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Going high-tech on the PGA tour

On the first hole of the Travelers Championship, my first PGA Tour event, I have a case of the rookie jitters. I've gone through the training and a practice round.

india Updated: Jul 13, 2010 14:22 IST

On the first hole of the Travelers Championship, my first PGA Tour event, I have a case of the rookie jitters. I've gone through the training and a practice round. I feel confident that I'm lined up perfectly on the tee. But I know that if my first stroke goes awry, my entire tournament could be in peril. I need to get off to a perfect start.

And I do. As soon as PGA Tour player John Merrick smashes his drive down the middle of the fairway of the first hole on the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., I enter his stroke into my handheld Symbol device. I do the same when Garrett Willis, then Mark Brooks, also find the fairway with their drives. I follow them as they stroll off the tee to scattered applause from fans gathered on the outside of the ropes.

It's not exactly what I pictured as a 10 year-old in my backyard pretending to hit wedges into the 18th green at Augusta. But walking behind three professional golfers at a tournament and recording their every stroke as a ShotLink volunteer is pretty cool nonetheless.

ShotLink, the PGA Tour's statistical system, was launched 10 years ago, and put into full-time use on the tour in 2003. In the past, recording players' scoring metrics was a seriously low-tech affair. Plus, there were only a few metrics scored (like driving distance, greens in regulation and putts). "The walkers used to mark a sheet of paper and hand it to a little old lady by the green of each hole," says Scott Ross, ShotLink's operations head.

In Pictures: High-Tech Golf Gadgets

But no more, thanks to a command center armed with networked computers, 36 lasers strategically placed on tripods throughout the course, and walking scorers who manually input the number of strokes and the type of lies (fairway, green, bunker, rough) into a handheld device. Instead of five or six basic stats, ShotLink provides more than 600. Years after the Bill Jamesian statistical revolution took hold in baseball, it has begun in professional golf, thanks to ShotLink.

Want to know if Tiger is more likely to spray his drives to the right or the left? (Answer: the right.) Or what Phil's scoring average is on par 5 holes? (4.54, second on the tour.) Or how about the number of feet Kenny Perry converted in his putts en route to winning last year's Travelers Championship? (98 feet.) ShotLink will tell you all of that and a lot more.

All of the real-time statistics and scoring generated are piped into and used by Jim Nantz, Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller on TV broadcasts. ShotLink partners with CDW, which provided hardware and software. ShotLink is wholly owned by the tour.

ShotLink is used at every PGA Tour stop, at all World Golf events and at the PGA Championship. (It's not used at the US or British Opens or on the LPGA or Champions Tours.) The tour employs a full-time ShotLink staff of 14 who travel to tour courses a few weeks ahead of an event. There they do GPS surveys of the courses, set up networks, position the lasers and find volunteers to operate them, as well as to walk the courses as scorers.

ShotLink has become a part of the fan and player experience on the course. I watched John Daly overcook an approach shot into the greenside rough on the ninth hole. As he puffed on a smoke, he glanced at the huge LED scoreboard by the green (one of a handful at every PGA Tour event), where he saw that he had a 57% chance of scrambling for a par. Daly seemed pretty nonchalant about that fact as he sauntered to the green. But other pros have begun to use the technology to hone their games. Ian Poulter, J.B. Holmes, Camilo Villegas, Kevin Na and Geoff Ogilvy have all requested their ShotLink data from the tour.

Big-time universities have also gotten involved. MIT has sifted through the stats to devise a new putting metric; Northwestern did a study of the effect superstar players, like Tiger and Phil, have on any given golf field; Wharton demonstrated that pro golfers are more risk-avoidant than the average population.

The Buddy System
All of the stats are fun and useful, but for the average golf fan, ShotLink provides another great opportunity: volunteering to work as a scorer. To prep me for my day on the links, Ross gave me an overview of the system and took me through a practice round. I was outfitted with a Symbol handheld device, a headset (to relay any mishaps to the command center) and a red Travelers volunteer shirt. Then I was off to the first tee.

Luckily I had Buddy Buder there by my side. Buder has been a volunteer for this tournament for the past few decades. He's a tall, garrulous fellow who helped me figure out where to stand (out of the player's sight lines) and when to walk down the fairway (only after the players and their caddies have passed by). After the first few holes, I calmed down a bit and felt at ease. But it helped to know I was in good hands if anything went awry.

I marked every shot and from where on the course it was hit: tee, rough (first cut and deep), bunkers and the green. Life for a ShotLink walker gets a bit more exciting when a player hits a ball out of bounds and re-tees with a provisional ball. After the round, the ShotLink walker enters the scorer's tent with his players and is sometimes asked to read off the scores.

Volunteering for ShotLink's walking duty is a fun and illuminating experience (for volunteering info, go to You can't help but silently cheer for the players in your group to do well and you get a great feel for each of their personalities--like Mark Brooks, 49, who has had a middle-of-the-pack career highlighted by victory in the 1996 PGA Championship.

He's become sort of the Crash Davis-in-Bull Durham-type now. He spent time walking down the fairway with Willis, 36, and regaled him with tales of rain delays in the early 1980s. Brooks' neck is a dark leathery brown from the years spent walking in the sun, and he sucked on a cigarette on nearly very hole. He was a bit shorter off the tee than the youngsters were, but for the most part he was cannier on and around the greens.

As a volunteer you are right there with the player and his caddy, close enough to see the subtle nods and hear the encouraging murmurs that play a part in that symbiotic relationship (you miss a lot of this interaction during TV coverage, because the announcers often talk right over it). John Merrick, 28, leaned on his caddy for some serious advice on putts and yardage and the slope of the greens. Brooks didn't ask his caddy many questions, but seemed very happy just to have someone carry his bag as he took his walk.

The player's pace is slow enough that recording their shots is fairly easy. In fact, fighting the desire to let your mind wander--you are, after all, walking a beautiful golf course--is the far harder task. All of these guys hit the ball a country mile. All pretty much reached the green in regulation. On regular tour events the tournaments seem to come down to a putting contest. The ability to consistently sink putts from 10 to 15 feet seems to be the magic range for making birdies and avoiding bogeys. By the way, according to ShotLink, the tour pros make 30% of those.

First Published: Jul 13, 2010 14:20 IST