In Los Angeles, it’s nearly impossible to book a tee time. Are bots to blame?
If dystopian forecasts have it right, robots will soon rule the world. They’ll steal our jobs, enslave our minds. The worst of them will even snag our tee times.
As many Los Angeles golfers tell it, that gloomy future has already arrived.
That, anyway, was the refrain that I kept hearing on a recent trip to L.A., during which I trekked from local muni to local muni, looking for answers. At stop after stop, golfers I spoke with had the same complaint: nabbing reservations at city and county courses has become nearly impossible.
In one respect, this was unsurprising. L.A. has the busiest year-round municipal golf market in the country, and the Covid boom has only intensified demand. Still, local golfers told me repeatedly that not even the post-pandemic spike in participation accounts for the feeding frenzy that occurs whenever new tee times in L.A. are released. In a matter of seconds, they said, all the desired slots get gobbled up, thousands upon thousands of times, gone at the speed of broadband.
Surely human beings book most of those times. But among the golfers I talked to, the consensus was that robots bore some of the blame.
This seemed plausible to me.
Bots, after all, have been around for years, used to illegally purchase tickets to everything from playoff games to Taylor Swift concerts. If they had infiltrated other industries, why should tee sheets be immune?
On the days I was in L.A., public frustration over bots had been heightened further by a newly posted Instagram ad targeting the local golf market. It was for a company called Bot-It, which pitched itself as an A.I.-powered personal assistant capable of handling all kinds of online tasks, including reservations at coveted L.A. munis.
Trying to get a time at Rancho Park? Try Bot-It, was the gist of the social-media promotion — though when I tried to use Bot-It to get myself on Rancho Park, I didn’t see any available times.
Credible or not, the ad caused enough of a stir that nearly every golfer I interviewed made a point of showing it to me. They felt it was a digital smoking gun.
That seemed reasonable, too. But because ‘feel’ and ‘real’ in golf are not always the same, I had to ask: is this what’s actually going on? Are golf bookings in L.A. really under Blade Runner-like assault? If so, who is deploying these bots, and for what purpose? And how badly, really, are they gumming up the works?
“Yes, we’re well aware of the ‘alleged’ bots out there,” Los Angeles city golf manager Rick Rienschmidt told me in an e-mail. But, he added, the city has yet to be presented with any solid proof of anyone “using a bot to obtain tee times with an advantage over everyone else.“
If that evidence ever does appear, Reinschmidt wrote, “we will certainly address it.”
Reinschmidt was not suggesting that bots do not exist. (The city’s own golf website has a bold-letter advisory on its homepage warning against their use). But he was saying that the city saw no sign that those bots were slipping past its defenses, which include an online booking engine, run by GolfNow, that is equipped with bot-squashing technology.
(A GolfNow spokesperson confirmed that in 2022, the company’s cyber defenses thwarted more than a million bot attempts on the city’s tee sheets.)
In a follow-up phone call, Reinschmidt told me that city staff had also been monitoring Bot-It and, like me, had not seen any of the hard-to-get tee times promised in the ad.
Still, I had to wonder about something else. It’s no secret that artificial intelligence has gotten pretty slick. It’s also no secret that municipalities don’t always stand at the bleeding edge of cyber security.
Was it possible that other bots were booking tee times in the L.A. area, undetected?
It’s not as if that hasn’t happened before.
Chris May is an L.A.-golf industry veteran who serves as senior vice president at Supreme Golf, a company he describes as “the Kayak of golf,” helping courses “navigate the crazy world of electronic tee sheets and automated billing.”
One of Supreme’s clients is American Golf, which manages nine munis in the L.A. county system including Los Verdes, a coastal course southwest of downtown L.A. that ranks among the hardest gets in the country. Two years ago, May told me, a couple of avid golfers with high-tech backgrounds built a bot that hacked into Los Verdes’ online tee sheet, resetting the reservation system’s clock so that it could book times hours before those slots became available to the general public. The scheme only came to light when the bot’s algorithm glitched, filling up an entire day’s worth of tee times with the same names.
The jig was up.
Discovering the breach, May said, had prompted Supreme Golf to “start working with some high-level security folks” to strengthen its safeguards.
