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As a PGA Tour ShotLink volunteer, I tried to follow the bouncing balls at TPC Boston

The Globe's Marty Pantages draws a bead on a shot on the seventh fairway during the Northern Trust at TPC Boston in Norton.
The Globe's Marty Pantages draws a bead on a shot on the seventh fairway during the Northern Trust at TPC Boston in Norton.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

NORTON — Pressure on the PGA Tour comes in many forms.

It starts with nerves on the first tee, quickly moves to risk/reward decisions on that reachable par-5 that features a 245-yard carry over water to a postage-stamp green, and ends with a slippery 3-foot putt on the 18th hole to survive the weekend cut.

My Tour pressure moment came last week, on a Thursday morning on the par-5 seventh hole at TPC Boston, not with a Wilson 7-iron in my hands but rather a TruPulse 360R Laser Rangefinder and a Dell Latitude tablet.

As a member of the small army of volunteers for the PGA Tour’s ShotLink crew at the Northern Trust, the first leg of the FedExCup Playoffs, I was responsible for providing players’ shot-by-shot and scoring information in real time to everyone from Adam in Akron to Zachary in Zurich.


Just before 9 a.m., I nervously awaited the arrival of our first threesome of the day, along with Tony Pencek, my ShotLink partner at the “fairway long” position on the 600-yard hole. We were stationed near the large fairway bunker that bisects the hole some 120 yards from the green, and would be charting approach shots.

As the “fairway quick” operator, Tony’s task was to log, in 10 seconds, whether a player’s shot ended up in the fairway or the rough. My job — fairway laser — was a bit tougher, so I had 30 seconds to find the ball, point and shoot the laser, and confirm the location on the tablet. Talk about a downhill 4-footer for par.

Chez Reavie’s Titleist Pro V1 was my first target, and as I peered through the rangefinder’s eyepiece, I knew it was going to be a long morning: The pale sky all but prevented a clear view of an in-flight ball. Luckily for me, Reavie’s 233-yard blast from the fairway plopped over the bunker and came to rest 86 yards from the pin. Point, shoot, confirm, with time to spare. One golfer down, 123 to go.


The backstory

ShotLink was launched in 2001 and became the PGA Tour’s platform for collecting and disseminating scoring and statistical data on every shot by every player in real time. The information gathered by on-course volunteers is confirmed by producers in ShotLink’s state-of-the-art production truck, then sent out to the Tour’s website, app, and social media platforms.

While the real-time shot-by-shot information is frequently the first thing golf fans will notice when they visit the pgatour.com website, the real explosion came in the statistical data.

“Before ShotLink, the PGA had four statistics for players,” said Don Wallace, vice president of ShotLink and Tour operations. “Driving distance, greens in regulation, sand saves, and number of putts. After ShotLink, there were more than 200 new categories created.”

In comparison, the revolutionary changes in golf clubs — namely drivers — began when TaylorMade introduced the first steel-headed club in 1979. By the 1990s, titanium drivers hit the market, and it was full speed ahead when Callaway debuted its Great Big Bertha in 1995.

 The ShotLink volunteers keep fans apprised of where each player's ball is at all times.
The ShotLink volunteers keep fans apprised of where each player's ball is at all times.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Meanwhile, statistics were still being kept with a persimmon pencil and paper. There were also holes the size of a Royal Troon pot bunker in the statistics.

Take John Daly, for example.

“We really don’t have an accurate distance for his drives,” Wallace said. “They didn’t use a laser measuring device and would only measure a player’s drives twice in a tournament.”


And putting?

“If a player had two putts on a green, were they two putts from 60 feet or 6 feet?” said Wallace. “Those were details that were missed.”

Technological leaps

ShotLink solved those mysteries and rolled out intriguing categories such as bogey avoidance, consecutive sand saves, and percentage of yardage covered by tee shots, to name but a few. The numbers and graphics have become a large part of television broadcasts.

And don’t think for a second that players aren’t paying attention.

“Billy Horschel and Bryson DeChambeau both have statistical people working on their teams,” Wallace said.

Dustin Johnson's progress is tracked by ShotLink on the PGA Tour's website.
Dustin Johnson's progress is tracked by ShotLink on the PGA Tour's website.PGA Tour

When tournament titles and berths in the lucrative FedExCup Playoffs are often decided by a stroke, players are looking for any blade-of-grass-thin advantage they can get.

