PGA Championship Spotlight, Part 1: Video-Gamification of Golf’s Final Major Changes How Viewers See the Sport

Shot-tracer technology, live green animations, 4D replays enhance insight into the game

Golf has a reputation for being very much set in its ways. It’s a game romantically — at times, stubbornly — steeped in tradition, a sport not exactly known for living on the bleeding edge.

CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ joint coverage of the PGA Championship — which continues through Sunday on TNT and CBS — has spent the past few years blowing those notions to smithereens.

Toptracer technology provides a real-time look at the path of a shot off the tee. For the first time, CBS and Turner are able to offer Toptracer on all 18 tees, as well as in selected circumstances on golfers’ second shots off the fairway.

In fact, viewers of this weekend’s tournament, the final major of the golf season, may feel that they’re watching a new videogame more than an old sepia-toned film. Turner and CBS are rolling out a slew of technologies — live ball tracking, green mapping, even 360-camera rigs — designed to give the viewer insight they’ve never enjoyed before.

The approach may be surprising to the casual observer, but it’s widely embraced by many who both cover and consume the sport.

“This audience is a bit more progressive than we give them credit for, in terms of what they’ll accept on screen,” says Matt Kane, an associate producer for Turner Sports. He is overseeing much of the Thursday and Friday coverage, which airs on TNT; the action flips over to CBS air on Saturday and Sunday. “I believe that, when you don’t see many of these elements, it leaves you as a golf viewer wanting more. These things have become expected now, especially at a major championship.”

So, as golf’s best tackle the course at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, these innovations are blasting their way onto viewer screens:

Toptracer
Perhaps the most impactful technological development of the past few years on CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ golf coverage has been the integration of Toptracer. 3D radar tracking enables the real-time graphic display of the true path of a ball.

Shown on screen as a red line, Toptracer allows the broadcaster to show flight direction, speed, the height apex, and even the curve of the shot. When used correctly, it’s golf’s version of the yellow 1st & and Ten line. It’s at that level of importance to the viewing experience.

Says Kane, “The Toptracer technology is a game-changer in the coverage of this sport, for sure.”

Toptracer is not new (it was first used for the 2016 PGA Championship, at Baltusrol in Springfield, NJ) but is being deployed much more aggressively this year. In the past, the tracer was available only on the tee shot from selected holes. Now it’s available on all 18 tee boxes and, with the addition of Toptracer RF, is available even on some second shots from the fairway. Two RF cameras roaming the course are outfitted with the Toptracer technology, allowing additional use of the onscreen enhancement.

Toptracer data is married with a 3D rendering of the hole to give viewers a live animation of a tee shot in-flight.

“It’s really exciting because, from my experience, that’s what fans want to see,” says Harold Bryant, executive producer/SVP, production, CBS Sports. “It’s a great tool that will help us make this an even more exciting event.”

The broadcasters also leverage Toptracer data to create what is called the ARL Virtual Eye. During the event, golfers on their tee shots will be shown with a 3D map of the hole on the right side of a split screen. With the combination of the Toptracer data and a virtual “flyover” of the hole, viewers get a highly accurate real-time look at where a drive is headed along the fairway and when it eventually comes to rest.

Execs from both Turner and CBS note the importance of these kinds of storytelling tools in broadcasts from a course that many viewers may not be familiar with. Bellerive has not hosted a major championship since 1992.

“The Tracer technology has become integral to [our storytelling process] in broadcasting the sport of golf,” says Kane. “We’ve fully embraced it, along with the animations we’ve added. Viewers are very familiar with seeing Augusta every year, but, when you have a course like Bellerive, I think a fair amount of our job initially is to educate the viewer on what the course is like and how it plays. All of our technology direction is going towards that mission.”

Hawk-Eye Green Technology
Broadcast tech at this PGA Championship is also solving the mystery of the green. For many years, broadcasters have used different technologies, such as grids and moving arrows, to show what undulations a golfer faces when putting. Although there will still be plenty of that on this show, CBs and Turner are deploying Hawk-Eye for a new approach to putting.

Hawk-Eye technology allowing CBS and Turner to offer a new look at putting, displaying a path to success based on data on swing power and green layout.

Hawk-Eye is known for its game-changing work on official reviews in tennis and on goal-line technology in soccer. Now the Sony-owned tech developer is changing how viewers watch putts, not by outlining the hills and curves of the green but by offering a predicted path to success. A shaded area is sandwiched between the line of a hard, powerful putt to the back of the hole and a curved line for a softer, finesse putt. The idea is that, if a golfer’s putt leaves that shaded area, the putt will be off target.

