The Technology Behind the Open
As the popularity of golf rises to new heights, technology is playing an increasingly important role in scoring major championships – and communicating those scores to a huge worldwide audience.
By James B. Kerr and James Hill
When Steve Jones sank the final putt that won last year's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, his final score was captured on a hand-held terminal at greenside, transmitted via radio signal to a computer near the clubhouse, tallied with other scores from the day, and transmitted to an Internet server 500 miles away in Eagan, Minnesota. Seconds later, as Jones celebrated his triumph, his winning score was posted on the World Wide Web for viewing by people around the world.
Championship golf today is a study in contrasts. On the one hand is the unchanging nature of the game itself. Perhaps more than any other sport, golf is steeped in heritage and governed by time-honored and rigorously defended rules of play and conduct.
As a game, golf hasn't changed much over the decades. The difference has been in the popularity of the sport. And a lot of that has to do with information technology.
All this tradition, however, belies the highly advanced technology that goes into making a successful golf championship. The same technologies in use in business and government today -- wireless computers, powerful workstations, networks, and yes, even the World Wide Web -- are changing the way golf championships are scored and viewed. Behind the scenes of a major golf championship such as the U.S. Open or British Open, information technologies are at work compiling and verifying the players' scores -- and then communicating those scores instantaneously to meet the voracious appetite of the media and a huge worldwide audience.
"As a game, golf hasn't changed much over the decades," says Dean Knuth, senior director of handicapping for the United States Golf Association (USGA). "Some of the equipment is different. You see people using more metal-head drivers, and the balls are better, but it's basically the same game it was 50 years ago. The difference has been in the popularity of the sport. And a lot of that has to do with information technology."
It wasn't always this way. For decades, golf remained a largely exclusive sport. The cost of equipment was beyond the reach of most people, and golf lacked the broad visibility of other sports such as football and baseball. But since the first television broadcasts of golf tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently with the use of computer technology in championship play, the popularity of golf has skyrocketed -- and not just among executives.
In the United States alone, the number of golfers has more than doubled since 1970 to nearly 25 million. There are some 16,000 public and private golf courses in the United States today, and another 400 courses open each year. U.S. golfers spend some $15 billion each year on golf equipment, merchandise, and greens fees. And all this despite the fact that golf remains a relatively expensive game to play. According to the National Golf Foundation, fees for a weekend round of golf at an 18-hole public course in the United States now average $21 -- and are two or three times more than that on the highly traveled courses on the East and West Coasts.
With such a huge and growing audience, golf tournaments today generate intense media interest in the broadcast, print, and online worlds. (See review of major Web sites covering the game of golf.) More than 750 members of the media from some 500 news organizations will descend upon the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, for this year's U.S. Open when practice rounds begin June 9. Reporters from more than 20 countries will cover the event.
This kind of burgeoning popularity and exposure has placed a premium on accurate, high-speed scoring at major golf championships. Hence the reliance on information technology.
For the USGA, the decision to move to computers for scoring came in 1985. Prior to that time, golf scoring at the U.S. Open relied on telephone lines buried throughout the tournament course. During each round of play, "walking scorers" -- the people who accompany the golfers and record their scores -- completed a scoring ticket and handed it to the greens communicators posted at each green. The greens communicator, donning a telephone headset, then called in the scores to a central area where they were posted on a master score sheet and eventually transferred to the leader boards that display the scores out on the course.
This kind of system invariably led to inaccuracies and delays. "It was hard to keep track of who was in the lead," Knuth relates. "We would use walkie-talkies to call out to the leader boards and give them the updated scores. The television broadcasters, because they had no computer terminals, would place someone in the central scoring area who would watch for which players were doing well and phone that information up to the broadcast booth. With so much reliance on the telephone, there were bound to be messages that were garbled or misinterpreted. The system was prone to human error."
In 1985, the USGA began contracting with Unisys to provide computerized scoring of the U.S. Open. The system made use of a central mainframe placed on site at the championship course. The mainframe kept track of the scores and communicated them to a network of workstations located throughout the tournament site for use by reporters and broadcasters.
While this first generation of scoring system improved accuracy, obvious areas of improvement remained. For one, the system still relied heavily on the telephone. Greens communicators continued to call in the scores, which were then typed into the computer system. Installing the telephone lines throughout the golf course was a major task and posed obvious physical problems -- such as the risks of phone wires being disconnected by passing golf carts.
