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When you watch golf on TV, or online, do you ever wonder exactly how the commentators know, within seconds, how far a player is from the fairway? Or from a bunker or hazard? Or on the putting green?

If you are a golf veteran you may heard of something called “ShotLink,” which uses lasers to record distance instantly. But do you really know how it all works?

And why it needs a wireless network and a army of 300-400 volunteers that follow the action on the golf course to bring it successfully together every week?

The backbone of “ShotLink,” – the millions of bits of information on players, club selection, driving lengths, ball placement and course conditions which add up to make golf one of the most-chronicled sports ever – are volunteers.

“ShotLink” is the PGA TOUR’s proprietary real-time scoring system that captures multiple data points on every shot struck during competition, which in turn translates into thousands of statistics and enhanced television graphics that provide far greater insight into player performance and golf course playability.

The PGA TOUR is providing the necessary staff to operate “ShotLink” while the PGA of America is providing the nearly 300-400 “volunteers” required to operate lasers and collect data as walking scorers during all four rounds.

More than 2,500 statistical references to ShotLink data are aired each year that didn’t exist before. For example, “ShotLink” tails a player, measuring his drives to the fairway, his approach shots to the hole and his putts on the green.

“The neatest thing about it is looking at how guys play, how close they’re hitting their wedges, how close they’re hitting their 3-irons, how far they’re driving it and how certain holes are playing.”

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The ShotLink trailer, or “the office,” rolls in a week before the tournament to scout the sky for radio frequency (RF) signals and then collects everything, from the location of each ball, the lie, the distance it travels and the time it is struck.

In order for it to work, a golf course is mapped before the event. A digital image of each hole is used as background information to calculate the exact distances between two coordinates, such as the tee box and the player’s first shot.

“Setting up is 80% of the work,” says Don Wallace, director operations of ShotLink. Data comes pouring into the trailer every second, where a producer monitors the data from the various volunteers on the course.

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The data then is sent to several platforms, TV broadcasters, print media, on-site leader boards, Internet and TOUR Cast, an online application that tracks all the action and gives detailed analysis of the tournament. The instant updates have sped the game up.

Volunteers perform one of two duties, a “walking scorer” or “fairway/greenside laser operator.”

They are sort of “data” paparazzi. They travel in packs, armed with PDAs, stalking players from inside the ropes, recording everything from the exact moment the ball was hit, to the color of a player’s clothing, including verbal expressions.

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They shoot golf balls with laser beams, scrutinize landings and scour maps that chart every bush, bunker and sprinkler head on the course.

1. A “walking scorer” collects attributes of each shot and records the stroke count for each golfer. Each shot is “time stamped” immediately after the player strikes the ball.

2. A “laser operator” locates each ball using survey grade equipment and assigns its exact location, down to the yards, feet, inches and centimeters.

As a former PGA “Shot Link” greenside laser technician, this position is a very special one. These volunteers will be perched on a tower platform varying from 6 to 14 feet high overlooking the green.

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Using “survey grade” laser equipment and a palm pilot, they “shoot” every shot and take multiple measurements per player on the green which is in real-time relayed to the “ShotLink” trailer and to the media.

Players moving constantly, wearing same colored clothes like their playing partners and miserable weather are all part of the hazards of being a greenside laser operator.

Long periods of waiting, punctuated by minutes of high stress, it’s a job that requires a sure hand, steady temperament and a personality not being easily ruffled.

Greenside laser operators are in constant voice communication by radio link which allows them to communicate any problems or concerns directly to the ShotLink staff and producers.

The volunteers’ ability to succeed at this task will be greatly enhanced if they get familiar with the online training guide for Laser Operators, attend advance training sessions earlier in the week, and work and practice the Pro-Am preparing to perform the difficult tasks before the official start of the tournament.

Two volunteers, working as a team, on the greenside platform are key to the success of the greenside laser position. One volunteer can keep up with play and control the communication back to the “Shotlink” trailer, while the laser technician operates the device.

PGA Shotlink

Rolf (Greenside Laser Technician), Jim Berkey (Course Marshal) 2009 BMW Championship, Cog Hill, Dubsdread 4.

Shotlink information has been valuable beyond its intended purpose. Players, swing coaches, architects and rules officials all have benefited from the data.

Players can analyze their games in a more detailed way and watch how a tournament unfolds in the early rounds.

“You can use it to your advantage seeing how a hole is playing, where not to miss the green. If you’re playing late you can use it to see where guys are having their biggest trouble.”

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Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, Dubsdread 4, Lemont, Illinois.

Course architects can tap into it when they make changes to a course, and rules officials can determine how to set up the course strategically.


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