SBJ/Jan. 17-23, 2011/In-Depth

PGA Tour to make call on cell phone use

Tournament executives expect the PGA Tour to approve the use of cell phones by fans on the course this season.

The tour experimented with the use of cell phones during competition last year at Greensboro during the Wyndham Championship and there were few issues. Other tests were performed at the Open and the Chevron World Challenge, the tour said. Two more tests are planned at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego later this month and the AT&T Pebble Beach on Feb. 10-13.

“We’re preparing for the policy to be in effect when everybody gets here,” said Steve Timms, director of the Shell Houston Open, which begins March 31. Timms also serves as chairman of the Tournament Advisory Council, which represents the coalition of tournaments.

“We have two more tests, but barring some unforeseen circumstances, this is where we’re headed,” Timms added. “Right now, we’re working on the operational aspects, such as how to allow the devices in without disruption to the competition.”

Cell phones have been allowed on the course during practice rounds in the past, but barred during the competition rounds Thursday through Sunday because of the chance of phone sounds disturbing play.

A new policy allowing fans to carry their cell phones throughout the tournament would be a technological game-changer for the tour. Many of the technological advances that have enhanced fan experiences in other sports haven’t been available to golf fans on the course because of the need for quiet when players are in competition.

If fans are allowed to bring their smartphones to the course, it could open up a whole new line of fan-friendly services, especially for smartphone users.
Cell phones
Fans make calls in a designated cell phone area at last year's Wyndham Championship in Greensboro.

Tournament executives have tossed around the idea of providing pairings sheets, leaderboards, parking and weather updates, news, video, concession specials and other information via a fan app.

Tournament directors also hope that the tour’s ShotLink, which keeps track of just about every stat on the course, can be incorporated. With each of those digital elements comes the potential for sponsorship, which would give the tour’s sales and marketing staff more digital options to pitch.

There’s also the potential to greatly extend the tour’s presence through social media, something that’s lacking now because fans cannot post to Twitter or Facebook live from the course.

“We’re still working on how the tournaments will work with the tour on delivering that content,” Timms said.

The broader use of cell phones might also help the tour attract a younger demographic that’s tech-savvy, said Kym Hougham, executive director of the Wells Fargo Championship. Hougham was chairman of the Tournament Advisory Council two years ago when the body first went to the tour asking for relief on the cell phone restrictions.

“You’re talking about doctors that can’t come to the tournament because they can’t be out of touch,” Hougham said. “We’ve had CEOs who couldn’t come. Mothers who have baby sitters at home, they can’t be out of touch.”

If the new policy goes through, phones will be permitted during competition as long as they are kept silent, which will allow fans to e-mail and text on the course. Tournaments also will create specific areas away from the competition where fans can talk on phones without disturbing play.

The PGA Tour remains receptive to the idea, but isn’t as committed to the policy, at least not yet.

“We’ll evaluate the pros and cons and decide after that,” said Ty Votaw, the tour’s executive vice president for communications and international affairs. “How much broader the policy gets will depend on what the overall feedback is. We’ll look at it all, but I wouldn’t make any predictions.

“We don’t want there to be any barriers to our events. And once they’re there, we want to enhance the experience for them.”

If cell phones are approved, it will come at some cost to the tournaments. Tournament directors are anticipating the need to overwhelm fans with the dos and don’ts of a new policy. Volunteers will be posted at entrances to verbally announce the new cell phone policy, while videos and signage will be posted on transportation vehicles. Other media will be used, such as tournament websites and flyers that are mailed to ticket buyers.

One of the few drawbacks to allowing phones on the course has been the use of the camera on the phone. Photos are allowed during the rounds preceding competition, but not on the days of competition.

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