Jul 17 2020

How Data Helps the PGA TOUR Engage Fans and Boost Performance

ShotLink technology tracks every shot with cameras and lasers, delivering data to onsite servers in milliseconds over a fiber-optic network.

Imagine this scenario: Tiger Woods needs to sink a 14-foot putt on the 18th green of East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta to win the FedExCup for the third time. As Woods crouches to inspect the putt, some anxious fans encircling the final hole check their PGA TOUR mobile app and see a statistic: He’s made only 21 percent of 10- to 15-foot putts this season, so it’s nowhere near a gimme. 

But when Woods hits the putt, the national TV audience immediately sees a graphic flash across their screens: The ball has a 97 percent chance of finding the cup. What’s going on?

“It’s a mathematical formula” based on the ball’s speed and trajectory, says Jonas Gredenhag, senior director of data center operations for the PGA TOUR. “As soon as the golfer putts the ball and it’s a couple of feet off the club face, we can calculate the percentage chance the ball will go in because we know the speed and angle of the ball and the undulation of the green.”

That’s the future of the PGA TOUR’s ShotLink technology, powered by CDW, which has tracked and recorded every shot in real time since 2001. The data has enhanced the fan experience by providing new insights on player performance during tournaments and has also allowed players to use data analytics to improve their performance and strategy. 

ShotLink Plus Delivers Enhanced Fan Experience

Two years ago, the PGA TOUR modernized its ShotLink technology to give fans and players even more advanced statistics and predictive metrics in the future. The PGA TOUR still relies on volunteers with tablets and lasers to manually pinpoint the ball position after every player’s shot from the tees to the fairways. But on each putting green, the organization has replaced lasers with three video cameras pointed at the hole.

The camera system, called ShotLink Plus, allows ShotLink for the first time to track ball movement on the greens and provide a three-dimensional view of the ball path.

That will allow the PGA TOUR to develop new statistics, such as the success rates of putts going from left to right versus right to left, says Don Wallace, the PGA TOUR’s director of operations. It will also help fans gain a better understanding of the game and players’ strategies.

For example, if a golfer hits a chip shot and the ball lands 8 feet beyond the hole, then bounces back and rests within 2 feet of the hole, ShotLink Plus’ ball-in-motion data allows TV broadcasters to break down the physics and the spin rate that allowed that to happen, he says.

“We’ve always captured the ball at rest. Now we can capture the ball in motion,” Wallace says. “We still end up with the same endpoint, but now we know how the ball got there.”  

INFOGRAPHIC: See how the PGA TOUR uses data analytics to power the fan experience.

New Data Center Boosts the PGA TOUR’s Compute Power

The PGA TOUR, however, needed more compute power and storage and more bandwidth to process all the video content. So, the IT staff upgraded its data center with Dell EMC VxRail hyperconverged infrastructure appliances and built faster networks to boost performance and reliability — and ensure that ShotLink data gets delivered almost instantaneously to TV broadcasters, onsite LED scoreboards, websites and mobile apps.

That’s important because the PGA TOUR is investing in new mobile apps and digital experiences to improve fan engagement, including gaming opportunities. ShotLink data is critical to that strategy. 

“If you bet on a player to do well, you are pretty engaged,” says Ken Lovell, PGA TOUR’s senior vice president of ShotLink business operations. “We are pushing hard on reducing latency and making sure the data is available as fast as possible so fans can see what’s happening in real time.”

ShotLink Data Moves Fast Through Fiber Network­

The ShotLink Plus camera system uses a tremendous amount of bandwidth. Each camera streams high-definition video at 450 megabits per second. On an 18-hole course with 54 cameras, that’s 24 gigabits per second of video being transmitted at any given time, says Alex Turnbull, PGA TOUR’s director of broadcasting production.

Two years ago, the TOUR started using a fiber-optic network to handle the bandwidth. Before a tournament, TOUR employees spend three days laying fiber across a golf course, Gredenhag says. They place it on top of the grass along the ropes that fans stand behind. 

The TOUR also builds a private Wi-Fi network using Cisco Meraki access points. The Wi-Fi, which connects to the fiber network, allows volunteers with tablets to record players’ shots on the fairway as well as on the greens as a backup in case the cameras fail, Gredenhag says. The staff typically installs three access points per hole.

“Everything is about physics and making sure we have a good signal throughout the course,” Lovell says.

When the volunteers, lasers and video cameras capture players’ shot information, the data is fed to an onsite data center within milliseconds via the fiber network, Wallace says.The TOUR replaced its legacy server infrastructure in 2019 with two seven-node Dell EMC VxRail HCI clusters housed inside onsite ShotLink trucks, where TOUR staffers manage the entire operation. Each cluster runs 35 virtual servers and houses 300 terabytes of storage.

24Gbps

The amount of video being transmitted by ShotLink at any given time on an 18-hole course.

Source: Alex Turnbull, PGA TOUR’s director of broadcasting production

The organization previously used one cluster of servers but added another cluster on a second truck to better process the video content from the ShotLink Plus camera system. The Dell HCI equipment combines servers, storage and virtualization into a small appliance — perfect for the limited space inside the trucks, Gredenhag says.

“We worked with CDW and looked at different systems, and this one provides us the reliability that we need,” he says.The ShotLink data center runs on Cisco switches. One network, which operates at a speed of 25Gbps, is for video, while another 10Gbps network is for the rest of the data.

How ShotLink Gathers Data

The PGA TOUR has equipped ShotLink volunteers with new Dell Latitude rugged tablets. Five volunteers work at each hole. A walking scorer follows a group of three players and, through the tablet, alerts the others when specific players hit the ball.

When the ball lands on the fairway, one volunteer identifies its location on a digital map on the tablet, providing preliminary coordinates. Then, a second volunteer on the fairway shoots the ball with a laser to get a definitive location, Wallace says. A fan using the mobile app will learn immediately whether a player hit or missed the fairway and will get precise shot information 15 seconds later. Two more volunteers are stationed on each green performing similar functions.

Overall, ShotLink gathers data four ways: preliminary data, lasers, the camera system and a radar on the tee boxes that provides swing speed, ball speed and trajectory information, Lovell says. 

“We are collecting the data from all the different sources and combining it together to tell a story,” he says.

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How Fans and Golfers Use ShotLink Data

The PGA TOUR, its fans and players to take advantage of ShotLink data in multiple ways.

The PGA TOUR has developed multiple apps and services designed to increase fan engagement. A new TOUR app provides a mix of video highlights, hole summaries and stats on every player. The TOUR will soon allow fans to gamble as well, and has partnered with IMG Arena to distribute ShotLink scoring data for gaming purposes.

As for players, Harold Varner III has embraced golf analytics to identify his strengths and weaknesses and improve his game. For example, his statistician recently pointed out that he wasn’t hitting his chip shots from 15 to 20 yards out as well as he had in the past. So, he focused on those shots during practice.

“It’s like anything in life,” Varner says. “If you’re bad at it, you practice more than anyone else, and you have a better chance at succeeding than the person who doesn’t know.”