PGA TOUR Looks Skyward for Improvements to its ShotLink System

A 5.041Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Because the basics of golf–hitting a small ball a long distance into a small cup–have not changed since its accepted genesis in 15th century Scotland, the game seems timeless. But a lot of development has, in fact, taken place, particularly within the last 40 years or so. Equipment technology, including club design and composition is high-tech in every regard. Golf course design has matured as well, making way for the development of courses which are regularly-increasing the degree of challenge and, by extension, improving the skill set of today’s professional golfer. Given these advancements, it should come as no surprise that the Professional Golf Association Tour (PGA TOUR), has chosen to further refine ShotLink, an already-impressive system used in scoring, measuring, tracking and statistical gathering for PGA TOUR-sponsored events. Replacing some of ShotLink’s existing technology with more accurate, more reliable, less-intrusive GPS-based equipment from Topcon Positioning Systems, has allowed the PGA TOUR to give its audience– and its members–an improved TOUR event experience.

Working literally in the background, ShotLink has helped dramatically redefine the way we look at golf today. Essentially a data-collection system, it’s what happens to that data after it has been gathered that really underscores its value, according to Andrew Marchand, ShotLink Administrator.

"ShotLink was first built by the PGA TOUR in 2000 in an effort both to develop an information archive and to have player data for a particular golf tournament right at its fingertips. It has undergone an impressive evolution since those early says and today is a complex, state-of-the-art networked system which gathers data, instantly disseminates it, generates stats, and feeds an unending stream of information to TV production trailers, the tournament media center, on-course LED scoreboards, PGA TOUR headquarters in Ponte Vedra, and a whole lot more."

When ShotLink first debuted, it was effective but, because it depended solely upon the use of a walking scorer and a series of greenside reporters, was limited in scope. The scorer would write down the shot count or any relevant stats and at the completion of each hole, would pass that info off to the reporter who would enter the data into a computer. That meant it would only allow updates every 15 minutes or so as each hole was completed.

"The evolution of the process continued with the addition of volunteers operating tripod-mounted laser sighting units to better determine ball distances," says Marchand. "Those readings were then relayed back to a central collection point via a Palm Pilot-type device. Even that advance in technology, however, was not without its shortcomings. If a player’s shot was off the fairway and near the fairway laser unit, for example, the volunteer would have to move the instrument, making it ineffective for 15 minutes or so until it could be repositioned and recalibrated. As a backup they would write down coordinates, but those are obviously far less accurate than laser measurements. So we were open to any upgrade in the system that could alleviate that problem."

Perfect Fit
A new solution designed to improve both ShotLink’s accuracy in measurement and eliminate the instrument repositioning issue came about as a result of a meeting between the PGA TOUR’s ShotLink officials and representatives from Topcon at its Livermore, CA headquarters. According to Jason Killpack, Topcon’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, the fit was a natural one.

"What ShotLink was asking us to do is something we regularly do in mapping applications," he says. "A typical job for us would be a mapper who wants to measure a tree that is in the distance someplace or in an area that is inaccessible. To do so, he’d use a laser range finder to measure the offset distance and then our GRS-1 receiver would calculate the object’s three dimensional position. So it was a perfect fit for what the PGA TOUR was asking, with the added plus that our instrument for gathering that data is much smaller–it can be hand-held–much easier to use and much lighter than the 35-40 pounds of equipment the volunteers had used in the past."

Those volunteers were a huge consideration in the determination process. Most of the personnel who come out to work TOUR events are typically retirees who don’t have an inherent comfort level dealing with computers, using touch screens, working with GPS data, etc. To address that issue, the PGA TOUR put together a detailed program that they deploy at each event to train the volunteers on which job they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, how to best manage their time, and, most importantly, how to run the equipment to ensure they get accurate statistics and shot measurement.

"That is an area in which the inherent user-friendliness of the new Topcon-based system comes into play," says Jeff Howell, Director of ShotLink Operations. "These are people who only see this equipment once a year, so they don’t have a chance to develop any real familiarity with it. But the feedback we’re getting since implementation of the new technology has been all positive The volunteers are finding it to be a lot easier to use–there’s no doubt most were tired of having to lean over and look into a heads-up display, through a glowing crosshair, to try to determine where the ball was–and they love the fact that it is much lighter than the previous system. And, because of the mobility that it provides, we are now able to get some shots much quicker than we would have with the previous system."

Working With the Mesh
One of the real challenges faced by Topcon in melding its technology with that of ShotLink, revolved around the wireless mesh network which ShotLink uses to transmit its data throughout the course area. According to Topcon’s Killpack, becoming "mesh-compliant" took some doing.

"That wireless mesh network is the backbone of all transactions and data transmission at any major PGA TOUR event," he says. "So every Visa card that is swiped at every concession stand runs through that network. The commentary video and audio from most of the broadcasts, as well as the data used to update the numerous LCD video scoreboards located throughout the course, is all transmitted on that wireless mesh network. And most importantly, there are the instruments used by ShotLink volunteers to score, match, measure and register the distances of every ball, every putt. All of that has to coexist on this wireless mesh network."

