By John George, Senior Reporter
Philadelphia Business Journal

March 20, 2017 — Operating a profitable golf course is becoming harder than a sinking a 45-foot put to save par.

“Private clubs are closing and memberships are down, but the cost of managing a golf course is going up,” said Walt Norley, the chairman and CEO of OnGolf in Wayne, Pa. “Golf course operators have to do something to be sustainable.”

Norley says his 3-year-old company can help.

OnGolf has created a cloud platform that consolidates all the relevant data needed for golf course management — such as weather conditions, pesticide and fertilizer usage, soil moisture and temperature, and labor management — into a single dashboard that can be viewed on mobile devices.

“We bring the ‘Moneyball’ approach, and provide data to let golf courses do more with less,” Norley said. “We make it easy for them to use metrics to drive decision-making.”

The dashboards produced by the OnGolf product let golf course superintendents do everything from improving how they allocate personnel and control overtime to using water, pesticides and fertilizer more efficiently. The software provides analytics and recommendations so golf course superintendents can reduce costs while improving turf health and playing conditions. OnGolf has partnered with IBM’s The Weather Co. for up-to-date weather content.

OnGolf recently completed what it is calling a “transformative” partnership with John Deere Golf, a division of heavy equipment supplier for the agricultural, construction, and forestry industries.

“It’s a game changer for us,” Norley said. “It gave us bigger credibility. They have the biggest brand and the most customers in the [golf] market.”

OnGolf and John Deere Golf have teamed up to market and expand a second version of the OnGolf, which will be sold as OnLink. OnLink was previewed at a national golf show in Orlando, Fla. last month. The two organizations are working on expanding the product to include new equipment and fleet management features such as inventory management, automated parts ordering and the issuing of alerts when vehicles are due for servicing. The new features are expected to be ready this summer.

Norley said representatives from John Deere golf approached his company about a partnership because they were looking to add a product that would distinguish itself from other golf course equipment manufacturers.

“John Deere Golf is excited to join forces with OnGolf,” said Dave Plaster, a company sales manager. “With OnLink, course operators will be able to create and easily maintain best practices for course management and equipment maintenance.”

Norley said the partnership with JohnDeere Golf is also expected to broaden the market for the cloud platform to include other customers of John Deere’s $3 billion turf management business, for which golf courses make up about $300 million. Other potential customers for the technology, he said, include large residential complexes and commercial properties, outdoor sports facilities, and colleges and universities.

Matt Shaffer, director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, is a fan of the product.

“We are great record-keepers,” Shaffer said of golf course superintendents. “We keep everything on spreadsheets, but it’s tough to bring all the information together in a way to use it to make decisions. When Walt [Norley] showed us [the OnGolf product] we went crazy. This is what we also wanted — and they are making it more robust with the partnership with John Deere.”

Shaffer said Merion uses the software package for labor issues, inventory management and making decision regarding course “playability” and water, chemical and fertilizer use.

“It gives you a higher level of confidence when making decisions,” he said. “We have to make a lot of them. Being a golf course superintendent is hard because you have to wear 15 hats.”

Before starting OnGolf in 2014, Norley — who attended the University of Georgia as a business management major and played quarterback for the Bulldogs — was founder and CEO of UgMO Technologies, a developer of wireless soil monitoring and soil sensor systems. Prior to that, he was president of IVG Composites, a low-cost developer and manufacturer of advanced composite fibers.

Seeing a need for better tools to help golf course superintendents, he started OnGolf as a virtual company in 2014. He raised money from family and friends and assembled a team of six employees who are scattered about the country.

“[Golf course managers] would use spreadsheets and Google docs and different software products to track data, but it wasn’t manageable,” he said. “They’d write stuff down on erasable white boards. There was no record keeping.”

Norley said the company’s target audience is multiple golf course operators.

The initial OnGolf product was launched in 2015 to a select group of golf courses on a test basis. Norley said the users liked the concept, but asked for improvements — such as having the dashboard available on mobile devices. “People who work outside like to be able to just pull out their phone [to get information],” he said.

The product is being used at about 80 golf courses around the country and has produced a documented savings of more than $1 million on water, chemical and labor spending.

The company is in discussions with IBM about adding question-answering capabilities to the product through Watson, IBM’s supercomputer that combines artificial intelligence and sophisticated analytical software.

Norley said within the next few years he believes a golf course superintendent using onLink will be able to speak into his cell phone and ask, “How much water should I put on the course today?”

The platform, with the help of Watson, will be able to instantaneously analyze a variety of factors — the weather forecast, the height of the grass, the amount of fertilizer used, the soil’s moisture and historic water usage in similar conditions — to provide an immediate response.