And while the data have changed, so has the collection process.

When ShotLink debuted, volunteers used a grid overlay of the fairway to mark the ball’s location.

“It was almost like playing Battleship,” Wallace said of the board game. “D-22 (miss!), and then they entered that information into a hand-held device.”

A rangefinder and a tablet are the tools of the trade.
A rangefinder and a tablet are the tools of the trade.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

That method sometimes fell prey to the elements.

“One year, a gust of wind blew my grid sheet into a bunker,” said Pencek. “So I had to go into the sand to get the sheet, and one of the marshals is waving at me like, ‘What are you doing? Get out of there!’ ”


ShotLink also switched its laser devices, going from a surveyor’s theodolite (“We’d seek out actual surveyors as volunteers,” Wallace said) to a model that equates more to a golf-friendly rangefinder.

Six years ago, ShotLink took another huge technological step forward, installing a set of three cameras on every green to create a more defined grid field. The system also can use TrackMan, which uses radar to track a ball’s flight.

ShotLink data are posted in real time.
ShotLink data are posted in real time.PGA Tour

Depending on the tournament, ShotLink will use 200-300 volunteers. There is a walking scorer with every group, two-person teams on every green and every par-4 fairway, and four people in the fairways of the par-5s.

The ShotLink trailer, tucked away near the 10th fairway at TPC Boston, has the feel of a NASA tracking station, with at least four producers — properly socially distanced — keeping tabs on the day’s round.

On the lookout

Being part of the ShotLink crew comes with inherent risks — and some light moments. In my on-course training session with field technicians Alex Pugh and Alex Allen, I was reminded about what our top priority was. “Not to get hit by a ball?” I asked.

Well, that’s important, they said, but No. 1 is hitting those 10- and 30-second marks in relaying shot information.

A day later, I was thinking about wayward golf balls again. After setting up our equipment on the seventh fairway, Allen stayed with us for the first couple of shots to make sure we were comfortable.


Ian Poulter was the third member of the Reavie group to hit, and after failing to detect the ball off his clubhead, we heard it drop about 10 yards to our right and clang off Allen’s golf cart.

Point, shoot, confirm.

“Tell Ian I saved him from going in the woods,” Allen said with a smile before speeding off to his next setup location.

Momentary confusion (and a bit of panic) sometimes reigned in deciphering players and shot locations, so communication with the ShotLink trailer was key.

“Seven fairway long to Jenny,” I radioed in, convinced that producer Jenny Eckert must be getting tired of my voluminous call log.

“Go ahead, seven fairway,” she cheerily replied.

“I wasn’t sure of Danny Lee’s location so I put in a preliminary, and I have no idea where Jim Herman is.”

At that moment, Herman stepped in front of me after circling around the fairway bunker and, without missing a step, said with a smile, “I’m right here!”

If only it were that easy to find his ball.

Managing producer Zac Doyle and senior producer Mary Nguyen confer in the ShotLink control room trailer during the Northern Trust  Charity Challenge.
Managing producer Zac Doyle and senior producer Mary Nguyen confer in the ShotLink control room trailer during the Northern Trust Charity Challenge.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Northern Trust stats A sampling of data gathered during the tournament.
Round 4 Round 3 Round 2 Round 1
Drive distance average 327-McIlroy 337-Johnson 336-DeChambeau 328-List
Fairways hit 13-Scott 13-Landry, McCarthy 14-Kuchar 13-Wolff, Landry, Poston
Greens in regulation 18-Johnson 16-Casey, Noren 17- Johnson, Poston, Watson 16-Hatton, Scott, Ortiz, Blair, Henley
Approach proximity 20' 0"-Kokrak 22' 11"-Smith 26' 4"-Mickelson 21' 6"-English
Longest putt 48' 3"-Poston 54' 5"-Clark 75' 4"-Hoag 81' 10"-Mitchell
Most 1-putts 11-Palmer, Poulter 12-Matsuyama, Poston 13-Scheffler, Mickelson 12-McNealy, Zhang

Marty Pantages can be reached at martin.pantages@globe.com.