He stresses that, while networking data from a GRS-1 is done all day every day at jobsites throughout the world, the challenge arose in working within ShotLink’s unique Wi-Fi parameters.

"ShotLink relies solely on the original 802.11a Wi-Fi protocol, whereas all of our GRS-1 receivers come standard with the more modern 802.11B,G and N Wi-Fi," says Killpack. "To remedy that compatibility issue, we worked with a Bay Area company called Socket Communications to utilize a chipset that would allow our GRS-1 to jump onto the older ShotLink 802.11a network. We also had to build an interface to work with the PGA TOUR’s existing software. Working with their software vendor, IDS, we helped to modify some things in the PGA TOUR Laser Operator software and to create what might be called `middleware’–that would make Laser Operator and our receiver work the way we expect it to work. It was a great effort on everyone’s part to make it happen."

ink at Work

Today, the upgraded ShotLink system is in use at every tournament that is a part of the PGA TOUR’s Champions TOUR (formerly the Seniors TOUR); TOUR (formerly the Nationwide TOUR); and the flagship PGA TOUR.

Each one of the three tournaments is supported by 20 GRS-1 rover devices, 20 LTI 306B TruPulse lasers, a NETG3A reference station and TopNET software running inside of the PGA TOUR system. Every week one of three dedicated 18-wheel tractor trailer rigs which act as the ShotLink command center, must be set up to score and measure a new tournament. Once the tournament is over it, equipment is torn down, reloaded onto the truck and taken to the next one.

The screen of the Topcon GRS-1 receiver which each team of fairway volunteers is manning, presents them with a list of three players in each group approaching their hole. The walking scorer waits for the first player to take his tee shot, then contacts the fairway team to tell them which player just hit. Pressing a button on his or her system sends a signal wirelessly down to the fairway team and a golf ball shows up next to that player’s name, verifying who took the shot.

"Basically the fairway crew’s use of the system involves three major steps, says Marchand. "First, they select a player’s name on the GRS-1’s touch screen. Then they get the rangefinder, find the shot, press a button on top and fire the laser. The data is instantly transmitted via Bluetooth to the GRS-1 system. The slope distance and compass measurement are combined from the LTI laser with the measurement data from the GPS and a calculation is performed which will include: how far the ball is from the laser, how far it is from the tee box, and how close is it to the pin. They eyeball it one last time, make sure it looks good and if it does, they hit `Enter’ and the data, using the wireless mesh network, is sent to the ShotLink truck for evaluation and system-wide dissemination."

Back at Work in a Snap
In place now since March 2012, the GRS-1’s portability and versatility has proven invaluable. As mentioned, in the previous scenario, an errant ball headed in the direction of the fairway volunteer crew would have disrupted that crew’s work for a minimum of 15 minutes, resulting in lost opportunities for valuable data.

"With the new gear, the volunteer can pick up the entire system–it only weighs six or seven pounds–get out of the way, let the player take the shot and move right back in," says Howell. "There is no need to wait while it recalibrates; the GPS just locks back on and they are back up and running in a matter of seconds. And that’s important, given the broad range of audiences waiting for that info: the players and spectators on the course, the press, the television announcers, PGA TOUR headquarters, and so on. Everyone expects instantaneous delivery of that info and we are able to do that consistently now."

He adds that accuracy, one of the main criteria for the upgrade, has also been dramatically improved. "We normally run our own accuracy audits four for five times a year, and with the older equipment, we were regularly getting accuracies in the in the 60% range–obviously not that good. With the new Topcon solution, we’ve seen an improvement of about 25%. So now our accuracies are in the high 80% to low 90% range; much more in line with where we wanted to be."

Looking Ahead
While they are thrilled with the role the GRS-1 has played in ShotLink’s continued evolution, Topcon’s Killpack sees a number of ways in which GPS technology can benefit the golf industry even further.

"With our agreement with the PGA TOUR, we are now the official GNSS supplier to the TPC Network," he says. "That means that golf course superintendents who manage the TPC Network of golf courses have access to the same equipment which can help them locate, map and understand different parts of the golf course assets they manage. That can include everything from their irrigation system, to the square footage or acreage of sand traps, to the linear feet of fairway, and so on."

The PGA TOUR’s Jeff Howell sees the success they’ve had with the upgraded ShotLink fairways system translating to possible future changes in the way accuracies are measured on tournament greens.

"To accommodate the spotters, we currently have to construct elevated platforms at each of the 18 holes on every course on a PGA TOUR stop," he says. That’s a costly and labor-intensive practice that could be eliminated by utilizing this same technology and bringing the measurement down to greenside. And by doing so, we could have both the mobility and a centimeter-grade level of accuracy."

Killpack says a good deal of progress has already been made in bringing that about, adding that they’ve really only scratched the surface in making GPS more a prominent fixture at today’s courses. "There are so many real possibilities. I’m certain we have the tools to help golf course superintendents improve the overall value of their courses, to assist firms involved in course re-design and reconstruction, and much more. We’re definitely excited for what lies ahead."

Larry Trojak is a communications writer for his own firm, Trojak Communications, in the town of Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is a frequent contributor to construction and survey magazines.

A 5.041Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE