Spoiling Golf at a Private Club1
“Life as depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 “could come to pass in 2024” if lawmakers don’t protect the public against artificial intelligence, Microsoft’s president has warned.2
However, some of us believe AI’s real threat to personal privacy already exists in the non-governmental, private sector.
Nothing illustrates this concern more vividly than the GPS software now being used by some managers or golf committees of member-owned private clubs to monitor and control the use of their golf courses by the very owners of these courses, i.e., the members themselves. The idea seems to be “if it works at public facilities to speed up play and control course behavior it will work for us.”
In contrast with public golf courses, private club courses have a lot of repeat play because you have to be a member, immediate family, or infrequent guest of a member.3 “Many of these Clubs have a profound respect for the tradition of the game and don’t believe screens in golf carts support tradition. Unlike resorts and destination golf courses, members at private Clubs know the golf course well and have their own distance devices.”4
Golf traditionally was a “gentlemen’s game”, i.e., most everyone, men and women, played by the rules, including obeying the golf etiquette rules. But, in recent times as golf has become “everyone’s game”, the perceived need of management or golf committees to control the pace of play, ensure players obey local rules, and even attempting to prevent injury mishaps brought on by blind spots, has resulted in imposing “big brother” control. This control is exercised by the use of large screens posted on the front of the golf car facing its occupants. Having played the same golf courses for many years I do know where the blind spots are, but the onboard GPS screen doesn’t know that.
Admittedly, at least one manufacturer gives a nod to privacy concerns. “Cart locations are only tracked in areas that you geofence to allow tracking. This provides your community members the privacy they need!”5
This sop is ostensibly offered to owners of personally owned golf cars when off the club property. For those who are not familiar with “geofencing” in the context of a golf course operation, it is a GPS-enabled electronic barrier that allows the golf course operator to send location-specific messages or instructions to a golf car once the golf car enters into a defined geographically turf sensitive area. Thus, if you drive into an area the course manager doesn’t desire you to enter, the golf car will either slow to a crawl or simply stop until you back out of the area. However, it is not always obvious where these forbidden areas may be.
It is faintly amusing to watch golfers ahead of you coming to a stop on a fairway protected by geofencing and then having to back off the fairway in reverse to get back in play. It pays to be attentive to the starter who hopefully is available to tell you which holes are “cart path” only. However, we have experienced the ignominious travails of geofencing even when attempting entry into fairways not designated as “golf cart” paths only. We have also experienced being halted when on a paved golf cart path!
An extreme case is presented by one GPS software manufacturer.
“In an extreme case, a no cart zone violation can typically result in a golf cart automatically shutting down with no movement until the marshall [sic.] arrives. This action can create a potentially negative experience at your golf club. With the iPar7 GPS, the screen flashes a red written warning indicating the no cart zone violation and provides a loud audio warning with an acknowledgment screen and continuous audio warning while in [a]restricted area. Violation time limits can be set to auto-notify Pro Shop for additional action and a message is sent to the golf course marshall [sic.] indicating which golf cart has violated the no cart zone and the location of that cart.6 [Italics supplied for emphasis].
In the old days, that is, before GPS systems replaced or supplemented the golf staff or golf committee responsible for course control, the golf staff would monitor and evaluate the pace of play and observance of golf car etiquette on the spot. The golf staff ordinarily use tact and diplomacy when urging members to “pick up play” and refrain from urging a change of behavior. For example, when the staff perceives the spacing between different groups is sufficient to not be causing a delay. Of course, one reason the golf staff is typically most courteous is they don’t want to irritate the members who pay their salaries and purchase lessons and merchandise from the golf shop or the professionals.
GPS systems, however, don’t concern themselves with tact, diplomacy, or facts. AI software doesn’t scan the course ahead of and behind the presumably unduly slow foursome but merely and rudely instructs them to pick up the pace. Notices appear on the screen such as “you are 12 minutes behind pace” despite the fact the next hole is completely vacant in front of you and there is no one waiting to hit behind you or that you have been waiting on every shot because of the slow group in front of you. The desired pace programmed into the system likely doesn’t account for weather conditions, the fact an outing consists of a crowded shot-gun tournament or play day, or whether the course is restricted to golf car paths only.
Admittedly, the prominent screens which show distance to the hole are a boon to both the player and the club. Instead of having to use my expensive range finder or fumble around looking for distance markers and walking off the difference between the marker and my ball, I pull up next to my ball, look at the screen for the distance to the hole and its location on the green, hopefully, pull the correct club and hit it in the sweet spot.
The downside to this software is some screens also purport to show the distance from the tee to where your ball hit from the tee is situated. We use the word “purport” as we have found the screen doesn’t invariably give the correct distance. Most likely, it is a programming error.
A significant benefit to the use of GPS screens is the safety component. In playing on a rainy day when lightning is detected by the club’s lightning software, the screen may display a message to get to the nearest shelter. After the danger has passed, the screen may ask which hole you wish to return to from the shelter you have sought. However, a delay in re-activating the hole details may occur until the AI system catches up with its timing. We experienced this delay recently when after hearing the “all clear” horn signal we returned to the hole we had abandoned due to an oncoming storm.
