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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Little Green Pencil makes the golf course a smaller, more convivial place
Tap it in...your smartphone
Will Robus: Searching for connection via connectivity.
Will Robus: Searching for connection via connectivity.
Credit:Harriet Chen

The group golf outing: the networking habitué's summertime habitat. A chance to swing clubs, sip cocktails, bolster professional ties and maybe even fundraise. Madison Magnet is one community organization that hosts "an afternoon of golf, networking and fun" each year in Madison.

Two summers ago, though, the group noticed they had lost their grip on something key: the social element. In their event, teams of four engage in an 18-hole scramble, a type of tournament that lets team members play off each other's best shots.

But as Magnet board member Will Robus remembers it, "teams were largely isolated from each other." During the scramble, "You really only interact with people on your team. It's not until the end of the tournament that everyone catches up."

Magnet wanted to find a way to "add a sense of connectivity" to the outings, Robus says. "Even if you're not in it to win it, it's still fun to be connected to how everyone's doing on the course."

His answer: build a live scoring system that would connect players in real time. Robus, a project manager at UW-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center, had the interest and the technical know-how to take a swing at it. With the help of friend Stuart McIntosh, security architect manager at American Family Insurance, he developed a user-driven scoring system that leverages SMS texting.

Little Green Pencil, as they dubbed their service, works like this: At the finish of each hole, one player texts his or her team's score to a number provided at the event's check-in. This updates a live, web-based leaderboard. Golfers and spectators alike can watch teams move up the leaderboard in real time from their smartphones.

The beauty of LGP, Robus says, is its simplicity. It works on almost every mobile operating system and requires no advance setup or special software. Texting a score takes 10 seconds, only nibbles on a cell battery and works in weak-signal zones that would leave a web browser spinning.

But don't confuse LGP with an application. You'll find plenty of golf scoring apps, but they're mostly for single players. Of the few that offer group extensions, "there are no real dominant players," Robus says. Most are "not as fast and easy as a text message."

After a free beta version was offered to the Greater Bucky Open and other outings last spring, LGP seems to finally have hit its sweet spot. Some social features have been added, like a Twitter feed where players can tweet with a hashtag. Sponsors, too, can engage in the conversation on an internal messaging board that gets posted to the event feed.

This January marked LGP's official tee-off as a company. And the staff has grown to three: Steve Ramig, director of development at UW Foundation, heads up business development and sales. In June LGP secured the first of several paying customers (the cost is $50 for the standard service, or as much as $1,000 for a custom leaderboard), starting with the Mike and Jessica McCarthy Golf Invitational to benefit American Family Children's Hospital. Robus says LGP was warmly received: "They loved it."

Heading into fall, Little Green Pencil is eager to transcend the "Little" in its name. Robus and his team plan to sharpen their business model so they can "sell a couple thousand outings a year, as opposed to a couple dozen." With more than a million golf outings taking place in the U.S. every year, here's hoping the writing is on the wall -- or, preferably, the touchscreen.

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