dunes there are no lines and no low-tech contraptions. Instead, golfers armed with a password can dial the course around the clock from a Touch-Tone phone and reserve tee times up to six days in advance. Acknowledging all confirmed requests is the sweet whooshing sound of a monster tee shot. (Requests for tee times also can be made by E-mail.)

It's a far cry from the scenario at most public links, where you still find pro-shop attendants penciling in foursomes in a daily ledger next to the cash register. And with its networked computers, Emerald Dunes can also respond more efficiently and resourcefully to the inevitable scheduling snafus that can be the bane of an otherwise well managed course. Club manager Paul Makris, who's in charge of group outings, can field a request, find the date in question, check on availability, and reserve a block of time for 144 golfers two or three years down the road in a matter of seconds, without leaving his desk. While still on the phone, be it with a hotel recreation director or a corporate reservations agent with a major travel agency, he can enter the necessary contract information. "Within five minutes of hanging up, the contract is printed and in the fax machine," he says.

That kind of prompt, reliable service produces peace of mind for the fast-lane corporate clientele that books outings at Emerald Dunes, thus helping to solidify a key segment of its business. Of the 48,000 rounds that will be played at Finch's course this year, groups will account for about 40%. Says Marcia Mollere, director of sales and marketing for the Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, "Emerald Dunes is able to give you a higher level of service because of its systems." The event-management software easily accommodates last-minute additions or subtractions of foursomes and changes in billing procedures (for instance, when a CEO decides to pick up the tab for a beverage cart and 19th-hole libations). It even generates scorecards and follow-up thank-you letters to tournament groups and organizers. Backed by that kind of electronic support, Makris manages all events virtually on his own.

"Technology has taken away much of the grunt work, enabling us to interact more with our guests," says Finch, who's quick to emphasize that running a golf course is a people business. He also credits technology with "helping us act instead of react. In our staff meetings we're not putting out fires, we're thinking about the future and where we need to be with our marketing."

Case in point: In June Finch made a last-minute decision to run newspaper ads and local TV spots during the U.S. Open Golf Tournament to promote special off-season summer rates ($55 on weekends, $45 on weekdays, down from $75 and $65). He'd noticed a softening of business while studying his computer-generated daily revenue reports--a must-have feature, he'd told Neil Haynie during their initial negotiations. If, like most operators, Finch had waited to read a monthly report, he'd have missed the U.S. Open TV audience and gotten a later start on his more aggressive pricing. It was an example of just-in-time marketing that boosted rounds by 28% the following week.

Tee times are like airline seats--you fill 'em or lose 'em. "Our inventory is actually little chunks of time," says Finch, explaining that he can easily lose up to 10% of that inventory by failing to note a busy day in need of double-teeing, that is, starting foursomes off holes 1 and 10 simultaneously for two hours. "Our Computer Golf software tells me how best to utilize our time."

Even so, it's not a panacea. Until recently, Finch, like nearly every course operator in the United States, had his own Green Monster to tame: slow play, which backed up foursomes like rush-hour traffic. Five-hour rounds of golf dampened not only customer enthusiasm but profits as well, taking oversized bites out of Emerald Dunes' perishable "inventory." So when Leading Edge Technologies, of Chandler, Ariz., knocked on his door to demonstrate its satellite-guided Prolink system, the first words out of Finch's mouth were, "Where have you guys been?" He'd been waiting for one of a dozen companies to successfully adapt the military's global positioning system (GPS) of earth-orbiting satellites to tracking golf carts on fairways. Here at last, Finch figured, was the missing piece in his business puzzle.

So far he seems to have figured right. The beauty of this particular commercialization of satellite technology is that it offers a win-win situation. Thanks to its appealing stroke-saving features, golfers hardly notice the system's Big Brother­like surveillance: a computer screen in the pro shop that allows the head pro to monitor every color-coded cart on a map of the course. White indicates a cart that's ahead of the target time (four hours and 12 minutes); yellow shows a cart slightly behind schedule; red indicates slow play. Should a foursome be holding up others behind them, software built into the system lets the pro shop send a canned message: "Please maintain pace with your Prolink timer." A staffer in the shop can also type in a special message. Golfers receiving a message either press a button acknowledging it or stare at a blank, disabled screen. Acknowledge they do--and generally pick up the pace. For most players the electronic nudge is preferable to getting flagged down by the dreaded course ranger, which is usually about as pleasant as being pulled over by the highway patrol.

