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The Good Life

No Shots in the Dark

The PGA Tour has invested millions of dollars in a hi-tech system called Shot Tracker that follows the moves of every player in a tournament
By Jeff Williams | From Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009
No Shots in the Dark
Illustration by Ed Fotheringham

As Tiger Woods was winning the AT&T National in July, he was making hash of the 11th hole on Sunday. The long par 4 was his nemesis that week, the television commentators said. He had played it in five-over-par for the four rounds and he hadn't been able to put two shots together on the hole. Or so they said.

You weren't there to follow Tiger every round? You weren't able to steal away to watch him on television? If you wanted to know just how badly he played the 11th in every round—every bad drive, poor approach or missed putt—the PGA Tour had your answers. Just call up Shot Tracker on and every ugly shot in every round was there, with all the exact yardages and the putting distances right down to the inch.

Golf has always been the most demanding of spectator sports. Golf's arena could hold a hundred football fields or a thousand basketball courts. From home base to deepest centerfield in the biggest Major League park is nothing but a short par 3 on a golf course.

So the golf spectator, steeling himself against the elements, makes choices about how he watches the game. He can follow his favorite player over miles of fairways, he can search out an advantageous grouping of tees and greens, or he can sit in a grandstand overlooking a single hole and watch a procession of players come through. Usually it's a combination of all three opportunities. For the privileged, there are hospitality tents with views, roasted asparagus, cold brews and television sets.

There is no substitute for being there. Strolling through the parkland, listening to the crisp clip of an iron shot or the cannon retort of a drive, there is a feeling of connection to the game that other sports just don't quite provide, especially considering that golf spectators are also likely to be players themselves, in varying degrees of hackerdom.

But the importance of actually being at a golf tournament began to change in the 1960s when Arnold Palmer dragged his sport into the tele-vision era. His star power was so magnetic that he brought millions to the game who would have otherwise preferred to watch grass grow. Television also consolidated how one watched the game, making each of a golf course's 18 arenas function as one. You could sit at home with your own cold brew and know where the action was at any moment. You could see all the crucial shots while getting analysis and anecdotes from the commentators.

At The Players Championship in May at TPC Sawgrass in florida, a ShotLink volunteer uses a laser spotter to record the tee shots of players at he famous 17th hole island green.

Today, technology is changing the way we stay connected to the game, and it keeps you abreast of Tiger, Phil and your fantasy team. The PGA Tour, with an investment in the multimillions, has developed the Shot Tracker application on its Web site. Through it you can keep track of every shot. You can get a bundle of statistics that tell you where your favorite player stands in the field, for driving distance, for approach accuracy, for putting efficiency.

No, it's not the same as being there. But for millions every week Shot Tracker is a link to the game, a way to stay connected beyond the mere posting of scores. You can't see a duck-hooked drive or a chunked iron or a stabbed putt, but Shot Tracker gives you the blow-by-blow in real time with all those statistical bells and whistles that the American sporting public craves. It's customizable, allowing its users to focus on specific players or groups throughout a round. Plus, Shot Tracker feeds the television broadcasters every week, giving them data that allows them to build the story even when they can't have a pair of eyes or a camera on each player.

The man behind Shot Tracker and the evolution of technology within the PGA Tour is Steve Evans, the Tour's senior vice president of information systems. For 22 years Evans has been looking for ways to use technology to enhance golf's viewing experience, to carry it past watching and more toward participating. "We wanted to take data and turn it into information," says Evans. "Then we wanted to take information and turn it into knowledge. Then we wanted to take knowledge and turn it into entertainment. We wanted to explain what was happening on the golf course to people who weren't there."

In the Techno Age, you can be there even when you aren't. You don't have to wonder what your fantasy player did to shoot a 77; you can pinpoint every miserable shot and every missed putt. The statistics will tell you if he was below average in hitting the fairways, in getting up and down from the bunkers, or in making putts from less than eight feet.

