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Darryl Sharp
Rick Lipsey
September 06, 1999
A space-age surveyor is at ground zero in the Tour's effort to produce meaningful statistics
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September 06, 1999

Darryl Sharp

A space-age surveyor is at ground zero in the Tour's effort to produce meaningful statistics

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Darryl Sharp admits that he, like many other amateurs who have never broken 100, often misreads six-foot putts. What makes that surprising is that he probably knows more about golf course topography than any man alive. Sharp, 38, is an accomplished surveyor who specializes in GPS (global positioning system) mapping, a unique skill that has made him a hot commodity in golf.

Last year Electronic Arts, a maker of computer games, signed Sharp to an exclusive five-year contract to do the surveys needed to replicate the courses used in its popular Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf. More recently, as the first step in creating a revolutionary method of obtaining and computing golf statistics (SI, May 10), the PGA Tour hired Sharp to survey Montreux Golf and Country Club. Last week Sharp's survey and the new space-age stats-gathering system were tested for the first time, during the Reno-Tahoe Open at Montreux.

Here's how the system works: Using GPS mapping techniques, in which thousands of points on the ground can be located with the help of a satellite, each hole is surveyed and divided into a grid of tiny quadrants. During tournaments, two officials—one positioned parallel to the landing area for tee shots and the other near the green-will use a surveyor's instrument equipped with a laser to "shoot" a player's ball when it comes to rest, identifying its location. A third official will record club selection. The data are transferred to a central computer, which generates an avalanche of information. The Tour believes this system, which will accurately chart every shot taken by every player, will lead to more than 300 new stats.

Last week the Tour limited the dry run to Montreux's 16th and 17th holes. The system should be fully operational on the PGA, Senior and Nike tours in 2001, and Sharp is the leading candidate to map all 120 courses used on the three tours. "Darryl brute-forces a course into submission," says John Sell, Sharp's boss at Electronic Arts. "Most guys do 1,500 reference points a hole, but Darryl gets at least 5,000. He kills himself to give us better data." Sharp, who started playing golf only two years ago, enjoys going the extra mile. "I have the ultimate job," he says. "I'm a one-man outfit putting in 22-hour days, but it's so much fun, I don't think of it as work."

To Sharp, work is milking cows and hauling hay, which he did while growing up near Blaine, Wash., a town of 2,489 on Puget Sound at the Canadian border. Work is sorting tons of pollack, repairing engines or loading men into a lifeboat at three o'clock in the morning after your rig has hit a reef and is sinking in the Aleutian Islands, things that Sharp, who has only a high school education, did during his 10 years as a commercial fisherman, the last three with Golden Alaska Seafoods.

Fishing included three-month stints at sea away from his wife, Shelly, and their home in Lynden, Wash. In 1989 Shelly's cousin, Rick Holt, mentioned that the surveying company he worked for had an opening. "It sounded cool, so I went for it," says Sharp. He was immediately taken with the gadgetry of the profession and developed a singular expertise with GPS—learning everything through instruction manuals. After a few years of mapping forests in the Northwest with Holt, Sharp started his own business as a surveyor and GPS trainer.

In 1996 Sharp got into golf when Electronic Arts asked Trimble, the premier manufacturer of GPS instruments, to name the world's best GPS surveyor. "They told us that Darryl was the man," says Sell. "He's done every layout we offer." To map a course, Sharp and a couple of assistants, wearing GPS receivers on their backs and looking like characters out of Ghost-busters, walk every inch of a hole, repeatedly receiving signals from a satellite. " Pebble Beach was the toughest job because there were so many gawkers," says Sharp, who has a standard reply for those who ask what he's doing. "If I'm in a good mood, I tell them we're doing the March of Dimes marathon. Otherwise I say, 'These are lightning testers. Want to touch?' "

It takes three or four days to walk a course. Afterward Sharp creates maps using commercial software programs, and a graphic artist finishes the job by adding physical features such as grass, trees and sand. "Then I go back to being a father," says Sharp, who has two boys, Cortney, 8, and Christian, 3, as well as 22-month-old twin girls, Caitlin and Caylie. "If I'm lucky, I'll also sneak in a round of golf."