Ernie Els knows a thing or two about a good business deal.
The long-time golf professional, who will compete in his 100th major championship later this month, has one of the more impressive off-the-course resumes that includes everything from selling his own wines to running a foundation that supports people with autism.
Now Els is entering the tech startup game.
This week the 47-year-old announced an investment in 18Birdies, a popular golf app that includes a GPS rangefinder, digital scorecard, round analysis tools, social leaderboards, and more.
Els, who has won 70 tournaments to date and was previously the world’s No. 1-ranked player, spoke with GeekWire about why he invested in 18Birdies and also shared some thoughts on technology in golf.
“Personally, I think it’s exciting to see how technology is enhancing the enjoyment of the game for the average golfer,” said Els, also known as ‘The Big Easy’ because of his 6-foot-3 frame and effortless swing. “I’d use 18Birdies as an example because it’s a product that I’m familiar with. Their app has a virtual caddy, GPS range finder, an easy-to-use scorecard, and technology to help improve performance, all rolled into one. They’ve also gone beyond that to inspire the mental approach to the game with tournaments, and the comradery with their side bets and social media sharing. I believe this kind of continued innovation adds to the golf experience.”
Els, a finalist for this year’s ESPN Sports Humanitarian Award, said he’s expecting golf to go through another transformation driven by technology over the next few decades, similar to what’s happened over the past 20 years or so. Here’s more from our conversation with the 4-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member.
GeekWire: What do you think about the intersection of golf and technology? How much has the tech advanced since you first started playing?
Els: “I turned professional in 1989 so you can imagine how different things were then. We now have access to technology that tells us all about our golf swings, gives us data on the shots we hit, and that allows us to get fitted very accurately with the right clubs. The clubs themselves are night and day different. Drivers are lighter, more aerodynamic, adjustable and easier to hit. The golf ball goes further. Hybrid golf clubs have replaced long irons. A lot of putters look completely different to 15-20 years ago. I see that you can even get fitted for golf shoes now based on how you swing the club, how your weight moves back and forth. That’s clever stuff! Technology such as range finders are commonplace now in the amateur game. Then you’ve got apps like the one 18Birdies has developed. I’ve been so impressed with what they’re doing that I’ve recently invested in the company.”
GeekWire: Is there such thing as too much technology?
Els: “It depends who you ask. Maybe for some of the older generation, they like to keep things pure and simple; old school, you might say. But if we’re going to get more young people playing golf, which we have to, then we need technology like this. Kids are living their lives through their phone and golf has to accept that and embrace it.”
GeekWire: What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs in regard to finding success?
Els: “I’ve spent time with a lot of very successful people over the years. And you know what? It’s a pretty simple formula. You need talent. You need to start with a good idea. You need to know your market and you have to work incredibly hard. You have to surround yourself with good people. All of this is easy to say, not so easy to achieve!”
GeekWire: What parallels do you see between golf and entrepreneurship?
Els: “There are a lot of parallels. They’re very dedicated individuals, work hard and extremely focused on their goals. You can’t live a regular 9-to-5 life. You have to make sacrifices to get to the top, no matter what field it is, sport or business.”