Devised in Galway – Game Golf has made its way to the belt of President Obama

The evolution of John McGuire’s shot tracking system for golfers is well remembered by its inventor

President Barack Obama with his Game Golf aid at Vineyard Golf Club. Photograph: AP Photo/Steven Senne

President Barack Obama with his Game Golf aid at Vineyard Golf Club. Photograph: AP Photo/Steven Senne

 

Game Golf’s evolution from a wall of post- it notes in Galway to a device President Obama wears on his belt has taken John McGuire on an extraordinary journey. He has spent more than six years developing the world’s first automatic shot tracking system for golfers, a technology that breaks down every detail of a player’s game in order to streamline their performance.

But just asking McGuire about the obstacles encountered along the way produces a 90-minute feat of storytelling. Hunched forward on a leather couch in the executive lounge of a Ballsbridge hotel, the 39-year-old recalls the details with intense focus: every email his career hinged upon, every strain he put his marriage under, every reality check he had to face up to.

“If you’ve two kids, a wife and no money, then you have no choice but to succeed,” he says in a near whisper. “If this hadn’t worked out, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Long before McGuire conceived of Game Golf, technology and performance were his two passions. While studying computer science at the University of Limerick, he would spend his spare time teaching athletes mental techniques to improve self-belief and motivation.

That continued through a 10-year career as a software engineer at Nortel in Galway. As part of a consultancy McGuire set up, he’d practice hypnotherapy and psychotherapy with athletes from 5am to 8.30am, then go to Nortel, then return to the clinic until 11pm.

“When things slowed down in Nortel, when some lad in the corner was playing online poker, I consumed books on every topic: influence, motivation, technology platforms. I was just feeding this ambition with as much knowledge as I could. I was getting ready to work on an idea, even if I didn’t know it at the time.”

To finesse that idea, McGuire visited centres for sporting excellence around the world and met figures such as Roy Keane, Keith Wood and Clive Woodward. Something he always asked was: if you had a magic wand, what would you like to see?

“That question got me all their years of experience,” he says. “What surfaced was that if you could collect data as seamlessly as possible, then harness it in a way that’s visual and fun, you can create engagement.”

Enterprise Ireland

McGuire decided to apply that concept to a sport with an affluent, tech-savvy demographic: golf. Enterprise Ireland were impressed. In 2009, they matched McGuire’s own investment of €150,000, which he raised by mortgaging a farm inherited from his uncle.

Two breakthroughs followed: a place on Jerry Kennelly’s Endeavour start-up programme in Tralee and an introduction to entrepreneur David Marcus, former president of PayPal and current vice president of messaging at Facebook. Marcus had two contacts he was willing to share: Swiss designer Yves Béhar and venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, whom McGuire describes as having “the Midas touch” in Silicon Valley.

But by now, McGuire had realised that organising meetings of this calibre on flying visits was both futile and expensive. “Any momentum is lost the minute you get back on that plane.” He’d also calculated that bringing Game Golf to market would require €10m. “And I knew I wasn’t raising that money in Ireland.”

So, after getting a loan of €10,000, McGuire flew to San Francisco. At the airport, he struck up a conversation with someone he had heard speaking with an Irish accent. It was a developer from Clare named Leo Cassidy and he invited McGuire to sleep on his couch rather than stay at a hotel. But while being taken up a winding road above the city, McGuire felt unsettled. “It’s dark. I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t good. Is this where it goes down?’ Then we arrive at a cul de sac. I’m in the back of this jeep, fists clenched, ready for action.”

He breaks into laughter, describing the relief at stepping inside Cassidy’s family home, where he’d live intermittently for a year.

“He introduced me to two other families and, depending on how much I got under his feet, I’d stay with one of them until he said it was OK to come back.”

All three families invested in Game Golf. But the pinnacle of that year was meeting Chamath Palihapitiya at Facebook’s headquarters. Despite showing up late and soaking wet, McGuire walked away with a promise of $2.5m first-round seed investment. On the drive back from Palo Alto that night, he had the windows down and the radio blasting, whooping with delight. “I had arrived in Silicon Valley.”

Overlooked family life

But the rush didn’t last long. McGuire’s obsession with raising capital caused him to overlook family life back in Corofin, until there was no answer when he phoned home one day. His wife and two daughters had moved back to his mother-in-law’s in England, forcing McGuire to fly to Birmingham and convince the family to join him in California.

“As I look back, I don’t know how she stayed with me or how I did all that when the kids were so young. I have an extremely patient wife. I joined Lisa on the second week of our honeymoon because of this. Nobody else would stay around for things like that but she did. She didn’t care about the money. She just wanted the family to be together.”

Follow-up emails to Palihapitiya, meanwhile, had gone unanswered. Word of his involvement had lit up interest elsewhere but McGuire had no way of proving it. One night, over dinner with Enterprise Ireland’s Simone Boswell, McGuire admitted that he was broke and nearing the end. “But she just said, ‘You’ll find a way.’ So I got out the laptop and decided to email Chamath one last time. I’d nothing to lose.”

McGuire mimes the strokes of the keyboard, re-enacting the message. The company was going to succeed, he insisted. Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood would endorse the product. All Palihapitiya had to do was invest and enjoy the results. “Twenty seconds later, he replies with ‘I’m in.’” As for the promise of getting endorsements from professional golfers, McGuire says it wasn’t a bluff. “Oh, I was going to get them,” he says, firmly. “I had belief. That’s the most important part.”

McGuire found a connection, as he always does, to Graeme McDowell’s manager. This eventually led to the golfer testing a prototype at the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio. It was easy to explain: Game Golf comes with a set of sensors that can be pinned into the grip of each golf club. Once you’ve chosen your club, you tag it against a GPS unit that clips onto your belt and simply take a shot.

Looked pretty bad

The prototype sensors, however, were made from melted milk carton lids that, McGuire says, “looked pretty bad”. But the makeshift device worked, the data materialised and McDowell agreed to become an investor.

When Game Golf finally launched in January, it did so with the PGA of America and the Golf Channel as partners. But the biggest promotional push came in August when Mr Obama was photographed using the device while on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard.

“It’s been fantastic for us,” says McGuire, who insists there was no orchestration on his part. “This was organic.”

To date, more than 115,000 rounds of golf across 79 countries have been uploaded to the platform and McGuire expects first-year revenue to finish somewhere between €7m and €10m. “Nearly every country that has golf is looking for this product right now,” he says. “Our biggest challenge is getting it to them fast enough.”

The company’s San Francisco office, McGuire adds with a smile, now has a Game Golf hall of fame featuring Graeme McDowell, Mr Obama, Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk. “Every now and again you catch yourself looking up and thinking, ‘You know what? This is pretty cool’.”

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