USGA Innovation SymposiumMarch 7, 2017

Yahoo! founder says golf innovation will one day let everybody swing like Dustin Johnson -- and cure the yips

Steven Gibbons

VANCOUVER—Jerry Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo! and internet entrepreneur, thinks golf is about to enter a new age of innovation, and the game’s ruling bodies will likely both benefit from it and be challenged by it.

The same technologies that are reordering the greater consumer world—things like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and ever-increasing interconnectivity—are coming to golf, Yang said Monday night as the keynote speaker at the North American Golf Innovation Symposium. The two-day event, sponsored by the USGA, along with Golf Canada and the Mexican Golf Federation, brought together technology speakers from the USGA and R&A, as well as golf industry experts and academic researchers.

Yang, who now heads his own technology startup investment firm, spoke about how golf could be seeing the same kind of technology development that is rapidly enhancing human potential.

“If you look at the categories of things that are coming across our investment activities and how people are understanding their bodies, every element of that is applicable to golf,” he said. “Measuring brain waves, measuring all the body metrics and understanding those things, I think is all very interesting.”

Yang imagines a near future where laser-rangefinder technology is incorporated in your sunglasses, where a golf simulator in your garage “will let you play St. Andrews in a way that really feels like St. Andrews.”

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But Yang thinks that sort of development is only a start. He talked about a coming “smart ball” technology that would track every shot and its launch conditions, direction and distance. He also suggested that the kind of “haptic suits” designed to help the disabled walk could “be the same suit that can make you become a super person where you can literally swing like Dustin Johnson if you wanted to.”

Of course, that poses challenges for the game’s rules-makers.

“Every question we ask about artificial intelligence and automation in our lives and whether it’s right for society, that will happen in golf,” Yang said. “That will be a core question, whether this is good for golf or bad for golf. I think the governing bodies, the people who are upholding the essence of the game will have to decide whether this helps the game. In some ways, this is easier than the job of society at large, whether an autonomous car is better or worse, whether A.I. going to be better or worse.

“These technologies enable, and the question ‘What end does it enable?’ is a good question.”

Yang said he has “plenty of golf gadget investments, some of them haven’t done very well, but there’s a new one every day” and mentioned a company that is researching tremors—“I’m convinced that they’re going to fix the yips, so we’ll have to see.”

Yang, who turns 50 next year, is an enthusiastic single-digit golfer with a passion for the game’s latest technology from drivers to simulators and said his golf goal is to shoot his age before he turns 80. But, he joked, “maybe I’ll figure out a technology to let me shoot 54.”


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