Behind these simple lines and stats is a complex and expensive effort that involves as many as 14 PGA Tour staffers and up to 350 tournament volunteers every week. In fact, without the volunteers none of this would happen. The PGA Tour won't say how much it costs them to produce Shot Tracker, but it owns two command center trucks set up much like a television production center. Each truck is equipped with the handheld devices for the walking scorers, the lasers that measure the distances and scores of laptop computers that are deployed throughout the Tournament site. There are millions in those trucks (they leapfrog each other from tournament to tournament) and seven-digit costs to staff them.

The information is transmitted to the glitzy scoreboards throughout the course (which are also communication points for the system). That information is updated as each group comes through a hole where a scoreboard is located. It goes to computers in the hospitality tents and the media center. It goes to the television broadcasters who gobble up everything they can get from the system, which is known as ShotLink. And it goes to you, sitting at your desk at work or maybe at your local Barnes & Noble. Heck, with an air card for your laptop, you could be sitting in a boat fishing for bass and know that Vijay Singh just conked a carp on the head in the pond in front of the ninth.

"We get a lot of positive feedback from people using Shot Tracker not only because they see what a player is doing, but they can go back and see how he has done during the round, and can go back to the previous round as well," says Evans. "People who have an affinity for a player or several of them who may not be able to get to a television that day, Shot Tracker can help them understand what they did during their rounds that day with a lot of detail."

In a very simple form, here's how it works.

Walking scorers are trained in the use of a handheld device that records the shots of each player in a group. The scorer logs in whether a drive is in the fairway, rough, a bunker or a hazard. For approach shots or tee shots on par 3s, the scorer logs where the ball comes to rest, on the green, rough or in a hazard. On every hole there is a laser station behind the green that measures putts or shots from around that green. On the fairways of every driving hole there are other laser stations that log the distances of drives (and by extrapolation the distances to the hole). On par 5s there can be two fairway laser teams.

All of this information is relayed through the communications system to the command center truck where at least three PGA staffers are monitoring the data at any given time, looking for errors or anomalies. If a walking scorer has recorded the player is in the fairway but the laser shot of his ball indicates in the rough, Aaron Spearman, one of the command center staffers, has the ability to communicate by radio to any of the scorers or laser operators.

The ShotLink application puts together all the data to yield a graphic representation of each shot and produce a statistical profile of each player that will be updated after every shot he hits. It's not exactly NASA shuttle launch stuff, but it's darn impressive nonetheless. And, like the PGA Tournament itself, it wouldn't be possible without a large volunteer base.

"We are a very fortunate organization that each of our golf tournaments is focused on generating charitable donations, because of that there is a strong spirit for volunteering," says Evans. "One thing we pride ourselves on is that we want the volunteers to feel like they have made a signification contribution. When they go home they can see the ShotLink data that they have helped to compile on their computers. They can also see it used on the television broadcasts."

The Travelers Championship at the TPC River Highlands in Hartford, Connecticut, is one of the longest standing tournaments on the PGA Tour. Its volunteer base is so dedicated that more than 90 percent return year to year. Mark Hayes has been a walking scorer for the Tournament for 18 years, going back to the paper days of scoring. Once, scorers simply recorded stats on paper. They would tear off a strip of scores after the completion of each hole, and hand it to a volunteer at greenside who would use a phone or a walkie-talkie to report them to scoring central where they would be posted in a timely, but certainly not instant, manner.

Now when Hayes punches in the final scores for each player, all the scoreboards are instantaneously updated as well as all the statistics. When his group arrives at one of the six holes on the course that have the hi-tech scoreboards, each player can see statistically what he has been doing (just as you can sitting at your computer).

"It's been a lot of fun and doesn't take too long to learn," says Hayes. "Scorers really have the best view on the course, right up close to the players, and now we provide all this information, too. It can get tough when a player isn't playing well and sometimes can be really tough if the group isn't playing well, when you have guys in the water or out of bounds. If you have any doubts, ask the caddy. They know everything."

