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Drones can help simulate any golf course

To produce a digitized version of Martindale Country Club in Auburn, Maine, drones conducted flyovers at three heights.

GLOBE PHOTO

To produce a digitized version of Martindale Country Club in Auburn, Maine, drones conducted flyovers at three heights.

The first time Jim Day played Martindale Country Club — the simulated version, not the real course, which he purchased in 2009 — he thought he saw something that looked oddly familiar as the round reached the signature par-3 ninth hole. Off in the distance, near the unmistakable clubhouse, was a car parked in the lot. It was Day’s car, or at least a computer-generated model that clearly resembled Day’s ride.

As Day was learning, it’s one of the surprisingly impressive aspects of the simulation experience being offered by a Maine-based company, which is using the latest technology, including drones, to digitize any course in a month’s time. How detailed and realistic, you ask? Enough where a course’s logo is visible on the tee markers, landmarks are duplicated to an exact specification, and even a parked car can be quickly ID’d.

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Members and visitors to Martindale now have two options if they’d like to play the semi-private course located in Auburn, Maine. If the weather is nice enough, they can head outside to the first tee and let ’er rip. If it’s not, they can “play” the 6,538-yard, par-71 track on one of three indoor simulators that Day purchased last year from P3, which just might be on to something big, especially in the Northeast, with its frustratingly abbreviated golf season.

“I thought it would be great for my member players to be able to play Martindale yearrround,” Day said. “People were amazed at the detail, and how accurate things were, like the rolling of the ball. This is a 1921 course, and there’s a lot of natural undulation. They’d hit their drive, and they’d say, ‘Yep, that’s where it goes.’ It looks great, and it plays great.”

The minds behind P3 — specifically principal owner Les Otten, development director Barclay Layman, and marketing/sales director Kevin Rosenberg — had a light bulb moment 18 months ago. Successful players in the golf simulator business for 10 years, Otten and his team began asking a simple question: Can this be localized, and if so, how well?

“People enjoy playing Pebble Beach in their sandals, in their bedroom. We wanted to test what would happen if somebody could play their own course,” said Otten, who was vice chairman of the Red Sox from 2002-07 after a lengthy career in the skiing industry, in which he owned Sunday River and a handful of other resorts. “There are a lot of great simulators out there, so how do you bring your price down and add something, have it be relevant at a golf course during the winter? We live in New England, where golf is pretty much shut down from Nov. 1 to May 1, where guys basically give up golf. Well, there’s no need to give it up anymore.”

For about $30,000 (which includes the price of one simulator), P3 will deliver a carbon-copy, digitized version of any golf course. From start to finish, it takes roughly four weeks. According to Layman, the company uses a four-step process: input all topographical data available into the company’s computer system; capture a rendering of the course, either with still photography and/or the use of a drone, which takes flyovers at three heights; go hole-by-hole, with designers picking out landmarks and features; and write the computer code and put it onto the company’s software.

That’s not a cheap investment, but Day said he’s already made his money back, plus some. He charges $30 per hour for simulator use (cutting Martindale members a discount), and said he earned $3,000 per week from simulator golf for a 17-week stretch during the winter. The P3 machine also includes two other revenue-generating arms: the ability to sell video advertising on the in-house simulator broadcast network (which Day, targeting local businesses, hopes will bring in $30,000 annually), and an event add-on feature that allows function guests to easily upload photos.

Add it up, and Day thinks he can take in a combined $90,000 yearly from the three simulators, all of which feature Martindale among its roster of available courses. It was the most popular course to play over the winter, accounting for more than 50 percent of the simulator rounds. In the golf business, which is searching for creative ways to make money, extending the season in colder climates is one way courses and clubs can stay afloat.

“It was a home run, in my mind,” Day said. “The golf, through tee times, tournaments, and memberships, made the payback period fairly short. I thought I could generate enough income to pay for all of this, and I did.”

Day was the first to sign up for the new P3 product (a sample is available on the company’s website, at www.playp3.com). Otten said the company has contracts with 10 other courses, ranging from Maine to Nevada, and has entered the conversation phase with 100 more.

“I want to be realistic. There are lots of things that can get in the way of a product, but based on the fact that we have 10 contracts, and it’s clear that Martindale was a big success, we think this will be something that will increase in popularity going forward,” Otten said. “We’re very cognizant of balance sheets of golf courses in the US right now, and they’re very, very tight. Even though we’ve had a great experience, we know what’s going on in the world of golf, and spending $30,000 might be a tough decision.

“The reason to be optimistic down the line is because we’re figuring out how people want to use this technology, and how it can mean revenue for the golf course. That’s the breakthrough.”

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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