According to Bryant, the technology is available for use on four holes this year, and the front bench is likely to call on it whenever it’s available.

“That is something that I think we’ll get better at presenting to the viewer as the week goes on,” he explains. “It will add plenty of drama to the story as a golfer lines up his putt, because you can see the optimum approach versus the aggressive approach. As a golfer myself, I look at that and think, ‘Which way would I go?’ I think it makes for a lot more interesting [coverage].”

4D Replay
CBS and Turner are breaking ground this weekend, becoming the first U.S. broadcasters to deploy 4D Replay on a golf event. Vendor/services provider 4D Replay outfits a camera array to produce a three-dimensional video image that can be moved and manipulated live. Think the 360-degree replays on football, basketball, and baseball games from Intel Sports.

For golf coverage, the camera array covers a 270-degree halo and is deployed on the 15th tee box. With the images captured, the replay can be panned anywhere in the field of vision with zoom in and change of speed of the video.

According to Ken Aagaard, EVP, innovation and new technology, CBS Sports, the challenging par-4 15th hole offers some wrinkles for 4D Replay: the point from which the golfers shoot may change a bit each day as they adjust their approach to the hole. Largely, this means that engineers have had to lay the camera array a little bit lower than they normally would have liked. Still, the images produced offer a tremendous analysis and instructional opportunity for the on-air talent.

The main thing, for us, is to make sure the technical workflow isn’t an issue for our production team, so they can use it as they want without any [disruption],” says Aagaard. “You really have an infinite amount of ways to use the system, because you can freeze the shot almost anywhere as you go around it and use that to analyze the swing. So it’ll be cool.

“Like anything else,” he continues, “when you introduce it for the first time, it will be a work in progress. We’re excited. It’s another great tool for our production guys.”

Other Enhancements Not To Be Missed
Although Toptracer, Hawk-Eye, and 4D Replay are garnering headlines at this weekend’s tournament, numerous other tech toys — some longtime favorites — also enrich the coverage.

Emmy Award-winning SwingVision is here, enabling extreme-slow-motion playback on a golfer’s swing. Two super-high-speed cameras are deployed on the course.

The BSI team is back, with unprecedented RF coverage. A whopping 20 RF cameras are scattered around the course, including the debut of a remote-controlled rover topped with an RF camera. According to BSI, the rover can be used anywhere on the course, giving Turner and CBS unlimited flexibility.

The rover operator actually walks along with it, using the remote control to guide it around the course. The video is sent to the truck live via RF like any other wireless broadcast signal.

Aagaard expects the production team to walk the rover down the fairways with some of the leader groups as the weekend progresses and possibly to poke around the practice ranges as golfers prepare to tee off.

Smartcart (shown here at the 2016 PGA Championship) returns, offering a versatile 72-in. touchscreen that CBS will use to enhance on-course interviews and analysis.

“I think that this will be one of the things we’ll try to have a little bit of fun with,” he says. “It gives you a different look, and I think our [production team] will come up with some really cool shots.”

Smartcart, which debuted on this event two years ago, is also back. Locked into a golf cart, the 72-in. mobile touchscreen moves around to various points on the course throughout the day. Analysts use the screen to break down action throughout the tournament from right on the course. CBS Sports Network is also using it for Thursday’s and Friday’s PGA Championship on the Range show.

“Smartcart really elevates on-course interviews,” says Bryant. “We like to bring players off the course, especially the ones that finish earlier, and, instead of a standard interview with just a few questions, we can integrate the player into the discussion by showing him footage, tracer shots, stats, and so on. Smartcart has taken a somewhat mundane piece of the broadcast and really elevated it.”

Aerial coverage will be provided by drones, and specialty microphones will be placed inside specific cups to capture audio from in and around the hole. A new graphics package featuring colors and logos honoring PGA history is a nod to the 100th anniversary of the Championship.

Continuing a long-standing tradition, the PGA Championship will be produced by Lance Barrow and directed by Steve Milton.

Live coverage of the PGA Championship continues on TNT on Friday (2-8 p.m. ET) before moving to CBS on Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m.-2 p.m.). The entire event is available to be live-streamed on the PGA Championship’s suite of digital products and on Bleacher Report (B/R) Live.

CLICK HERE for Part 2 of SVG’s PGA Championship Spotlight, focused on 4K HDR production and at-home workflow.

Jason Dachman contributed to this report.

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