The best moments of a golf trip are rarely captured on film. Instead of striped drives, nervy iron shots that just clear a water hazard, and ‘how bout in’ caliber chip-ins, recreational players’ highlight reels typically consist of posed photos of grinning groups huddled by pin flags or bunched up in a tee box clutching clubs. If there is any video evidence of a long weekend of fairway hopping and 19th round recapping, it comes in the form of shaky swing snippets, boomerangs and maybe the odd panorama of a particularly scenic vista.
Kevin Imes, an Austin, Texas based serial entrepreneur has made a habit of retooling his golf game between startups. On an extended break after successfully exiting Allure Energy, a pioneering smart thermostat company that debuted well before IOT was a buzzy acronym, he fixated on his putting stroke while pondering his next big idea.
“You do a startup, you take time off, you play golf. I had three different startups. I know the cycle and I appreciate the time off, dusting off the clubs and getting to know a new swing which is about what you get every time you put the clubs down for awhile,” Imes explains.
He had a good friend turning 50 and to ring in the major milestone, they went on a buddy trip to Scotland to get their fill of the home of golf. The highlight of the linksland traipsing holiday was the final round, played on the hallowed hills and hollows of the Old Course at St. Andrews, host of 30 Open Championships and counting.
While navigating the golf mecca’s trademark double-greens and braving the famous pot bunkers, he felt a tinge of regret that there was no real record of the extraordinary golf experience they were having beyond the odd selfie.
“There was no way for us to capture this moment. How do we not have a drone following us around or something that could memorialize this epic moment that is happening. I came back from there inspired to create a product that might fit into the golf industry, capture these epic moments and preserve them for everyone to share,” Imes says.
The initial prototype involved UAVs following golfers from their arrival in the tee box of a course’s signature par 3 till they putted out on the green. It didn’t take much testing to realize that an airborne system was a nonstarter. The short battery life, the annoying buzzing noise they emanate, coupled with the occasional hawk-on-drone attack caused a quick pivot to a fixed camera solution.
After demoing several cameras they partnered with Bosch, opting to use a military grade 4k model built to withstand the elements and run smoothly in rugged environments. The same cams are used on air craft carriers and aboard Air Force One.
“It’s bullet proof, hurricane proof and has a windshield wiper on it,” Imes explains. So, the cams, placed alongside the tee box and behind the green, should easily hold up to taking a hit from an incoming Pro V1.
From a user perspective, golfers keen on receiving a cinematic souvenir of a Reelgolf powered hole scan a QR code, input their mobile number and the autonomous cameras will swing into action. Minutes later the system texts a link to a shareable video that begins with a pre-filmed hole flyover sequence packaged with footage of the golfer playing the hole. The player’s name and distance to the pin are put on chyrons as they prepare to tee off. A shot tracer stripe then tracks ball flight and a green-side camera shows the incoming sphere touch down to emulate the feel of a tour broadcast.
An early test run at the bonus-hole at Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, Missouri yielded a fortunate stroke of serendipity. While Reelgolf’s autonomous system rolled, a pair of hole-in-ones dropped in the span of minutes. Golf Digest pegged the odds of the nearly back-to-back dimpled dunks at 17 million to 1.
Video of the jubilant golfers going bonkers when their aces tumble in the cup proved to be a persuasive marketing tool in convincing courses to consider the value proposition offered by Reelgolf. The equipment is leased to clubs for between $3,000 to $5,000 per month. They view the amenity as a way to create more memorable experiences while also providing opportunities for revenue generation.
“Courses really like it for events. When they are doing a course takeover for Ford or Tito’s or anybody, they see this as a differentiator so they can get that book of business and bring them back. With our system we private label everything so it could be a Tito’s video that is created or whatever they want it to be,” Imes explains.
To date Reelgolf has solely been offered at pop-up events but they will be announcing their first permanent installations at courses both domestically and abroad within the next few months. At their current pace of customer acquisition, they project they’ll be live in ten golf clubs by the end of the year.
A recently issued patent, the fifth Reelgolf has garnered in the realm of autonomous videography, uses AI to create a leaderboard and determine the winner of a closest to the pin contest. This not only negates the need for players to check their distance with measuring tape and put their name on a whiteboard but more importantly creates an opportunity for courses to seamlessly hold daily contests, a potential revenue driver with participants ponying up to compete.
While golf is the focal point for the next couple years as they scale up installations, Reelgolf envisions expanding into other recreational pursuits in the future. Video mementos for recreational skiers carving powder and snowboarders attempting big air tricks at resorts is a new vertical on their radar. Reelsnow has a nice ring to it for that division.