2002: IBM system links spectators to every shot

IBM and the PGA Tour have been partners for a few years now, and each season the computer company upgrades its methods for tracking players electronically. In fact, IBM’s giant leaderboards and laptops have become commonplace at tournaments.

But this year, Big Blue has taken a quantum leap forward with the full-fledged introduction of its sophisticated Tournament Tracker system – a major component of IBM’s ShotLink intranet program, which has existed since IBM teamed with the Tour in 1997.

Originally, the initiative provided speedy, electronic leaderboards, hole-by-hole statistical comparisons, biographical information on players, season scoring and earnings, and a smattering of other data.

Now, ShotLink is providing on-site, instant access at every PGA Tour stop to a megaload of statistics and other information. By using one of approximately 70 IBM ThinkPads set up at each event, a computer user can access customized leaderboards, detailed individual player shot-by-shot tracking information, various course views and history, head-to-head comparisons and a wealth of new statistics. As a user clicks through the computer program, every page offers a real-time Mini Leaderboard and a Breaking News section to help stay on top of developments.

For IBM, its involvement as the Worldwide Information Technology Partner of the Tour – along with developing and displaying these computer programs – serves a major marketing objective: showcasing IBM’s e-business Solutions division.

“Golf makes all the sense in the world for us. Simply, our customers are golfers,” said Rick Singer, IBM’s worldwide sponsorship director. “These new programs allow us to show our customers what we can do, and how it can relate to their businesses.”

For the Tour, the e-system is another way to engage consumers and vie for their entertainment dollars. It envisions full 18-hole Tournament Tracker coverage not only on-site, but integrated for the Internet via its Web site (www.pgatour.com) – allowing fans to follow the competition in real-time, from home or office.

Already, the depth of information provided and the speed with which IBM delivers information and statistics to its ThinkPads – within four seconds of any shot by any player anywhere on the course – are almost mind-boggling. Some fans, in fact, say they could spend hours following a tournament via ShotLink/Tournament Tracker.

“This is the true meaning of real-time scoring,” said Dan Walker, PGA Tour assistant manager of tournament operations. “We’ve added 250 statistics we never had before. It’s added value for sponsors and their guests, and of course for the media and fans.”

It also takes a small armada of personnel to facilitate Tournament Tracker. To start, there’s a full-time PGA Tour staff of 10 that travels from event to event throughout the season. The system is commandeered from a large, mobile production trailer located in the operations compound at each event. The trailer is full of electronic gadgetry that helps coordinators stay in touch with on-course volunteers and augment automatically updated information as needed.

Still in a development phase, Tournament Tracker is being used to monitor a selection of holes. At the recent Buick Classic for example, this comprised the back nine at Westchester (N.Y.) Country Club. To cover such territory, about 40 volunteers were recruited and provided with pre-tournament training. Then they rehearsed in a warm-up session during the Wednesday pro-am before going “live” for four tournament rounds.

Each volunteer, dubbed a “laser operator,” is outfitted with a Palm Vx handheld device that is equipped with a radio transmitter. By monitoring and inputting players’ strokes, every tee shot, approach shot and putt by every player instantly is conveyed to and entered into the Tournament Tracker system for graphic display on a computer diagram of each hole, noting distance, location and updated score.

Each hole has its own page view, displaying constantly updated round-by-round and cumulative statistics for the hole, such as birdies, pars, bogeys, rank and scoring average. By placing the computer cursor over the dots depicted on a screen diagram, the computer instantly informs the user whose shot it was, the distance it was hit and the distance to the hole.

Each player has a main page, providing customized statistical and graphic information for each hole, each round and cumulatively for the tournament and the season.

“We’re always looking for feedback at every tournament to find out what people want us to provide,” Walker said.

And Big Blue is eager to deliver more. Said Singer: “ShotLink isn’t a finished product. It’s really just beginning.”

– Chuck Stogel is a free-lance writer from New York.

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