Two Worlds, One Link

Tracy W. Birch, a professional land surveyor, aims the cross hairs of his geodimeter (a surveying grade laser) at an object on the eighth green at the Bay Hill Country Club in Orlando, Florida. Simultaneously Tiger Woods, on his third comeback tournament, walks onto the green to line up his putt.

But wait a minute! How can a professional land surveyor and Tiger Woods be on the same green at the same time? The answer is simple: ShotLink!

ShotLink is the perfect marriage of all the latest hi-tech devices and is an integral part of the PGA TOUR. With the help of professional land surveyors and their services, every shot hit on the PGA TOUR is recorded and archived for day-to-day or year-to-year analysis. ShotLink is the means by which you see that exact distance on your TV screen from the ball to the cup. But there is so much more.

ShotLink achieves this through the help of professional technicians and more than 350 volunteers per tournament. There are also 54 walking scorers and a 52-foot trailer with a 60-foot mast. Not to mention 11 LED scoreboards, 150 laptop computers, 36 lasers, 18 steel towers, and several powerful servers and DSL modems, plus wi-fi, hardwire, and enough batteries that if thrown into a big sack could anchor a large ship to the ocean floor.

If all this sounds like a lot of equipment, times it by three! At any given time there are three ShotLink sets moving about the country, and, oh yes, there is another set for use when things have to be shipped overseas.

When I first pitched the idea for this story four months before the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, I never pictured I'd be in the midst of something special, but that's how it worked out. My assignment for Professional Surveyor Magazine was to report on how surveying technology is being used in professional golf. I wanted the excitement of the crowd as well as a pro golfer to complement my pictures. And when Tiger Woods' caddy Stevie Williams glared at me and my camera and refused to take his eyes off of me, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
His boss, the greatest golfer and perhaps the greatest athlete of all time, was about to complete a great return to the sport he had dominated until undergoing major surgery nearly a year ago. And here I was in the middle of his comeback, just innocently reporting about the use of surveying skills and hi-tech equipment for this magazine. Perfect! There could not have been a better scenario for this story.

Who Is ShotLink?

All the hi-tech gadgetry in the world could not pull off what ShotLink does without the proper people at the helm, and that is where ShotLink really shines. Jeff Howell is technical operations manager and Jake Taylor is assistant technical operations manager; together they provide a one-two punch of professionalism that keeps everything running smooth as silk. Every staff member under their charge shares the same professional quality. With Pat, Graham, Jennifer, and Jonathan in the ShotLink command center there never seemed to be an anxious moment. Tiger was making a comeback against fellow pro Sean O'Hair, and all was calm at command central. It was an almost unbelievable calm.

With the technical ability and professionalism of ShotLink established, let's take a look at how it all happens. How is every ball tracked and how does that exact putting distance of, say, six feet three inches show up on my TV screen? I asked Jake Taylor to run me through the procedure.
"It all starts with our surveyors," says Jake. "We have secured the services of JMS Geomatics out of Tucson, Arizona to provide us with a coordinate system for the entire course with an X, Y, and Z component. They map all the bunkers, tee boxes, and fairways outlines. They map the greenside and fairway laser positions as well as three reference points for each laser. All data is put into the GIS program, ArcPad."

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Mayerle, president of JMS Geomatics, about the procedure. I rode along with Joe Mayerle (Mike's brother) as he was mapping the course. In the short time I spent with Mike and Joe I must say that JMS Geomatics, together with their senior RLS Dave Janssens, make for a perfect fit with the PGA TOUR.

A Day on the Green

On the morning of each tournament day the tee block positions and pin positions are measured and logged into the system. They are changed daily to add variety to the play. Now, with a two-person team manning both fairway and greenside laser, I'll take you through one hole of play. This should answer your questions about how that accurate dimension gets on your TV screen. This is how I observed it, and I will use Tiger as an example.

