UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Chambers Bay is a massive property, spanning some 950 acres and challenging players with the longest golf course in U.S. Open History at more than 7,900 yards.
That immense size is not only difficult for players — who must navigate the gigantic bunkers and climb the grassy mounds of the links-style course — but also for fans who want to watch some of the best golfers in the world compete.
One of the biggest criticisms we heard on the course during the first round of play on Thursday was that tournament operator USGA made it nearly impossible for fans to walk along with their favorite players. In many cases, fans are unable to get close to players, and the proposition of moving from hole to hole is a difficult one.
The layout of the 8-year-old course also makes golf viewing a challenge, with the idea of moving from, say, hole #15 to hole #9 a daunting proposition.
In order to alleviate some of that pain, the USGA turned to technology, allowing U.S. Open fans for the first time to use mobile phones to get a better idea of what’s happening on the course. That includes live video feeds and player location technology within the mobile apps.
“I think the USGA’s mindset around it has been: let’s walk before we run with it,” said Noah Syken, Vice President of Global Sponsorships at IBM, the official technology provider of the U.S. Open. Syken said the main objective was to provide more context and information to fans on the course, enhancing the experience.
“This is a huge property, and so how do we bring some capabilities to the phone to explain where they are and where they can get to,” said Syken of the U.S. Open apps for Android and iOS. “I think it is still early days for the USGA, in particular, in terms of tapping into the mobile capability.”
One of the new technologies in the mobile app is the ability for fans to track specific players and playing groups on the course.
We got a behind-the-scenes look at this technology and others on Thursday from IBM, creator of the tournament’s apps and digital experiences. Stationed in mobile units behind the 18th green, about 15 IBM staffers analyze data flowing in from the course, including the player location data.
The player locator isn’t unique, having been deployed at The Masters earlier this year and at other PGA tournaments over the past few years. But it plays an especially important role at Chambers Bay given the unusual course layout in an old gravel and sand mine.
Tracking dozens of golfers across the expanse of Chambers Bay is no easy task. To pinpoint players, each standard bearer — the volunteer who carries a sign with the name of the the player and his score — has a GPS unit embedded in the sign. Volunteers also use lasers to track each shot on the course, providing a treasure trove of data for golf fans.
“Prior to its existence, you could deduce where a player was based on the groupings, and you knew they might be on the next hole, but this gives you a little bit more precision about where they are on the course,” said IBM’s Syken. “It also gives you information about how that player is doing, so you get the player profile.”
This is especially important at Chambers Bay since the viewpoints on the course are limited, and it can be challenging to see the standard bearer holding the sign. With the player locator, fans can see if players are on the tee box or on the green.
In our experience, using both an iPhone and Android device, the player locator functionality was spotty at times, with lag times that didn’t always keep up with the positioning of the player. On a few holes, the app noted that no players were on the hole, even though we were watching groups on the tee box or in the fairway.
Poor cell phone coverage also played a role, with my AT&T service dropping at several points during the first round (despite efforts by the wireless carriers to boost capacity at Chambers Bay).
The ball positioning data, provides a wealth of information as well. For example, golf fans who visit the U.S. Open website are able to see that Tiger Woods — who performed horribly on the first day — hit just 43 percent of fairways and 50 percent of greens. That compared to an average of 72.6 percent and 68.7 percent, respectively, for the entire field.
These so-called “hole insights” — derived from the laser ball tracking — help fans get a better picture of what’s happening on the course.
“We have built the experience within the player’s scorecard so you can have a shot-by-shot commentary, so you know the not only the end result of that hole but how the player ended up achieving it,” said John Kent, Program Manager of Worldwide Sponsorship Marketing at IBM. “It is hopefully about more engaging experiences and more insightful experiences.”