Collin Morikawa was not walking the fairways at the Albany Golf Club or hanging out at the beach the Monday before the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ event in the Bahamas. He was 15 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip at TPC Summerlin, along with Michelle Wie West, Max Homa, Danielle Kang, Harry Higgs, David Duval, Graeme McDowell and a host of other PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players.
Caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay was there, too, as the emcee of the first AWS Golf Invitational, a corporate pro-am for Amazon Web Services and Deloitte VIPs in town for a massive conference. And all of them were about to become guinea pigs for new technology that potentially could change how golf fans watch and interact with the sport and data on multiple tours.
The PGA Tour is king of the mountain when it comes to collecting data from all the shots players hit during most Tour events. Using ShotLink, developed in 2003, the Tour can provide fans with detailed information about where players hit the ball, all in or close to real time. It’s an expensive system that requires a lot of boots on the ground to produce, and currently, ShotLink is out of reach for the PGA Tour Champions, Korn Ferry Tour and the LPGA Tour.
Collin Morikawa at TPC Summerlin (David Dusek/Golfweek)
To make similar data available beyond the PGA Tour, the Tour is working to develop a lighter, less-expensive shot-tracking and statistics platform for the Korn Ferry Tour and Champions Tour while simultaneously developing the next generation of ShotLink.
Enter Amazon Web Services and those pros and pro-am guests at TPC Summerlin — site of the PGA Tour’s Shriners Children’s Open — all there on behalf of AWS. They were part of a beta test of the new system, and I was the only reporter on-site to get a first look at a system that might revolutionize how golf fans are able to interact with the sport on multiple tours.
It’s all part of a plan to help the PGA Tour and other tours attract new viewers through enhanced engagement, something fans have already received a taste of, using a combination of ShotLink and Amazon’s vast computing network, and through a new alternative system that might best be described as ShotLink Lite.
In March the PGA Tour announced it was entering a new partnership with AWS and gave golf lovers a preview. During the 2021 Players Championship – while another Tour partner, CDW, helped it gather data on the course – AWS powered Every Shot Live, an OTT platform that gave fans the ability to see every shot hit by each player in a tournament. That was more than 32,000 shots in real time, a massively complex data and computing job. AWS’ powerful cloud-based tools and infrastructure helped make it possible.
A golfer wearing the PGA Tour’s new wearable device (David Dusek/Golfweek)
Ken Lovell, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of golf technology, has been thinking about how to shrink the demands of ShotLink and make it easier to gather data. Ideally, he wants to use fewer people, make the system easier to set up and deliver it all at a cost that makes it viable for organizations that do not have the PGA Tour’s deep pockets.
At the AWS Golf Invitational pro-am, every player, including the pros, wore a small black device clipped to his or her belt or waistband. The 3D-printed box contained a GPS sensor and other electronic components. Using data collected by the device and information collected by a walking scorer and TrackMan launch monitors, the goal was to see if TourCast-style information could be gathered.
Each pro in a Korn Ferry or Champions Tour event would need to wear one of the new sensors for the system to work. Would the numbers be as to-the-inch accurate as the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system? No. But according to Lovell, the system could determine a player’s position within one club length, which is more than what is currently collected.
The team already had used this system to gather data using a handful of Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour Champions players. Those small tests went well. This pro-am test would see if the system could track 90 golfers at once in a scramble format with a shot-gun start, without the vast infrastructure needed for a typical Tour event.
I had a chance to try the next generation of ShotLink in Las Vegas last week alongside @david59duval and @HV3_Golf. Some very cool stuff is coming soon. pic.twitter.com/h0dwYbNuR9
— David Dusek (@Golfweek_Dusek) December 9, 2021
As the morning progressed, drinks and laughter flowed. No one had a problem wearing the sensor. The sensor was no issue for me, but with major winners Duval and Jimmy Walker watching me on the 10th tee (my first hole of the day), I was so nervous I topped my opening tee shot. However, I redeemed myself with my wedge play and, as the system verified, my putter was hot.
