Golf & Big Data Opportunities:

A view from Indoor Golf

In the last two decades, capturing and analysing golf play related data has increasingly become part of the game. Beyond understanding simple course playing statistics such as averages of Greens in Regulation (GIR) and average driving distance in the professional game, TrackMan’s invention of the golf launch monitor in 2003 revolutionized the scientific understanding of the golf swing and the physics of golf shot-making. TrackMan 4 combines dual doppler radar and Optically Enhanced Radar Tracking (OERT). For years it’s been embraced by the world’s top golf professionals with prominent players such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy using TrackMan for most or all of their careers. In the period since, if you’ve attended PGA Tour events, you’ll have seen the iconic orange boxes sitting behind many, or even most of the players warming up on the driving range.

In more recent years, golf launch monitor technology has become available to the non-professional golfer. Indoor golf facilities, such as Swing Golf Lounge in Toronto, emerged on the small business scene offering the same technology. In this environment, players of all abilities can both enjoy the experience of playing virtual golf courses in a simulator, but also to practice, learn and improve their shot-making performance as the professionals have been doing for a couple of decades.

Capturing and analysing shot data for individual practice sessions, and then further over time, confers major benefits to the golfer seeking to improve their game technically. Benefits increase significantly when a player combines data capture and analysis with personal instruction from a swing coach, or to a lessor extent by absorbing golf swing tips from online and social media resources.

So many more opportunities exist in relation to golf data capture & application!

Since we became commercial venue TrackMan customers in 2018, we’ve been curious about the potential further application of the vast amounts of golf shot data accumulated by golfers playing indoor golf. In our view, what we have seen so far may only have scratched the surface. TrackMan’s data reporting and presentation was excellent from the outset, and that has further improved dramatically following the release of the TrackMan app in 2021; the first consumer-focused application to store and analyse all activities in the TrackMan ecosystem. This data visualization evolution in handheld form is invaluable for all golfers seeking to understand and improve their shot-making and ball striking. However, the leap that has not yet been made, is the delivery of real-time, personalized information to the golfer playing on the course outside, utilizing previously accumulated data. This could offer huge benefits in terms of decision making, course management and scoring improvement. In part, our insight has been gained by understanding how professionals manage risk on the golf course – it’s been explained to us directly by professional players visiting our venue. When marshalling at PGA Tour events, spending an entire week watching an individual hole being played, we’ve observed course management strategies in action – it’s not the same as watching selective camera highlights in TV coverage.

Selecting a Target:

The target is the flag – right? In simple terms that is true, but it’s also not quite that simple, or arguably, it shouldn’t be. Professional golfers take risk factors into consideration, and so should amateur golfers. Professional golfers achieve this by understanding their typical shot dispersion from any given distance and club, and with that in mind, make a risk-based target assessment in order to avoid hazards and minimize bogey mistakes. They are not always firing directly at the pin as is it may appear to the casually observing golf spectator. Golf pros are basing these decisions upon endless hours of practice and analysis, but they don’t take electronically accessed data analysis and visualisation onto the tournament course. However, they do carry this information in their minds and in note form. Very occasionally we may see this in the form of caddie notes. Amateur golfers who have accumulated a sufficient amount of shot data playing indoor golf on TrackMan could, in theory, be presented on course with a swiftly interpreted data visualization to improve target selection also – a virtual caddy who knows your game.

The ’Smarter’ Rangefinder

Laser rangefinders have been used by amateur golfers for more than a decade. Other golfers use GPS, either worn in the form a golf watch, or on screens located in powered golf carts. Top-end rangefinders now incorporate both technologies. Laser rangefinders are almost exclusively used to determine distance to the flag itself. The flag then becomes the target – the player is effectively ‘anchored’ to that distance and then selects a club accordingly. Club selection is then typically based upon player perception of the distance achievable with any particular club. Relatively rarely is consideration given to variability of shot distance achievable with the selected club, nor typical lateral dispersion. The intended consequences are that hazards are unconsciously brought into play with significant statistical probability. A ‘smarter’ rangefinder, incorporating accumulated player data from TrackMan could offer potentially huge player insights to both club and shot selection!

How a ‘Smarter’ Rangefinder might work.

A ‘Smarter’ rangefinder would incorporate personal TrackMan practice-play statistics in on-screen visual form in the rangefinder. This would appear as semi-transparent layer displaying the individual player’s dispersion ‘jellybean’ overlaid upon an aerial view of the target green in the rangefinder. A player would be able to toggle between the normal rangefinder view and the aerial target view.

The simple rangefinder without any TrackMan dispersion ‘jellybean’ adjustment or target realignment focuses the player on the flag alone. In this example, it’s clear that the player’s typical dispersion results in many shots ending up in the water hazard with approximately one-third hitting the green.

The ‘Smarter’ rangefinder incorporates the player’s TrackMan dispersion data and hazard GPS locations to shift the ‘jellybean’ away from the hazard and determine a new target (blue flag). The ‘Smarter’ rangefinder would present the new target on-screen in the rangefinder together with the new target distance. As above, the majority of the ‘jellybean’ is located on the green. Based upon the player’s TrackMan practice data, the ‘Smarter’ rangefinder would also be able to provide club selection guidance (e.g. long 8-iron, soft 7-iron). Other than offering additional wind related assistance, the ‘Smarter’ rangefinder offers guidance similar to a PGA Tour caddie!

We don’t want to get into too much technical detail, but it’s important to make such a ‘jellybean’ visualization practical. It can’t cover all of the shots you’ve accumulated with indoor golf practice; the data would need to be filtered for outlier shots. To achieve that, a player would be able to set a risk tolerance: e.g. at the 95th or 90th percentile – i.e. excluding the 5% or 10% of worst (and potentially even some of the best) shots achieved in practice. All of that can be pre-processed in the cloud and ready for use in the palm of your hand.

Making it Happen: What’s Missing?

So, what’s missing that prevents this development happening, stopping such ‘Smarter’ rangefinders appearing on store shelves, online and in pro shops? In our view, not much. The technology and data already exist between the rangefinder industry and TrackMan. It just hasn’t been connected. It needs to be packaged together in a new market-leading rangefinder product that will take personalized TrackMan big data directly to the golf course. Possibly the USGA and R&A may have issues with such an advanced playing aid being used in formal competition. However, golf isn’t easy for most of us – every opportunity for technology and data to be harnessed to the advantage of player improvement should be embraced. It’s also a huge potential opportunity for indoor golf practice, play and big data accumulation.

Please note: This blog was written by Swing Golf Lounge independently and does not arise from any discussion with TrackMan about their development plans or intentions.

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