During the first round of last weekend's BMW Championship at Cog Hill in Lemont, I had the priviledge of going behind-the-scenes with the PGA and CDW to see how the talking heads on television, and people tracking the tournament from home (the office) are able to keep up with the action so effectively.
I was surprised to find out that the most traditional, old school sport is arguably the most technologically advanced; everything's done with lasers in a system called ShotLink.
What Dr. Evil's cycloptic colleague couldn't produce for him, the people at CDW and the PGA have developed into an incredible scoring technology that keeps the scoring up-to-date to within 30 seconds of a ball being played anywhere on the course. ShotLink System is a revolutionary platform for collecting and disseminating scoring and statistical data on every shot by every player in real time.
The PGA schedules the courses that will host tournaments years in advance, so at the beginning of each year a PGA-paid surveyor goes to each course on the calendar and maps the entire course. This survey is entered into a data bank until the week before the tournament is live at that specific site.
The weekend before a tournament starts, a surveyor comes back with PGA officials and the course is mapped again. Any changes to fairway width, green depth, hazards or anything else is noted. At this point, the PGA will set up where they will position a fairway laser and green-side tower, which will include a laser. These positions are then specifically mapped again for accuracy.
There are three trucks in play at each tournament. One is in motion all the time, driving ahead to the next tournament, while two trucks show up full of hardware for the event.
"We bring the circus to town," said the PGA's Sean Howland.
Once these trucks are positioned, the circus begins.
The green-side towers are built as part of the overall infrastructure for each tournament. The golfers know there are scorers walking with them and that there are scorers by the side of the fairway and green, but the object is for them to be out of site and out of mind.
How it works is actually fairly simple (once you get through how amazing the technology is). One individual is carrying a mobile device that resembles the "fun gun" you use to register for a wedding or baby shower. Two others are working with a laser by the side of each fairway, and two more are in a green-side tower with another laser.
In total, between 3-400 volunteers handle the scoring for any one tournament.
Inside the truck is where the controls for all of these volunteers, and the technology takes place.
"This truck controls all the data you see on the course, on the internet... basically anywhere you get scores from is from this truck," said Howland.
Inside the truck is an intricate set-up that includes a couple racks of servers (courtesy of CDW), and the all-important home base. From this hub, with just a few laptops, the PGA has one individual on radio with all of the fairway lasers, one with the walkers, and one with each of the green-side towers.
The walking scorers, using the mobile device, track everything that happens. Their device, all equipped with course-wide WiFi, will be loaded with the group that walker is tracking. The walking scorer will select the golfer who is playing, where the ball is, and when it is struck. When the ball stops moving, they will also select where the ball ended up (fairway, bunker, rough, other, etc).
Every time a golfer hits a ball, the walking scorer will update their mobile device.
On the other end(s) are the lasers.
When a player drives off the tee, the fairway laser will pick the ball up when it lands and stops. Once the ball is settled, the fairway laser will mark the ball. This information is loaded into the grid map of the course, and shows up in the loaded map in the truck.
In the same way, a ball played from the fairway to the green is tracked by the green-side tower.
The towers next to the greens have two individuals in them. One, obviously, is handling the laser. The second has a grid map, that's been sectioned off into five-meter squares on the course and one-meter squares on the greens. This check-and-balance system ensures that if the technology (or human) is in error, there's a back-up in place.
Once again, the laser operator marks the ball's position, and this time the back-up will also report a position using the grid map.
The software in the truck tracks every ball on every hole. It also tracks the results of subsequent shots.
When Jim Nantz sounds like a golf savant on Sunday, telling viewers that 18 of 40 drives on Friday hit the left side of the fairway and 10 of those turned into birdies, it's because of the people, and computers, in the truck.
So while Tiger Woods was struggling and Dustin Johnson was winning this past weekend, what fans didn't know was the amount of work, and technology, that went into keeping score. The PGA has invested a lot of money and manpower into this sophisticated technology that continues to evolve, a beautiful mix of tradition and the future.
According to the PGA, the goal of ShotLink is "to turn data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into entertainment." Thanks to the hard work of individuals like Howland, each tournament is an entertaining success.
Volunteers for every tournament are sourced through the local tournament. To work with the PGA in the future, go to PGA.com or the site for the specific tournament for details.