Hayes has settled in well using the handheld, but he does have one concern. "My biggest fear is that one day I'm going to drop it in the Port-A-Potty," he said. About two thirds of the way down the par-4 10 fairway at the TPC River Highlands, longtime volunteer Phil Medeiros is part of a two-man team running a laser. He lines up the crosshairs on the ball and records the distances. If he can't see the ball in the rough he shoots the player. If he can't see the ball or the player, he can ask the greenside laser to take a shot. If neither laser operator can get an accurate shot, a very accurate guess can me made. Every course is mapped into grid patterns, 5—by—5 yard squares for the fairway venue and 1—by—1 yard squares for the green and its surround. In case a laser fails, there is adequate backup.

"It's pretty simple in the fairway," says Medeiros. "The greenside laser is a lot busier because there are more shots played there and sometimes very quickly. Then you get caddies that sometimes block the view of the ball. But no matter what we will get a very accurate read."

By the way, those greenside lasers are considered survey grade. They cost about $40,000 a pop. And the two command center trucks carry duplicates of everything. As much as Shot Tracker is aimed at John Q. Public, all the gathered information has a practical value to the professional player. Family and friends can follow his progress. Coaches can look for patterns in errant shots. And the Tour provides a four-page statistical profile to players with an almost overwhelming amount of statistics, about 500 in all. Perhaps the most impressive is the putting category, which lists percentages from 14 different lengths and compares one player to the rest of the field.

"My dad takes a look at Shot Tracker a lot," says Tour player Mark Turnesa whose father, Mike, is his coach and a club professional on Long Island. "He's looking for little things. Sometimes he'll ask me how come I hit that shot 20 yards. I have to tell him, 'Dad, I was under a tree.'"

Because distance information is part of the display on the scoreboards, players have access to it. At the Travelers Championship a year ago, Stewart Cink had hit a long drive on the 18th, but it was in the right rough and his caddy wasn't sure of the distance he had to the hole. He decided to step it off. When he got back, he casually asked Cink what he thought it was.

"Ninety-one yards," said Cink.

"How did you know," asked the caddy.

"It's on the scoreboard," said Cink.

The Tour can also learn something about the courses, and take a look at an aspect of it that the pros might be complaining about. "You can get feedback on the course setup if players are saying that a fairway is too narrow or there is a bad bunker placement. With ShotLink we can see where all the shots are hit and make an informed decision."

The television people love all of this minutiae. They've been throwing in their own little technological whizbangs as well.

"We are always trying to tell a story and ShotLink helps us do that better," says Lance Barrow, CBS producer for golf and football. "Instant data helps our commentators make instant analysis. You have to embrace technology to enhance the telecast because the viewers expect all the bells and whistles. Viewers expect more than "Second shot, 180 yards, 6-iron.'"

For the past few seasons CBS has brought into play a high-speed camera replay of a player's swing (it's the sort of camera that records bullets penetrating metal plates). It allows CBS commentator Peter Kostis to make a very detailed analysis of the rights and wrongs of a swing.

For NBC golf producer Tommy Roy, trying to show a golf course in three dimensions is also important. "The television is essentially a two-dimensional medium," says Roy. "What is really a problem in broadcasting golf is that you need to see the course in a three-dimensional manner.

There are elevation changes to the course and undulations on the greens that are crucial to know as you watch a guy play a shot. We use a live, real-time graphic package called Pinpoint from a company in London. They can precisely pinpoint where the hole is cut and all the undulations of the green, and all the undulations and elevation changes and turn it into a graphical representation. And we can use all the ShotLink data and build a very accurate representation of the shot or putt that a player faces."

The Golf Channel uses a device on two holes each week that can precisely read the break of a putt. "It's an enhancement for all the things we use from the ShotLink system," says producer Jack Graham. "The most important thing about ShotLink is that all your information is current and accurate. We don't have to wonder what someone is doing when he's out of our range. It's right there on the computers in front of us."

The United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which conduct the U.S. and British Opens, are also embracing technology while not being part of the ShotLink system. Both organizations now utilize streaming videos and iPod feeds to keep their fans up to date.

So, want to hit the links yourself while a tournament is being played, even though your fantasy team is making a hash of the $100 bucks you put up? Head for the club computer on the turn and you can find out all the grim news, every bloody shot. The PGA Tour has you connected, wherever you might be.

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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