Making a 19-foot birdie putt helped the author overcome a humiliating opening tee shot. (PGA Tour)
Like most beta tests, some hiccups and issues arose throughout the day, but Lovell and his team were pleased with how things went.
The PGA Tour hopes to make the wearable sensor smaller and have this system fully operational and in use by mid-summer on the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Champions. That means that for the first time those tours would have statistics that go beyond counting metrics like fairways hit, greens in regulation and putting average.
If Lovell and his team can make this work, they could also be on the verge of making it feasible for tours like the LPGA to provide stats and shot-tracking to players and fans.
The PGA Tour’s ShotLink system was created in the early 2000s. (Chris Cox/Getty Images)
As for the future of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink, this is what should get PGA Tour fans most excited.
The current ShotLink system was developed nearly 20 years ago, and while some improvements have been made, the world of technology has evolved and fan expectations have changed. Golf lovers want video, stats and control – all in real time.
As Lovell puts it, the challenge is that he and his team must create the next ShotLink system that can deliver all that while simultaneously maintaining the current system. It’s akin to building a plane mid-flight while not tinkering with a system that has served fans well since its creation.
The goal is to have the Every Shot Live experience that golf lovers experienced during the 2021 Players Championship become the standard. Right now, ShotLink only captures data on one course during multi-course tournaments, but the Tour aspires to collect data on each at events such as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Farmers Insurance Open. All that will take streamlined logistics, enhanced software and telecommunications networks, as well as more cameras, new sensors and lots of expensive, high-tech equipment.
Francessca Vasquez is the vice president of technology for AWS. Her company’s machine-learning capabilities and analytics tools are being used by several sports leagues, including Formula One and the National Football League, which uses AWS to develop next-generation statistics like those in the company’s commercials.
“We are in an evolution right now regarding how content gets created and how it gets distributed and what the experience is like,” said Vasquez, who not only plays golf but happily will tell you she plays the same pink Ping driver that Bubba Watson uses. “I think for the PGA Tour, they are trying to get that experience to their existing fan base, but there is an entire population that is not in the fan base right now that they want to be able to go out and acquire.
“To me, it is not one pillar that we are focused on. We are focused on engagement and who we have today, but we are also looking at how we can make the fan experience more enhanced, and in the process, how do we attract and acquire more fans who might not traditionally be into golf.”
To do that, AWS and the PGA Tour are creating a massive data repository that contains petabytes of previously shot footage and data. To give that figure some reference, a modern smartphone might have 128 or 256 gigabytes of storage, which is enough to hold about 50 Hollywood films. It takes 1,000 gigabytes to create a terabyte, and one thousand terabytes equals one petabyte. Added all together, it is years of video, audio and other data.
As it gets sorted and added to the system to make it accessible to all AWS’ systems and tools, the PGA Tour can start using it in new and better ways, with an aim for it to flow into the system. That will allow the Tour to focus on developing new, fan-focused ways of seeing the game.
For example, in the not-too-distant future, the Tour could use AWS’ facial recognition tools to help cameras recognize players. So, whenever a camera spots Jordan Spieth, the AWS-enabled system could add the footage to a Spieth collection of content, tag it with a location and searchable keywords, then make it available to fans. Want to see all of Spieth’s putts from between 10 and 15 feet? Easy. All of his tee shots on par 3s? No problem. Every eagle, here you go. And all of it can be done faster and with fewer people involved in the process.
The system is not there yet, but according to Vasquez and Lovell, those are the kinds of things AWS and the PGA Tour want to deliver.
“The biggest area that I think the Tour wants to focus on is the all-around experience,” Vasquez said. “There will be new capabilities for things like StatCast and leaderboards, but the real value beyond just the data is creating an experience where end users feel like they are there.”
So while the PGA Tour works to bring data gathering and more stats to more tours in the weeks and months ahead, the future of how golf fans experience the game looks to have an even brighter future ahead.
(Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better illustrate the relationship between Tour partners CDW and AWS.)
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