If you have ever attended a PGA Tour golf tournament you may have noticed volunteers stationed on each hole who are busily engaged in surveying the fairways. These dedicated and unpaid golf fans are a specially trained group who are responsible for gathering player statistics. This system is known as ShotLink.
PGA Tour Matt Toenjes, who is the Tour operation coordinator for ShotLink and spends 200 days a year on the road, took me behind the scenes of the operation at the 2012 Deutsche Bank Golf Tournament.
350 tournament volunteers are required to attend a formal training session where they learn how to operate the laser guided equipment that is the backbone of the ShotLink program. On Pro-Am day two volunteers will be assigned approximately 300 yards from the tee box on each hole. A laser viewer, looking very much like the hand-held distance finder that you can buy in any golf shop, is attached to a pole.
The yardages of each fairway are measured from various points on each hole and stored in the system. When a player hits his tee shot and his ball comes to rest one of the volunteers peers through the scope and “shoots” the yardage. A second volunteer is part of the team and he uses a scale drawing of the hole and marks the approximate location of the ball. The drawing has a grid and each box formed by the grid is equal to five yards. Both measurements are checked to be sure the information entered into the system is accurate.
In back of each green is a tower where two more volunteers are stationed. A bright orange laser is used to shoot the distances from the ball to the hole. When the player completes the hole a great deal of information has been registered, including length of drive, distance from a ball resting in the fairway, length of putts made and so much more.
Matt brought me into the ShotLink trailer where all the information is fed into the computers and in a fraction of a second the information is made available to TV broadcasters doing the live commentary.
There is a large room where three people are watching a live broadcast and monitoring the information. One screen is crammed with numbers that are constantly changing. If a red number shows up one of the people in the trailer will contact the volunteers and remedy any problems. “They will be in here 12 hours a day keeping an eye on all the screens and statistics.” said Matt.
With each group of players a walking scorer has a laser unit and taps the screen to register each shot made by each player on every hole. This information goes to the trailer and in a matter of seconds the information is flashed on the scoreboards on the course. You will see the length of Tiger’s birdie putt. It can also tell you how many birdie putts he has made from that distance in the past year. Other numbers may give longest birdie putt of the day or closest to the pin.
If you were to sneak a peek in a media tent you would see dozens of golf writers pounding out the stories of the day on their computers. Next to their desks are a number of computers provided by ShotLink. When writing a story I can immediately access information like how far Tiger hit a drive on any hole. What players shot rounds today that were under par and how do they rank when compared to other Tour players.
The pros are the ones who benefit from this information. They may think that they putt well from 20 feet but the stats may prove otherwise. The players and their coaches will analyze the information and determine the weak parts of a player’s game that need to be addressed. With over 500 different categories of statistics available from ShotLink there is a lot of information that can be scrutinized.