PGA Tour is embracing artificial intelligence

|     Neil Greenberg     |

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – PGA golfers such as four-time major champion Rory McIlroy embrace the tens of thousands of data points – roughly 32,000 per event – that the tour’s ShotLink System has offered since 2001.

“I made the decision at the end of last year to really look at my stats,” McIlroy said after last week’s Travelers Championship. “I think they’ve become very important, and I think the strokes-gained stats, whether it’s tee to green or putting or around the green or whatever, I think that’s been one of the biggest changes for good that we’ve seen in golf, because it really just lets you see how your game stacks up against everyone else.”

Good news, Rory. For the first time Thursday at the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, three fixed, high-resolution cameras, part of the tour’s upgraded ShotLink+ ball-tracking system, replaced the human-operated laser on every green of every hole, capturing the ball in motion as opposed to only the ball at rest.

“It’s the next phase of how we get the data without having to have human interaction on everything that happens,” said Matt Troka, senior vice president of product and partner management of CDW, a technology partner of the PGA Tour. “We went from a single point of data to thousands of points of data overnight.”

The amount of data collected by the PGA Tour is staggering. Alex Turnbull, director of the tour’s broadcasting production team, estimates there are 174 million shot attributes in the tour’s database, making it unwieldy for humans to make sense of them all. Instead, the PGA Tour is partnering with Microsoft and will use artificial intelligence to leverage 20 years of statistical data and 80,000-plus hours of video in its digital library.

One of three ShotLink trucks the PGA Tour uses to collect data. – THE WASHINGTON POST

Artificial intelligence, a term coined in 1950s by John McCarthy, a math professor at Dartmouth, simply means a computer will do things that require intelligence when done by humans. The NBA uses AI to make sense of its vast amount of shooting data, and the International Gymnastics Federation plans to introduce AI to help judge the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The PGA Tour will use it, at first, to enhance its television broadcasts and digital storytelling.

“We want to enhance the entertainment value of our sport with ball-in-motion data,” said Steve Evans, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of information systems. “The ShotLink broadcast team is focused on one broadcaster who is telling a specific set of stories. The broadcaster next door might be telling a completely different set of stories. And if you are writing for our digital content, it’s another set of stories. Instead of trying to scale that function with people, we are trying to automate it.”

The change might go unnoticed by fans watching a tournament, but the quality of the on-screen product should be much improved. Using an example supplied by the PGA Tour, Bryson DeChambeau missed the green on a par-five at the Memorial in June, landing 57 feet from the hole. DeChambeau’s performance in these situations was instantaneously transmitted to the broadcast booth, providing the commentators with all the information they needed – such as that DeChambeau was leading the field with a scrambling rate of 80 per cent – to provide colour commentary. Even the most prepared broadcasters don’t always have the data they need at their fingertips; now it appears they won’t have to.

The tour will also use the AI platform to automate content creation, providing round recaps for every player in the field following every round of a tournament, and create more video highlights, allowing it to “easily put out 200 to 250 videos per week,” said Scott Gutterman, vice president of digital operations at the PGA Tour.

Video content for the PGA Tour is important. Unlike a basketball or football game, where everything is happening in front of you, golf tournaments have many moments happening simultaneously in different places, making it difficult to keep up with every player at every juncture of the event. Gutterman looked to the NFL as a possible solution.