British Open 2019 tech check: Tracing game improvement for the world's best players

Sporting News
With heavy rain expected at Royal Portrush on the final day, tee times for the fourth round of the British Open have been changed.
With heavy rain expected at Royal Portrush on the final day, tee times for the fourth round of the British Open have been changed.

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — It does not matter whether you're Tiger Woods or an aspiring top-shelf amateur, a club pro or merely a recreational golfer, the truth is any golfer who has picked up a club has at some point or another hit a duff shot.

Don't lie about it. You've done it, I've done it. Every professional golfer has at one point or another done it. It's OK, it happens. After that initial fury bubbling up inside you subsides, you realize it's all part of the learning process.

In a bygone era it may have been a friend or relative offering "advice" on why your ball has gone inexplicably careering to the right.

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You lifted your head too soon, you over-rotated, you're swinging too quickly. Yes, Dad, all right, I get it, that was a terrible shot.

Now that anecdotal learning experience of the driving range is being enhanced thanks to the Toptracer technology, which Omnisport checked out at Royal Portrush's practice range ahead of the 148th British Open.

For those unfamiliar with the company, the funky ball-tracking lines on broadcasts tracing the flight of a player's shot are made possible by Toptracer.

The initial idea essentially was to enhance the viewing experience of fans watching at home by tracking the flight of a ball and then adding graphics so you can see the height, trajectory and destination of a shot.

In 2012, Toptracer expanded its reach to driving ranges in a bid to improve the experience off the practice mats.

"I think this really suits every standard as a golfer. As a beginner your eye isn't particularly well trained on what the golf ball could be doing and so very often you see when a beginner will look for a golf ball and see where it's gone," Paul Williams, General Manager of Toptracer Europe, told Omnisport.

"By having the information right there in the [driving range] bay on a 21-inch touch screen, giving you feedback on how high it's gone and what direction, gives them insight, education and a journey into the sport.

"They instantly become more engaged, we're seeing lots of our venues running beginner golf groups and booking straight onto improved courses because they're getting hooked straight way."

Even at just shy of 5.30 p.m. local time on Tuesday, when Omnisport visited the Toptracer tent, there were plenty of professionals honing their skills, and throughout the day the grandstand behind the practice range was packed with patrons trying to get a glimpse of their favorite golfers – a certain local hero by the name of Rory McIlroy proving a particularly popular draw.

The LED screens to the left of the range — featuring Toptracer graphics — do provide a genuinely enhanced experience in this part of the week, but the players also gain useful information such as ball speed, curve and apex.

The tournament range setup has been used at The Open since St. Andrews four years ago.

"Each year more players are becoming more familiar with the technology available to them," Williams said.

"It's quite interesting. We see very similar reactions from the best players in the world to people we see at our driving ranges, where they'll hit a shot and after watching a second or two of ball flight they'll look at the screen and go 'right, what did the ball do?'

"It's just for that confirmation of data that they're looking for to improve their game and, for these guys here, making sure they're in the best condition for The Open Championship.

"We have some of the players' caddies pop into the station to the side of the driving range. They'll come in and ask for their player to be put up on the boards.

"Each of them can have their data on their warmup rounds, and obviously before they go out in the tournament — the tech is live until Sunday when they leave the range."

So, what about behind the scenes? If you're imagining a futuristic room packed with funky gadgets, then you'd be very much mistaken. It's a beautifully simple setup, with only a handful of staff in the tent with laptops and screens.

One such man helping to bring the practice sessions to life is Dustin Thomas, who helps run Toptracer's range operations.

Part of his job involves hitting a few practice shots before the players arrive and picking which names to include on the LED board.

"I pick and choose based on what they're hitting, and we do like to listen to the fans and also the players," he said, while demonstrating the different features available.

"If someone is requested we like to choose them. But also we like to use the long hitters out there and use some pretty cool drives."

So, who've been the big hitters so far at the practice range at Royal Portrush?

"Right now we have Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner and C. [Chan] Kim on the leaderboards. That was when the wind was kind of down," Thomas added.

"The top drive is 320 yards. Johnson is following with 315. We can do some cool features with those long drives and show it in fireworks mode. We take all of the long drives, put them into a group and send them all off at once."

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"Fireworks mode" is a pretty apt term considering the field at The Open this week will be looking to produce just that out on the course at Portrush.

And who knows? Perhaps the man who gets his hands on the Claret Jug on Sunday may have done so with the aid of information he gleaned from Toptracer.

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