By all appearances, those safeguards have worked. Still, May conceded, combating bots is a “like a game of Whac-a-Mole” — knock one down, and another pops up somewhere else.
Further complicating matters is that there are ‘good’ bots and ‘bad’ bots. The good ones are essential to running websites. “So you’ve got to figure out a way to let them in while you keep the bad ones out,” May said.
That calls for constant vigilance.
As we spoke, May said he was on his computer, tracking the activity around Los Verdes’ online tee sheet. The way he described it, the booking system sounded like a castle under siege.
“Right now, there are 120 bots trying to get in,” he said. “We’ve got about 85 to 90 that we know are bad actors.” A few others that the cyber-security system considered suspicious were being held in a digital waiting room, May said, and would only be let in if they passed a rigorous background check.
Just as there are different kinds of bots, there are different motives for booking tee times. Most golfers are simply looking to secure reservations for themselves and their friends. There’s nothing wrong with that — unless they’re circumventing the rules to game a muni system that’s meant to be equitable and inclusive. That slippery practice pre-dates bots; it’s as time-worn a tradition as bribing the starter, an analog crime that is tough to stymie and maybe even tougher to stop than a tee-time booking bot. Algorithms often leave a clearer trail than a nod and a wink on the first tee.
But there are also people who book tee times to resell them. In L.A., May said, scalpers are a “small but persistent” presence, “and I would bet that it’s a marginally bigger problem than the bots at this point, mainly because it’s driven by human interaction with the booking engines.” For the most part, he said, scalpers don’t use bots. They barrage reservation systems with ever-changing email addresses or accounts.
“We go in and find them and disable accounts that we see abusing the system,” May said. “But they very quickly come back with new accounts, different IP addresses, etc.”
The resell platforms are hard to find as well, May said, as scalpers often use obscure websites and Craigslist-style bulletin boards in non-English languages, with transactions carried out by text or WhatsApp-style messages.
If scalpers are indeed more prevalent on the L.A. golf scene than bots, the technology behind them is less sophisticated. And bots are evolving at a far more rapid pace. May said they first came to his attention in the fall of 2020, as courses reopened from pandemic lockdown. Demand for golf was spiking, and many munis were scrambling to adapt to contactless booking and payment. It was around then, May said, that he started seeing Reddit postings from people seeking intel on how to use a bot to book a tee time. Roughly a year later, the first commercial marketing of bots for tee times caught his eye, in the form of a service called NoTeeFy. All the while, bots intended for individual consumers have continued to progress, becoming more readily accessible and intuitive — easier for tech-dinosaurs like me to use.
Which doesn’t mean I’ve found a bot that can land me a tee time at Rancho Park. The fact that I haven’t suggests to me that what people like May and Rick Reinschmidt, of the city’s golf division, told me is correct: that robots, though real, are not running roughshod through the L.A. muni system. They are not as big a problem as they’re widely perceived to be.
Never mind A.I. The most daunting challenge for L.A. golfers is simple economics: supply and demand. The busiest golf market in the United States is also the most golf-starved, according to statistics from the National Golf Foundation, with more people vying for fewer holes than in any metropolitan area in the country. Like the middle class, the middle of the golf market in L.A. has been depleted, sapped in recent decades by the closure of daily-fee courses. These days, if you don’t belong to a private club, you’re most likely competing for tee times on the munis. And because you know those times get snatched up quickly, you ring in right when the reservations open, along with everybody else.
In such a climate, it’s understandable that golfers would start blaming bots.
Or, as Craig Kessler of the Southern California Golf Association wrote recently in FORE, the association’s magazine: “How else can tee sheets be completely sold out 9 days in advance in less than 20 seconds, critics complain, never considering that it’s not the bots that are the problem; it’s the market that create their value that’s the problem.”
This was a point echoed to me by Jorge Badel, the former golf director for the L.A. County who now works in community outreach for American Golf.
“We have a lot more golfers than we used to,” Badel said. “But we don’t have more golf courses.”
Even so, Badel added, “The people who complain the most about how hard it is to get out on the munis — those people are still playing golf.”
I’m inclined to agree. But I also don’t dismiss those dystopian forecasts. The robots are coming. They’re going to make us miserable in many ways. They just haven’t taken over our tee sheets.