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Atlanta - Thousands of U.S. golfers are carrying a new item in their pockets when they head to the first tee this season: a mini GPS tracker.
Along with a scorecard, pencil and tees, a lipstick-sized tracking unit will be stuffed into the pockets of shorts and pants as the U.S. Golf Association embarks on a three-month project to track the exact movements and playing habits of golfers to prod them to play faster.
The goal, the USGA says, is to come up with data to address the perception that the sport's four-hour, 22-minute average round is too big a time commitment. The data gathered might one day lead to course owners widening fairways or changing start times to speed things up.
Golf is wrestling with an exodus from the sport. About 400,000 players quit golfing last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. While almost 260,000 women took up golf, some 650,000 men gave it up.
The $125,000 data-gathering program is being funded by Chevron. The Far Hills, New Jersey-based USGA will use eight interns from its P.J. Boatwright Jr. internship program to collect data during a wide variety of events at 30 to 40 U.S. courses this summer. In total, about 6,500 rounds will be tracked at each course between mid-May and August, giving the group about 26,000 rounds of data to analyze.
Engineers at USGA headquarters, led by technical Director Matt Pringle, will then analyze the player-tracking data as a way to better understand golfers' behaviors, course set-up and design features and the effect they have on the pace of play.
A National Golf Foundation survey in 2012 showed that 58 percent of avid golfers said 4 hours and 30 minutes is "too long." That's eight minutes longer than the average time the group found for a round on public U.S. courses.