One might ask whether this redundancy in lightning warnings is useful. But we are reminded that repetition often gains attention when a single warning, e.g., a fifteen-second horn7 or siren blast, may not suffice. The optimum we surmise would be to have the GPS integrate with the lightning detection system warning employed by the club.8 Both systems should be consistent with the club’s written Emergency Action Plan (EAP), as set forth by OHSA.9 Also, attention should be focused on OSHA’s fact sheet, “Lightning Safety When Working Outdoors”.10 We recommend what is required to alert club employees of lightning danger is relevant to what is required to alert club members and their guests.
Some manufacturers even offer devices to provide GPS attachments for golf bags or golf bag trolleys for walking golfers. This would be helpful if the manufacturer’s product screen includes the location of walking golfers ahead of you when situated in a forward-looking blind location. Otherwise, showing only other golf cars in front of you as indicated by the product we are familiar with, doesn’t disclose walking golfers who may be within range of your next shot.
If playing a course frequented by both riding and walking golfers, lacking knowledge of walking players ahead of you poses false security in relying on a screen only showing other golf cars ahead. Conversely, recently we were “hit into” by some walking golfers behind us who couldn’t see us because they were hitting from a forward-looking blind tee. Without a bag tag or smart screen software program offering information about forward conditions, they would have had to climb a long hill and then return to their tee before hitting.
Also, golf cars may be parked forward of where the golfer is positioned. Thus, while the screen shows the location of the golf cars ahead, it doesn’t necessarily correlate with the location of the golfers. Often I or players with me will park the golf car next to the green and then walk back to hit their approach shot well short of the green. Thus, a player relying solely on the GPS screen and gauging the golf cars beyond reach may hit into us.
Understandably, at proprietary public courses, these GPS systems and information screens are useful tools to maximize course profit by maintaining maximum play within daylight hours and reducing the need for marshals or golf staff labor costs. However, we question their wholesale adaptation at private, member-owned golf clubs. Having a screen image appear at every location where blind shots come into play is an irritant to members who play the course often and know where the blind spots exist. Having the availability of screens showing the location of golf cars ahead may not alleviate the duty of care inherent in visually checking for safe conditions yourself. Indeed, relying on the screen to tell you it is safe to hit when you know the screen doesn’t disclose walking golfers may not protect you from personal injury liability.
If you are positioned where a blind spot exists for the hole in front of you and you know or should have known there were golfers on the same hole in front of you but didn’t bother to look for yourself, your conduct may be seen as reckless and the usual defense of assumption of risk won’t apply.11 Query: whether hitting a ball from a blind spot without visually checking to see if golfers are ahead of you in the expected area of intended flight is reckless. That is, is reliance on a GPS screen that doesn’t disclose golfers as opposed to golf cars likely may not be sufficient due diligence to avoid liability for injury to another golfer.
In conclusion, we submit careful discretion should be exercised by private club management and golf committees in the adoption and selection of a GPS, and the components necessary to accomplish the desired pace of play and turf protection. There is simply no need and presumptuous to protect members against themselves when the members are already familiar with the terrain. I didn’t join a private country club to be constantly warned after several or many years of membership to “Be careful, a blind spot obscures players in front of you.”
At least one manufacturer suggests golf car-mounted screens may be replaced with the GPS and other content sent to your smart-phone. If this technique is deployed, the obtrusiveness of a large screen constantly in front of you is eliminated.12 The same vendor’s website describes eight reasons why the club doesn’t need screens mounted on golf cars. Among the reasons are “younger and more diverse consumers will expect experiences that are enhanced by mobile phone technology (everyone has a screen in their pocket); . . . .”13
Perhaps after introducing GPS screens to the members riding in golf cars, a survey should be taken of the members inquiring what they like and dislike about the system components. If the survey discloses certain aspects of the GPS components are irritating or objectionable to a substantial number of respondents, management should consider removing them.
Alternatively, if the club has not yet deployed GPS screens on its golf cars, it could provisionally install them on a limited number of vehicles and after a month or so, send the survey to the members to obtain their reactions before installing or refrain from installing GPS screens on the remainder of the club’s golf car fleet.
 By Fred L. Somers, Jr., P.C. This blog is designed for general information only. The information presented at this site should not be construed to be formal legal advice or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. The author of this blog is not certified by any state agencies or boards of legal specialization. This blog may constitute attorney advertising in some jurisdictions.
Fred L. Somers, Jr., P.C.
Atlanta, GA 30338
 We are unaware of or have not discovered any standards prescribing the duration or type of sound recommended or mandated for lightning warnings. The club should ensure its published lightning policy states the type and duration of warning, e.g., a single 15 second horn sound for golfers to take shelter, and two shorter sounds for “all clear”.
 See, e.g., http://thorguard.com/#
 29 CFR 1910.38 (includes 29 CFR § 1910.165 Employee alarm systems) or 29 CFR 1926.35.
 Cf. https://www.overlawyered.com/2009/05/new-york-court-says-golfers-arent-required-to-yell-fore/comment-page-1/#comment-47831 citing, inter alia, Anand v. Kapoor, 2009 NY Slip Op 03110 [61 AD3d 787] Appellate Division, Second Department.
 See https://www.fairwayiq.com/ op. cit. supra