Play also quickens because golfers no longer have to pace off distances from 150- or 200-yard markers. Since its debut at Emerald Dunes last December, Prolink has helped trim 20 minutes off the average round, which now lasts just over four hours. And time is money. Many days, that ripple-through-the-course saving helps Emerald Dunes schedule a couple more tee times. At more than $500 a foursome in season, the money adds up quickly. Another win-win benefit: even on busy days in season, the system often helps squeeze in walk-ons, golfers who drive up to the bag drop without reservations. A year ago they invariably would have been told, "Sorry, guys." Now, if a quick glance at the pro-shop computer screen reveals a one-hole gap on the course, they're likely to hear, "Do you mind starting on number 5?" In most cases the group is positively grateful. "We've got four people who think we've done something special for them," says Finch. "And we didn't have to say no to $750" (the amount many foursomes spend on greens fees, food, and pro-shop items).

Even more important, stresses Finch, "we no longer have those disaster days. We can now react quicker, so that maybe only a single group is temporarily inconvenienced. At one time, six holes might have been held up before we realized we had a problem." And that was with an aggressive ranger out monitoring play. Since installing Prolink, Finch has reduced the hours of three rangers--saving a portion of their salaries. Moreover, with the system providing hole-by-hole diagrams as well as tips on how best to play each hole, Emerald Dunes no longer has to print low-tech booklets that do the same. Annual savings: $30,000.

Already Prolink just about pays its way. Finch's annual Prolink lease comes to less than $2 per cart per round, $90,000 for 48,000 rounds. Soon the system should be spinning off profits. Because Finch was confident that Prolink's glitzy golfer-friendly features were amenities he could mark up, he's boosted in-season greens fees to $135. And just around the corner lies the prospect of advertising revenues. Ads for local businesses and golf products currently appear on the cart screens between holes. Finch collects about $13 a day per advertiser. "This is very targeted, rifle-shot demographics--people paying $100-plus for greens fees. And your ad is delivered in a positive environment," Finch says. He adds that as soon as Leading Edge Technologies reaches critical mass with its installed systems, it will begin selling national advertising, guaranteeing something on the order of 2 million "impressions" a year to advertisers. Profits from the ad sales will be split with Leading Edge's partner courses.

Still brainstorming, Finch anticipates additional wide-ranging benefits from his satellite-aided cart system that could do wonders for his bottom line. For example, he might try to negotiate better terms with his cart-leasing company by demonstrating that Prolink's tighter monitoring of vehicle usage distributes rounds--and wear and tear--more equally through his 80-cart fleet, protecting the fleet's resale value. Or he might push for lower insurance rates, now that Prolink lets him flash an all-carts warning message when lightning poses a threat.

Above all, the new GPS-based technology helps satisfy Finch's long-standing and heretofore unrequited craving for control. "Our inventory is spread out over 250 acres. You basically give a player a cart and say, 'See you in four to five hours.' Now we can make intelligent decisions about a person's playing status and react in a timely fashion," he stresses. "That's a control element that's never been available to this industry before."

A typical day at the course finds Finch keeping a close eye on the screen of a laptop while working at his desk. The screen displays the same cart-tracking map as the pro shop's computers, allowing him at any given moment to get a snapshot of how his course is playing and being managed. That capability to look in from afar and keep tabs behind the scenes is the key to his future plans. Emerald Dunes, he realizes, is fast reaching its maximum profit levels. Gross revenues have risen steadily, from $1.7 million in 1990 to projected revenues of $4.8 million this year. The course's revenues should soon reach $6 million to $7 million--more than five times the annual receipts of the typical family-owned public course--and should then level off. Those estimates are based on an ultimate target of scheduling approximately 50,000 rounds a year, which is about as many as Finch thinks he can book without putting undue strain on the course and creating logjams.

To continue to grow beyond that point, Finch will have to add more courses. Initial plans call for a handful of courses geographically close enough to share fixed overhead costs as well as expensive caretaking equipment--a $30,000 aerator, for example. Eventually, who knows? Golf is one of the few remaining industries still dominated by mom-and-pop operations, and Finch thinks it's a business ripe for consolidation. He believes that with a helping hand from Prolink, there's no reason he can't operate a string of courses from a distance. Not long ago he proved it, peeking in on Emerald Dunes from some 35,000 feet above Atlanta, using the back-of-the-airplane-seat telephone connection for his laptop modem.

High technology, indeed.

John Grossmann is editor and publisher of NewsReach, a monthly small-business newsletter, based in Jamison, Pa.