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June 12, 2013

The author reflects on the Northern Trust Open and how much the event has evolved since he first attended decades ago. The most notable change? Added technology.By Greg Flores

I hate to date myself, but I’m a child of the 70’s. O.K., I was born late in 1969, but all my earliest memories are from what is arguably the wackiest era of our country’s history. For those who did not live through or experience the 70’s here are three things that shaped me as a human being. My mother purchased and made me wear plaid printed, bell-bottom pants with a white belt. I saw Star Wars on a single screen movie theater, by myself, 12 times. And, the very first PGA TOUR event I ever attended was the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open.

The PGA TOUR had partnered with a number of celebrities such as Jamie Farr, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas and the “Rhinestone Cowboy” himself. If you are under age 40, it’s sad to say, but you might need to hit Wikipedia to see who those people were. It was a valiant attempt to bring publicity to a game that was known more for bad clothes, even by 70’s standards, and lagged well behind the major sports in terms of popularity.

I have several vivid memories from that tournament. The first came while walking through the parking lot and meeting a very cool looking man wearing shiny aviator glasses. I had no idea who he was, but he looked impressive and my dad encouraged me to ask for an autograph. I nervously approached the strange man and handed him my logo emblazoned, oversized white visor that was another fashion favorite of the era and watched as he scrawled his signature onto the pure white cloth. The man extended his big paw of a hand and thanked me for coming out to watch. Being dumbstruck and all of 9-years-old I had no response, witty or otherwise. My dad thanked him as I tried to make out the signature on the visor. If he had been a baseball player, I probably would have nailed it, but I was having some difficulty making out the name. Slowly and quizzically, I asked my dad, “Is his name Fuzzy?” He nodded his head affirmatively and I remember laughing out loud.

We headed through the gate with our badges for the event and we were handed a simple slip of white paper with names, numbers and times printed on it. “What’s this?” I asked my father. He explained that it was a pairing sheet and it told us where all the players were on the golf course. For hours we marched around Riviera CC, criss-crossing the course with the sheet as our only guide in our seach for such luminaries of the period, including Lanny Wadkins, Rex Caldwell, Ed Fiori and my new favorite golfer in the whole world, Fuzzy Zoeller. Between the wild clothes, Caldwell’s crazy moustache and the cool sound a persimmon driver makes as it impacts a ball, the game had me hooked.

The PGA TOUR sure has come a long way.

In 2013, Glen Campbell’s former shindig, now known as the Northern Trust Open, will be celebrating the 86th battle of Los Angeles when players tee it up once again at Riviera CC on February 12-17.

There are many more elite athletes in the field than there were in ‘79. The player’s attire is a lot flashier in a modern euro-fashion sort of way, and the fan experience has evolved greatly from the single white pairing sheet of my youth. It’s an evolutionary fact that is not lost on the event’s title sponsor.

“Our clients have that expectation,” said Sheryl Larson, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing for Northern Trust. “Especially in the L.A. market, people are very aware and used to using technology, so we want to make sure we can meet that expectation. Even before they get to the tournament.”

Utilizing new technology like quick response (QR) codes, golf fans can scan a print ad with their smart phone to instantly purchase tickets for the tournament. It’s a quantum leap even from the early 90s and the dawn of the internet.

“The mid 90s was the craziest time when everyone was trying to have an online presence,” said Steve Evans, Senior Vice President of Information Systems for the PGA TOUR. “Now, this is the second wave. There’s a myriad of availability for people to interact in a combination of social media and mobile devices.”

Social media like the omnipresent Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest allow an event to keep the fans up to date on every bit of minutia while they share their own individual thoughts, predications and experiences. Elaborate websites coupled with immersive and detailed phone applications have made the experience of being on the pulse of a PGA TOUR event a reality for fans.

“On our apps, you can see every single stroke of every single player,” said Scott Gutterman, Senior Director of Operations for the PGA TOUR, whose team works diligently to make sure the features they offer benefit the casual fan attending the event all the way down to the most devout follower tracking all the stats from his darkened basement while live publishing out to the blogosphere. “It’s a blend really. It‘s two different experiences. If you just want to check the leaderboard, you can do that. If you are at the event and you want to track the exact location of the players on the course, you can do that too.”

Fan’s downloading the PGA TOUR’s app can have access to an avalanche of information. It’s not just live scoring. It’s shot tracking for every player calculating precise distances and details with fully mapped out animations and renderings of the golf course. If Phil Mickelson drives it into a greenside bunker on the 10th hole, you will know all about it as it’s happening. It’s not just the stars; it tracks the play and performance of every player in the field all the way down to the final qualifier into the tournament. The software has been refined and tuned to the point where users can see where a player drove the ball on a particular hole in previous rounds and even back over past years. It has that level of sophistication and detail. It’s like being in the head of the caddy for every player on the course.

The technology has even allowed the TOUR to spawn a new stat called “Strokes Gained Putting.” It was compiled from years of data and determines the probability of a PGA TOUR player holing a putt from a particular area. For example, a player putting from 7’10” should get that putt down in 1.5 strokes. If he makes it, he’s picked up a half shot on the field. Miss it and he’s lost a half shot to the field. It really is a stat-geeks dream come true.

In order to pull off this minor technological miracle, the PGA brings along a small staff and utilizes a devoted army of volunteers to make it all happen. There are 11 LED scoreboards at every TOUR event, a team managing the scoring system, a computer system to take advantage of the data collected onsite and everyone works in synchronicity to feed it all out to the different outlets.

The impressive ShotLink system is operated with a small staff on site, but the real heroes are the volunteers working in the trenches that serve as the walking scorers that perform data entry corresponding to every shot. Volunteers are stationed along every fairway and every green. They shoot the ball with a laser that computes the coordinates of where the ball is so the crew can run the computations showing the distance of the drive, the distance to the pin and so on.

It’s a process that the team loves as they work to deliver a network quality experience to the fans. “We are not only building it (the app) for the PGA TOUR, but all the Tours we support,” said Gutterman. “You have to factor in all the complexities and scenarios you could face. We will actually send a team out weeks before an event to remap portions of the course where there have been changes such as sand traps, tee boxes and greens. We will assimilate that back into the app to generate new graphics.”

The fans have a voice in how it all works too as the TOUR listens to the fans and integrates feedback they receive through website.

It’s sure is a long way from the simple white pairing sheet.

Greg Flores is a freelance writer for the SCGA. This article can also be found in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of FORE Magazine.

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