How the PGA Tour Manages Data

IT Chief Steve Evans relies on legions of golf-crazed volunteers, high-tech lasers and the input of golf pros to help him identify, manage and display the Tour's most critical data.

This article was updated on June 25, 2008 to reflect additional reporting. In 2008, the PGA Tour will award $278 million in prize money. And it's up to Steve Evans, senior vice president of IS, and his team to deliver it.

"The objective of the organization is to drive value and benefits to our members," who include the world's top 125 golf professionals, Evans says. "And the primary value we can drive is prize money." Evans's technology unit plays a key role by making the game appealing to fans and corporate sponsors. "We put a lot of energy into technology that focuses on enhancing the fan experience across all mediums," he says.

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The name of the game is data—collecting it, distributing it and analyzing it—with systems and processes designed to support the Tour's unusual business model. The Tour and its IT operation may be one of a kind, but IT's role is familiar. Evans must deliver accurate and timely business intelligence both to support the players and keep customers—millions of golf fans—engaged with the competition.

Desire for the Tour's data—specifically players' statistics—has dramatically increased during the last decade or so. To keep up with the yearning from the fans and players for more data and analysis on every shot of every tournament (typically 32,000 shots per four-day event), Evans and his IT crew have spent lots of time and money on technology improvements that satisfy the growing demands of each constituency.

A Business (Perhaps) Unlike Any Other

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The PGA Tour's Steve Evans

The Tour has a unique business model, says Evans. First, the PGA Tour is a tax-exempt member organization that wields a powerful, global brand. Second, the location of the business moves weekly from one venue to the next. Third, its operations are subject to the whim of the weather gods. What's more, the success of its main product, sports entertainment, is controlled not primarily by Tour employees but by the professional golfers, whom the Tour considers independent contractors. Finally, its core workforce isn't the 2,000 Tour employees but tens of thousands of unpaid tournament volunteers. (The nonprofit company does not disclose its revenue, though estimates place it at more than $300 million.)

Each year, the players, along with Tour staff, including 15 or so mobile IT workers, crisscross the country, where the golfers compete on the finest courses under grueling and pressure-packed conditions with millions of dollars in prize money at stake. A typical purse for a Tour event is $5.3 million, with the winner getting anywhere from $700,000 to more than $1 million.

Since the Tour serves its members, executives such as Evans back at the Tour's headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., need to ensure that golf fans' and corporate sponsors' interests are aligned with each other as well as with the players who are competing on the fairways and greens. Broadcast ratings, attendance at PGA Tour tournaments, merchandise sales and Internet viewership on PGATour.com are critical to raising the money that pays for the player benefits and the charitable donations made in each of the local markets.

The linchpin in the PGA Tour's business strategy is the revolutionary ShotLink system, which debuted in 2001. Shotlink tracks every shot at every event—where a player's golf ball starts and lands, and all the ground covered in between. ShotLink data generates more than 500 statistics as well as predictive analysis on golfers' games. "Our mission is to capture attributes for every shot, for every player in real time," Evans says.

In turn, the ShotLink data feeds PGATour.com, TV broadcasters and other media outlets, as well as the 11 high-resolution LED scoreboards that are strategically placed on the courses each week. The mobile scoreboards were introduced in 2007, and the players gave "a lot of constructive criticism" on what content they wanted to see, Evans says.

In essence, ShotLink data becomes critical business intelligence for the Tour players. "They rely fairly heavily on it," Evans says. For example, on Fridays, players need to know where the "cut line" is—the score that divides the field into those who will continue playing on the weekend and those who won't. (Players with a score worse than the cut line aren't allowed to play on Saturday and Sunday). Once the weekend rolls around, and tensions rise on Sunday afternoon, the data on the scoreboards becomes absolutely vital.

"They evaluate that [scoreboard information] as part of their decision-making processes," Evans says, "and determining the risk on their shots."

Managing the Tour's Data Quality

With millions of dollars at stake, the accuracy of the ShotLink data is paramount. Here's where the volunteer staff comes in, and where Evans has a dual challenge. He has to develop and manage a sophisticated data collection system while ensuring that it's easy for the volunteers to learn and use.

At each tournament, approximately 350 of the 1,000 volunteers onsite work in one of two assignments gathering the data to feed the ShotLink system. One role is called the walking scorer. Each group of Tour golfers has a walking scorer, who records in a PDA the attributes of each player's every stroke.