That problem was solved in 1991 with the introduction of wireless Norand RF (radio frequency) terminals for use by the greens communicators. "We saw these devices being used in warehouses for inventory management," Knuth says. "Unisys and the USGA decided to see if this technology could be used for transmitting scores by wireless right into the mainframe computer. We did a test of it, and it worked, so we adopted it."
The hand-held terminals have transformed the way scores are tracked and disseminated on the course. After each round of play, the greens communicators simply punch the players' scores into their hand-held terminals, and the information is automatically transferred to the central system. In addition, the people who post scores and other information on the leader boards and throughboards use hand-helds so they can immediately receive updated information from the central scoring system. (Throughboards tell spectators the names of the players approaching the green and the scores of those players through the previous hole.)
The result: a marked improvement in the speed and accuracy of the scoring. No more clunky, physically restrictive headsets worn by the greens communicators. No more miles of physical telephone wires buried throughout the course. No more retyping of scores into the computer system.
"Accuracy is much better now than it used to be," Knuth says. "We can quickly find and resolve errors when they happen. We can also find the source of errors. We can compare the correct, official scores to what was entered by the walking scorers. If we find a walking scorer who makes multiple errors, we can get that person retrained or reassigned."
The next step involved a leap into cyberspace. In 1995, the USGA collaborated with Unisys to provide the first-ever posting of three USGA championships -- the U.S. Open, the U.S. Women's Open, and the U.S. Senior's Open -- on the Internet. The same real-time scores being provided by computer to the media were transmitted to the Unisys information center in Eagan, Minnesota, where the data was automatically converted into Web format and posted on the Unisys Web site.
Some 300,000 visitors went to the Unisys Web site that year to check the scores over the course of the three events. In 1996, that number grew to more than a million. This summer, with the continuing rise in the popularity of golf -- particularly with the publicity surrounding golf phenom Tiger Woods -- even more Web visitors are expected for the three USGA tournaments. (Unisys also provides computerized scoring of the British Open and Australian Open, which are also presented on the Web.)
Posting scores of major golf championships on the Web provides many obvious benefits. Given the global and immediate nature of the Internet, scores are available virtually in real-time to anyone worldwide with a computer and Internet access. The Web also proves convenient during the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, which are held during the work week when most people are unable to watch the tournament on television.
"Because of Web scoring, a lot of people who are at work on Thursday and Friday are now able to check out the scores from their desks," Knuth says. "Also, what you see on TV is mainly the leader board -- the top 10 or 15 players. On the Internet, you can view the entire scoreboard. So if you have a favorite player, you can see their score no matter how well they're doing."
The Unisys Web site on the 1997 U.S. Open offers many other features for the golf enthusiast. People interested in a certain player can click on the name of that player on the Web's leader board and find out his individual score for all rounds played during the championship. In addition, Web visitors can learn about the format and schedule of the tournament, find details about the specific layout and challenges of each hole of the Congressional, and delve into the history of the Open and past champions.
The 1997 U.S. Open marks another first for championship golf scoring. Powering the scoring system at this year's Open at Congressional will be a client/server network of Unisys Aquanta personal computers and servers running Microsoft Windows NT -- a network operating system that is garnering growing interest among technology decision-makers worldwide. Sales of Windows NT systems and servers are growing rapidly as organizations begin to use networks of PCs and servers for more intensive, business-critical applications that they depend on to run their businesses. (See sidebar for more details on the technology behind this year's scoring system.)
Among other benefits, this year's system will speed the posting of U.S. Open scores onto the Web. Golf enthusiasts venturing to the Unisys Web site will see scores typically within five seconds of the time they are entered onto the hand-held terminals by the greens communicators.As information technology in general -- and the Web in particular -- continues a dizzying march toward ever-greater sophistication, the future promises more exciting advances in golf scoring. Possibilities on the horizon include greater interactivity, the use of audio and video clips, and other technologies as they emerge.
"We want to ride the Web technology wave and provide visitors interested in the championship with the best experience possible," says David Curry, Unisys vice president of corporate public affairs and the person responsible for the scoring effort.
Despite these advances, the sense of heritage that is so woven into the game of golf will continue. Even today, for all the technologies used in championship play, the leaderboards at the U.S. Open are manual, not electronic. After receiving updates, volunteers change players' scores on the leaderboards the old-fashioned way -- by hanging numbers on hooks.
"We chose to keep the leaderboards manual," says Knuth. "We feel that the manual leader boards are easier for people to read. But more than anything, it's a matter of tradition. Besides, we have plenty of volunteers who are happy to run the leaderboards and do this. It's a way to get them involved. And that's what this is all about -- getting people involved in the game."
Exec, June 1997
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