Phil Mickelson's rocketlike drive cuts through the hazy sky in a majestic arc before falling to earth. As Mickelson stands in the tee box admiring his moon shot, the real rocket science has just begun. Like Luke Skywalker taking aim at an unsuspecting stormtrooper, Jack Sweitzer, a volunteer PGA Tour marshal, fires a laser mounted on a tripod at Mickelson's ball sitting in the middle of the fairway. No, Mickelson's Titleist doesn't explode like a mini Death Star. Instead, with the aid of satellite mapping, the laser is used to calculate the ball's exact location, which is beamed back to a PGA Tour communications truck. The information is then dumped into ShotLink, a new, $20 million system designed for use on television, on pga-tour.com and on scoreboards. Starting in March, ShotLink will instantly provide the precise distance for every shot hit by every pro playing in every Tour event.
ShotLink was created in response to the booming interest in television golf (or anything involving Tiger Woods). Steve Evans, the Tour's vice president of information systems, says the PGA had first hoped to calculate shot distances with the Global Positioning System (GPS)—now commonly used in automobiles and through which an earthbound object's location can be pinpointed with satellites—but after a bit of research, the Tour saw an easier way. While using GPS to map courses, surveyors realized they could use their lasers, a common tool of building and road construction crews, to locate a precise spot on their electronic maps: for example, the patch of sand on which a ball is sitting in a bunker beside the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. Scheduled to debut at the Doral-Ryder Open, the system will produce more than 220 new statistics, including such revealing numbers as who's the best putter from 15 to 20 feet and the percentage of iron shots Ernie Els puts within 10 feet of the hole.
During the first full test of the new system on Nov. 4 at the Tour Championship, it was apparent some kinks needed to be ironed out. Two lasers were set improperly, skewing readings for most of the day, and some Palm Pilots used to record items such as club choice and ball location were accidentally disconnected from their transmitters. Still, the potential of ShotLink was apparent. Sweitzer, 62, a retired director of market research for Kimberly-Clark, was amazed that wielding a piece of high-tech laser gadgetry could be such an elementary process. "If a clunk like me can operate this thing," he said, "it's got to be pretty easy."