Technology is great. I love watching sports in high definition and I cringe when I see older, standard definition footage.
Golf is one of the sports that benefits most from crisp images and ball flight tracking. If you’re like me, you may have wondered: “How do they track golf balls on TV?”
The simplest explanation goes something like this: Stationary cameras containing sensors are used to track the movement of the ball and convert it into a graphic for television.
Cutting edge technology is used to ensure the accurate tracking of golf balls. This same technology can be used to gather information about the golf shot type, ball speed and distance.
These technological advancements, when used together, create a more enjoyable and insightful viewing experience. Watching the PGA Championship in person will always be on the golf fan bucket list. However, watching a PGA event on TV actually provides a player with better information.
NBC, the Golf Channel, CBS and ESPN all benefit from golf ball tracker technology. It’s never been easier for commentators to analyze a golf swing or launch angle on the fly. Tee shots can be dissected with realtime data, and amateur golfers can apply some of these lessons when they head out on the golf course.
Compare that to the old days where televised golf tournament events could be ruined by overcast skies that rendered the golf ball invisible. Watching a round of golf on television would be much less rewarding if it weren’t for ball tracking.
We’ve made great progress.
Who is responsible for golf ball tracker technology?
It’s difficult to remember the days when we relied solely on fast moving camera operators to guide us hole by hole, but to get the level of complex coverage we have today, someone had to put in the work. Daniel Forsgren answered the call back in 1998.
This Swedish golf enthusiast set out to develop a new system that would do a better job of tracking ball flight and shot trajectory. He spent several years working on a new type of camera that paired with sensors to identify a golf ball flying through the air. Once the ball was identified, that same camera would track its movement through each frame. Pretty impressive!
Like many entrepreneurs, Forsgren saw a problem and poured his energy into solving it. By 2006, his shot tracer technology took form and Protracer was born. If you’ve played at a Toptracer range (a driving range that tracks your hits), you’ve utilized some of this incredible technology yourself.
Forsgren’s Toptracer technology has revolutionized golf broadcasts and the driving range experience.
How does Protracer work?
Protracer / Toptracer uses complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensors, installed in a camera, to monitor the golf ball. The cameras create a 3D space, and when a golf ball moves into that space, it’s tracked by the sensors.
These sensors are attached to a computer, which receives the tracking data. The computer identifies the golf ball in each image, which is then used to create the tracking graphic we see on our televisions.
Toptracer uses a stationary camera to collect this data, but that doesn’t mean it only works at the tee. The camera is fixed to prevent confusing the sensors, and is generally placed behind the golfer to give the most accurate picture. However, the system is streamlined enough that the camera can be moved, allowing Toptracer to provide graphics across the course.
As the technology advanced, new features were incorporated. Toptracer can now track and analyze the movement of the ball while relaying this data to a computer. The data that these cameras can measure (ball spin, club head speed, etc) can be be used to enhance commentator insights and help the viewer understand every swing.
Nowadays, Toptracer is used by major television networks to create the immersive TV golf experience. While this technology is incredibly beneficial for the fans watching at home, it also has its benefits on for the pros. Toptracer technology helps players gain real insights into every shot they take.
This technology (or similar equivalents) is utilized in golf simulators and launch monitors as well. TrackMan, for example, uses radars that read the frequency of the microwaves that are reflected off the golf club and ball. This data is recorded and converted into numerous parameters. TrackMan can accurately relay factors such as the speed, attack angle, face angle, club path etc. Some golf simulators even let you virtually play courses like Pebble Beach while measuring your performance.
How do they track golf balls on TV? The same way a launch monitor tracks your ball in a golf simulator.
How do cameramen track golf balls for television?
Cameramen can accurately track a golf ball for audiences thanks to experience and planning.
With regular practice and an understanding of the course, it’s possible to guess where the golf ball is likely to go, and follow the trajectory. Human camerawork isn’t perfect though, which explains why the cameras can sometimes lose a bad shot.
It can be hard enough following the ball on the screen, so it shows the talent required to accurately track a golf ball in person. The camera operators must have a decent understanding of the sport, so they can intuitively understand where the ball is likely to go.
Gyro stabilized cameras are often used, to make it easier to smoothly track the golf ball on its flight path.
In the past, before the invention of tracking technology, the only way to enjoy golf was with what the cameras were able to show. This comes with numerous downsides.
For a start, cameramen aren’t infallible. It’s possible for the most experienced operator to lose sight of a ball, even when it follows the assumed trajectory.
Second, it requires incredibly quick reflexes to track a mis-hit, especially when the ball starts flying somewhere unexpected.
Third, a premium ball is easy to lose against the sky. Bright days, overcast days, and dark days, all come with their own set of problems.
Because of this, broadcasters had to think of new ways to film. Frank Chirkinian became known as “the father of televised golf”, due to the advancements he pioneered for the home viewing experience.
As the man in charge of CBS’ golf coverage for decades (1958-1996), he introduced many measures that are considered standard in modern broadcasting.
Unafraid to make golf into a spectacle, he utilized quick cuts between shots and golfers to speed up the pace.
He introduced multiple cameras around the course, so no moment was missed. He even pioneered the use of high angle cameras, mounting the equipment in trees, and even blimps.
With the advancement of technology, there is less pressure on cameramen to produce perfect shots. Tracking cameras can convey graphics showing the flight path of the ball, with a much greater accuracy than the human eye.
That being said, cameramen will always have an important role in golf broadcasting.
The choice of camera shot can add tension and tell a story in a way that ball tracking technology can’t. Experienced camera operators understand the game and react intuitively. Pair their human skills where great technology and you get an Open Championship worth watching.