Will AI change the way we play golf?
It's no secret that players on the PGA tour need information about their tournament game. Think 'stats', think fairways and greens hit in regulation (GIR), sand saves, eagles, birdies, pars and bogey. They need this information in order to help them analyse rounds and improve their chances of success.
By Barrie Graham - Sales Manager, Level Global
Improvement through data
As reported in a recent Washington Post article, the tours have had a system helping since 2001, known as ShotLink, which provides information to players and broadcasters. This provides over 32,000 data points per event which can be used by players to analyse and improve their game.
“I made the decision at the end of last year to really look at my stats,” McIlroy said after the Travelers Championship earlier this year. “I think they’ve become very important, and 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.”
Improvement through AI
The ShotLink system, whilst very useful, has always been manually operated - relying on an operator to use a laser to track the ball in flight, or on the green. Now the system has been upgraded to be able to provide data from players' putting strokes by using three AI enabled cameras at every hole. The new system, known as ShotLink+, now provides information on the putt in motion as well as the putt 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.” This information will be available to players, to help them analyse where they were successful and unsuccessful, as well as to commentators to help improve the quality of the insight.
Very entertaining AI
Because of the volume of data the tour creates, it's not possible for humans to analyse it quickly - there are currently 174 million shot attributes (over 20 years' worth and 80,000 digital library hours) in the PGA's tour database. Now the tour is partnering with Microsoft to use Artificial Intelligence to provide rapid insight and analysis.
“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.”
In addition to providing up to the second player performance analysis, the system uses the AI platform to automatically create content. This could include round summaries for every player following each round of a tournament, and create more video highlights, allowing it to “easily put out 200 to 250 videos per week,” according to Scott Gutterman, Vice President of Digital Operations at the PGA Tour.
AI? You bet!
The ability to instantaneously collect and analyse player performance data has implications not only for commentators, but also for the betting industry. Golf is different from most other sports as individual competitive play takes place at the same time, as well as at different times, on the same day. Weather can also play its part. With the ability to collate and analyse performance up to the last shot, odds can be dynamically reviewed and altered in a way that they could never be before.
Putting statistics will be the PGA Tour's first area of focus, "We are going to create some new statistics around putting,” said Evans. “We are going to compute stats around putts that break from left to right, right to left, uphill and downhill. We are going to see what the tendencies are in general and then look at those tendencies by player.”
There's no doubt that AI will in the future be able to more accurately predict the likelihood of that 8 foot putt to take the lead, however, with golf being 'a game of moving parts', I don't think that the surprises that make the game what it is will disappear - and for me that's a good thing.
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