Tiger takes his driver from the bag, grabs a tee, and heads for the blocks. A member of the fairway laser team identifies Tiger through his binoculars and taps his name on the handheld data manager (ShotLink uses the Symbol model MC 70 handheld).

Tiger tees off and lands a beautiful drive in the fairway across from the laser team. The cross hairs of the advantage model laser (from the company Atlanta Laser) is aimed at the ball. The trigger is pulled and released, and a measurement is taken.

But wait a minute. Just a distance to the ball won't give us a position; we need an angle also. So how does a handheld laser mounted on a tripod give us an angle? Simple: Laser Atlanta has added an electronic 360-degree circle to the top of the tripod. Now we have both angle and distance to the ball. A quick tap on the enter button and the ball position relative to the tee blocks and pin are sent via wi-fi to the command center. The accuracy of the fairway laser is more-or-less six inches.
Tiger, now in the fairway, takes his club of choice from the bag and takes aim for the green. Up in the steel tower a member of the greenside laser crew looks through his binoculars and, by using clothing information, identifies Tiger, taps the appropriate player's name on the handheld, and waits for the ball to land on the green.

Tiger lands a nice shot a short distance from the pin. A member of the greenside laser crew in the tower sights the bottom half of the ball with the geodimeter (mounted on a base plate up in the tower). He then takes a measurement to the ball and waits for the distance to the pin to populate on the screen of his handheld. If it looks correct he sends the data via wi-fi with the push of a button to the 60-foot mast at command central. The accuracy of the green-side laser is plus- or-minus one inch. The second member of each laser team manually records the ball placement from a provided laminated grid sheet as a back-up method of securing the ball's position to the local grid.
Upon arriving at the command center, the raw measurements to the ball are sent to the geometry management program, then to the message distribution program, where they are placed into seven different programs. The information is then sent via wi-fi and hardwire to the 11 LED scoreboards and 150 laptop computers, including those in the media center and the NBC and Golf Channel television trailers. The information is accessed through a common interface called "tournament tracker." The entire process is automated and takes about seven seconds!

After the information arrives at the NBC television graphics trailer, it is mixed with PGA TOUR-style graphics and sent to the main NBC television command center. From there it is sent via a satellite dish to an orbiting satellite and then beamed down to the main NBC headquarters. It is then broadcast to your television.

What Happens to All the Data?

It is temporarily stored at the command center from round to round, but it is ultimately sent to the headquarters of the PGA TOUR. From there it is used to provide information to the following people (and more): media outlets (print, film, etc.), golf course superintendents, and agronomists working with golf course superintendents to help them prepare course condition. And the PGA TOUR players have access to the post data. However, players are not allowed to see the data during the round, nor are they permitted to be told about it.

That is an abbreviated version of how those measurements get from the golf course to your television. When I first took on this assignment I wanted to keep it light-hearted and not so technical, but it is very hard to talk about an organization such as ShotLink without being technical. For those of you who are not of the technical type I hope you enjoy the pictures, because I had a lot of fun shooting them.

And for those of you who don't follow pro golf, Tiger Woods shocked the golf world by coming back from a five-shot deficit in the final round to win the four-day tournament by one shot over Sean O'Hair, matching his greatest comeback on the PGA TOUR. And by the way, he sank a putt of 15 feet 11 inches on the final hole to complete his astounding comeback. How did I know it was 15 feet and 11 inches? ShotLink of course!

A Special Thanks
Thank you Jack White, Jeff Howell, and John Bush of the PGA TOUR for making this story possible. And a very special thank you to Jake Taylor of the PGA TOUR who filled my brain with so much information I could have written five articles. Thank you Jake for taking the time that you did and showing me such hospitality. It was a great


About the Author

  • Thomas LaCorte, PSM
    Thomas LaCorte, PSM
    Thomas G. LaCorte, PLS, is a professional land surveyor and an author with more than 35 years of experience in surveying.

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