The other role is called the laser operator. Two teams of two volunteers each are strategically positioned on each of the course's 18 holes (one group monitors the fairway, the other, the putting green) and, using a special laser surveying device, locate each golf ball after it's been played and note the coordinates of its exact location on a digital grid.

Errors happen—especially with some 32,000 shots occurring during a typical four-day tournament, Evans notes. But in his estimation, it's better to have the data flowing as fast as possible. "There's no way we're going to critique every single stroke before we send it to people who use the data," he says. "We'll show you all of our flaws and errors, and we'll pride ourselves on the timeliness to fix that information."

Because accuracy and timeliness of the data are so critical to players, broadcasters and fans, Evans and his team have built a couple of features into the ShotLink system that allow for quick error resolution. If, for example, the walking scorer says a player's golf ball landed in the fairway but the result of a laser operator's survey shows that the ball was actually in the rough (thick grass), an onsite ShotLink producer will receive a warning message from the system.

A call on a voice radio from the ShotLink producer to either of the volunteers can usually clear up any discrepancy quickly. "Our goal is to have any data corrections made inside of one minute," Evans says, "and we consistently meet that metric." Four times a year, the Tour hires professional surveyors to assess the quality and accuracy of ShotLink's measuring abilities. When the team compares ShotLink's accuracy of locating a ball in the fairway with the professional surveyor's data, ShotLink averages about 27 inches of deviation, Evans reports (meaning ShotLink is within 27 inches of being exactly right on the fairway). At the green, the average deviation is two inches. "Keep in mind that a golf ball is an inch and a quarter wide," Evans says.

"We spend a lot of staff time at the site focused on critiquing the accuracy," Evans says, "identifying any process or operational issues and making sure we're constantly evolving and improving."

Evans notes that Tour players use the ShotLink data at "varying levels." For example, some players break down the numbers with their instructors to find areas for improvement. Evans's team will create custom queries of the ShotLink data for the players who request it. "We provide all the data to players," Evans says, "and we provide them full access to the inquiry system."

Last year, Tour veteran Fred Funk told USA Today, "The neatest thing about it is looking at how guys play, how close they're hitting their wedges, how close they're hitting their 3-irons, how far they're driving it and how certain holes are playing." But without the volunteers' efforts, Evans isn't so sure there'd be a ShotLink. "I doubt that we would be able to build that business case," he said, if the Tour had to pay people to do the measuring.

The popularity of and reliance on ShotLink data has made retaining the 10,000 volunteers who use the ShotLink devices each year a high priority for Evans and his lean IT staff, who don't have time to train a new set of volunteers each year. "When we built the system we recognized we had limited time to train, and it was important that we had high retention," Evans says. "And we also needed to really build a culture around the mystique and value of these positions."

Today, Evans reports that the Tour is able to retain more than 80 percent of its volunteers on a year-to-year basis.

I.T. Brought to You By...

The PGA Tour couldn't exist without those companies that sponsor individual tournaments or become partners to the Tour. ESPN.com pegged the cost of sponsoring a regular PGA Tour event at $7 million a year. (The Tour does not reveal what it charges sponsors.)

Evans's IT shop is also a part of this sponsorship model. The Tour recently replaced IBM with CDW as its "technology partner." Evans says that CDW provides both sponsorship money as well as technology help for his staff. "We're stretched thin, and we need good decision making to help us to reduce the research cycles" on topics such as software licensing and enhancing new ShotLink functionalities, Evans says.

IT's centralized group at the Tour's headquarters is made up of nearly 50 IT staffers. In addition, the 15-member mobile operations group travels to the Tour's tournament each week and provides network administration, scoring operations and troubleshooting help onsite. Evans reports that IT expenses compared with total revenue is slightly under 1 percent. While one might expect Evans to be out "pressing the flesh" with sponsors and vendors on one of the Tour's 17 Tournament Players Club courses that it owns, he says, "We actually don't do a lot of that here." Evans is a golfer himself, a very respectable 10-handicapper, but, "I'm surrounded by a group of people who are significantly better at the game than I am." Nevertheless, Evans says, "I actually enjoy golf much more now than when I first came to work here." That was 21 years ago, when Evans signed on as a programmer/analyst working on the Tour's statistical, competition and player prize systems.

Evans is able to attend Tour events four to six times a year, depending on the IT projects on tap. "You can sit in conference rooms and talk about how things should work," he says, "but the reality check is actually going onsite and watching the reality of how the operation works."

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