A Better Lie: Inside PGA TOUR’s ShotLink Tournament Tracker
When Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy hit their shots off the tee at Bay Hill or TPC Sawgrass, everyone watching — from course spectators and television viewers to the players themselves — knows exactly how far the ball has traveled in the air, and how many more yards it has to go before it comes to rest at the bottom of the cup.
Almost immediately after the ball’s lie shows up on television screens, announcers begin speculation on which club the player will choose next — based not only on the distance remaining, but also on the angle, and even the performance of other players on the same hole throughout the week.
None of this is magic, nor is it the result of guesswork as was the case 15 years ago. ShotLink, powered by CDW, a system that tracks the position of every player’s shot on the course, provides both real-time information and historical data proving ever more useful — and entertaining — for players and fans.
“Before ShotLink, it would take 15 minutes for a score and five basic statistics to become available,” says Jeff Howell, director of ShotLink technical operations and tournament technologies. “Now, you can see 1,500 statistics online, anywhere in the world.” Within about 15 seconds, data is published to websites and available anywhere; data is available within about 10 seconds on site.
This season, the PGA TOUR is rolling out new technology to support the ShotLink system, replacing the devices tour staff use to process ShotLink data as well as those the media, corporate partners and television crews use to keep track of play. The older Lenovo T61s have served everyone well, Howell says, but at 5 years old, some devices are showing normal signs of wear and tear. Greater access to new datasets also means today’s ShotLink processing demands have outstripped the capabilities of the older model.
Setting Up Shop
Howell enlisted CDW, the official technology partner of the PGA TOUR, to help him and his staff select new devices to power and support the ShotLink system. Over the course of several weeks, CDW brought in about 20 different devices to be tested by all PGA TOUR users, including staff and media members.
“We actually placed all of these devices on a table and said, ‘Try out each of these laptops and let us know which you believe is going to be best for you,’” Howell says.
Ultimately, the tour stuck with Lenovo, selecting two of the brand’s devices to fulfill different functions. The ThinkPad W540 mobile workstation will handle the PGA TOUR’s intensive data processing needs, and the ThinkPad Yoga convertible device will help media members and other officials to view data and track play in real time.
“With the increase in the use of our data, and the speed at which television wants us to produce that data, we needed a higher-end machine to be able to process that data as fast as possible and send it to their graphics machines,” Howell says, explaining the decision to roll out 100 W540s this year.
The tour purchased 420 Yogas and has already made them standard for use by corporate partners in the hospitality tents. But adjustments in the media tent have been more gradual, with Howell’s team slowly mixing in new devices with the older T61s many PGA TOUR journalists are accustomed to using.
“We didn’t want to force them to use a new system without giving them an opportunity to get used to it,” Howell says.
He says media members were attracted to the Yogas in part because of their versatility as well as their smaller footprint.
“Real estate on the desks is very limited,” Howell notes.
Some journalists liked the fact that the Yoga can convert into a tablet — such 2-in-1 capabilities are powered by Intel — allowing them to zoom in and out through the touch screen. For others, it is important that the device has a full, attached keyboard and can be used in the same way as any other Ultrabook. Howell says he expects to have the Yogas fully rolled out across the tour by the end of this season.
The PGA TOUR is also issuing Lenovo notebooks — including the T440, T540, X240, and Yoga models — to employees at its Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters and at several of its other properties as part of its normal technology refresh cycle. Doug Edwards, the PGA TOUR IT department’s director of customer service, says each employee is eligible for a new device every three years.
“The traveling staff seem to have selected the Yoga or the X240, or they’ve chosen our bring-your-own-device option,” Edwards says. “The staff who don’t travel as much tended to choose the T540, because it gives them the larger screen and it’s easier to work with at a desk. From a performance standpoint, you’re going to get pretty good performance regardless of what you choose.”
How ShotLink Works
As soon as a golf ball comes to rest, a volunteer on the course locates it with a viewfinder before taking a reading with a laser device able to calculate the ball’s precise position. That data point is sent immediately over a wireless network to the mobile ShotLink command center, and the location is plotted on a rudimentary course map. Television producers can then also plot the point on a more polished graphic that will appear onscreen during their broadcasts.
“They routinely publish that data within seconds of the actual shot taking place,” Howell says.
All data is validated to check for accuracy.
“The average drive is 270 to 320 yards,” he says. “Anything outside of that would cause a warning to come up. If a player hits a tree and the ball bounces back, that’s going to trigger a warning, because it’s going to come up as a 50-yard drive.” After officials confirm the distance, in such an instance, the unusually short drive would then be logged by the system.
ShotLink tracks more than just distance, organizing data into practically every subset imaginable. The system can reveal each player’s successful putting percentage by distance. If Gary Woodland’s ball is in the right rough, 100 yards short of the green, spectators could look at the scoreboard and see that he has a 67.3 percent chance of landing his next shot within five feet of the pin.
Ultimately, the purpose of ShotLink is to “turn data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into entertainment,” according to the PGA TOUR. With the help of its new Lenovo devices, the PGA TOUR is doing just that.