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Bridgestone Invitational Golf Tournament

A stroke of genius improves tournament scoring system

By jim Published: August 6, 2010

Bob Dyer
Beacon Journal staff writer

Have you noticed a former Emmy Award-winner on the grounds of Firestone Country Club this week?

Yep. Been there every day. Been all over the course.

In fact, the Emmy winner has witnessed every single shot by every single golfer on every single hole.

Meet ShotLink, winner of the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Advanced Media Technology.

OK, that's not quite as sexy as, say, Best Actress in a Drama Series. But the golf tour's sophisticated scoring system is way cool, a marvel of technology that, ironically, often ends up in the hands of folks who have a hard time figuring out their own cell phones.

Using global positioning satellites, sophisticated lasers and hundreds of unpaid laborers, ShotLink instantly provides the distance and location of every shot taken, not only for TV announcers broadcasting the tourney and reporters in the Media Center, but also for anyone with access to the Internet (via http://www.pgatour.com).

ShotLink also automatically calculates statistics, such as the percentage of drives in the fairway, the number of greens hit in regulation and other key stats that interest not only fans but also the players themselves, who often hop online after a round to see numbers they can't get from the scoreboard.

Army of volunteers

By the time the Bridgestone Invitational wraps up on Sunday, about 275 volunteers will have been linked to ShotLink for at least one day.

During each round, about 40 of them walk the entire course with a specific group of players while carrying a hand-held wireless device. As a player prepares to hit the ball, she highlights his name, and, once he connects, she pokes ''shot hit,'' which puts a time stamp on the action.

Meanwhile, another 36 volunteers are locked into specific positions alongside the fairways. Once the ball lands in their territory, those folks aim a tripod-mounted laser gun at it.

Because the ShotLink folks have previously mapped out the entire course with GPS units, the system can triangulate the ball's location and instantly spit out the precise distance.

So if you hear the folks on CBS say that Phil Mickelson hit a drive 303 yards, that is not an estimate.

Once the players reach the green, putting distances are calculated using another laser, this one mounted on the railing of a small tower similar in appearance to the TV towers.

The lasers on the fairways are like the ones cops use to check your speed; the orange ones on the towers are more precise — good enough for use in building skyscrapers. So if you are told Phil is looking at a putt of 271/2 inches, you can take that to the bank.

Although the equipment is state-of-the-art, its designers managed to simplify the user interface to the point where folks who have never laid eyes on these things can handle them with relative ease.

Watching Tiger

Volunteer Art Colton is typical. The 67-year-old Mentor man was standing just off the No. 11 fairway, about 290 yards from the tee, on Friday morning, ready to aim his gun in the vicinity of Tiger Woods and his playing partner, Lee Westwood.

''I'm an old hand at this,'' Colton joked. ''Been at it for one day now.''

Colton did receive a 90-minute training session last weekend, as well as a refresher course on Wednesday. So he is comfortable with the equipment and, despite putting in nine-hour days, he's having a fine time.

Next to Colton was Cuyahoga Falls resident Dave Arthur, 74, who was helping Colton identify the golfers and serving as a backup in case the laser malfunctioned or its battery died. Arthur carried a large map of the landing area overlaid with a grid representing increments of five yards.

If the laser isn't operable, identifying the quadrant in which the ball lands provides a decent but far less precise calculation of the distance and position.

Tiger ended up in B-57; Westwood was in T-62. Those are not good places to be.

Westwood was well into the right rough, and Woods was in even worse shape on the left. He yanked his drive closer to the adjacent fairway than his own, easily clearing one cart path and nearly hitting a second.

Both players were so far out of range that Colton had no chance of hitting their golf balls with his laser. So he did what he had been instructed to do in such a situation: Shoot the player's golf bag while it's sitting near the ball.

So much for pinpoint accuracy.

But Woods and Westwood didn't mess up Colton's day nearly as much as they might have. Sometimes a player will land his ball close to the laser, forcing the operator to move the tripod out of the way. He then must radio the ShotLink trailer for a tech to come out and recalibrate the location.

In contrast to the Woods/Westwood mess, the next twosome made life simple. Both players did exactly what golfers are supposed to do: Hit the fairway.

Padraig Harrington's 271-yard drive found the center, leaving him an easy 139 yards to the hole, while Graeme McDowell's 275-yarder landed near the left edge, giving him a tougher, 133-yard shot because he had to contend with a tree overhanging the left side of the green.

Yes, he had 133 yards left. Not 132. Not 134.

Unique system

ShotLink was introduced in 2001, but a couple of years passed before the kinks were ironed out. Today, Sean Howland, the PGA Tour's manager of tournament operations, won't get much of an argument when he declares, ''It's the best scoring system in the world.''

''Nobody else does what we do,'' says Howland. ''The bad news: Nobody else does what we do, so we can't pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, how did you guys figure this out?' ''

ShotLink's control center is a 53-by-14-foot trailer parked along Warner Road east of the clubhouse. That's where all the data are monitored and crunched. The trailer also contains servers, a huge battery-charging station, storage for 100 laptops and plenty of spare parts.

But the system simply couldn't run without the people who help run it for free. They might be inexperienced, but, as Howland notes, ''they take ownership of it.''

Many of the volunteers are casual golfers who probably are happy they're not on the receiving end of the lasers.

A system that counts every shot you take on every hole on the course? Yikes!


Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com.
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