Senior golf pros aim and swing, while laser operators point and shoot

Another story of which I am proud, that was written not for publication but for class. Look, now it’s published 🙂

On the PGA Tour, announcers know the yardage of every drive, chip and putt. The technology is named ShotLink. Conversely, the PGA Champions Tour, made up of pro golfers ages 50 and older, could once afford to measure half the holes on the golf course – until two years ago. Rick Vargo was a spectator at the Toshiba Classic in 2002, which features celebrities like Ray Romano during the week and the PGA Champions Tournament on the weekend. He enjoyed it and signed up to volunteer the following year.

The Toshiba Classic is played at Newport Beach Country Club and is the only major golf tournament held in Orange County. Almost 1,000 people volunteer and literally, pay to help out. The $55 volunteer fee covers food vouchers, parking, logo apparel including a golf shirt, fleece pullover and hat, and an end-of-tournament barbecue. The volunteers also receive admission to the week-long tournament, which would otherwise cost about $20 per day. The tournament raises money for charity, so volunteers are in essence donating both time and money. Volunteer jobs include everything from ticket sales to transporting golfers from the airport, but Vargo’s specialty is the ShotLink lasers. The PGA tour introduced this technology in 2008 and statistics are used by the media, golf course architects and, after the tournament is over, players, coaches and caddies. The ShotLink website explains, “Each golf course is mapped prior to the event so a digital image of each hole is used as background information in order to calculate exact locations and distances between any two coordinates (e.g. tee box and the player’s first shot or the shot location and the location of the hole).” Vargo said, “It allows us to measure the location of the ball with respect to a known reference center.” The measuring procedure is precise and sensitive enough to rival the USGA Rules of Golf. Some technicalities include whether to shoot a dropped ball and if fairway lasers should display cross hairs at all times. even offers a laser operator quiz to test potential volunteers’ comprehension of the technology. The website calls the laser operator a special position that not all volunteers are able to satisfactorily accomplish. But, Vargo, whose job description includes choosing launch sites for satellites, is a lead engineer at Boeing Co. “He’s cool and calm,” said David Fankhauser, a co-worker Vargo introduced to ShotLink and who worked with Vargo on satellite launches. “We were calm when we were launching Orbital Express. We both understand how protocol is supposed to be.” Fankhauser noted other similarities among the laser volunteer crew. “Most of them come out of the aerospace industry. Most of them were retired.” Fankhauser retired this year but Vargo still works for Boeing. Laser operators are designated either on the green or on the fairway. For the past eight years, Vargo measured putts. He would stand on a platform above the green with one other volunteer. One man would operate the laser, while the other communicated with ShotLink staff, located in a van. The green laser operator position is preferred because the platform has a roof so the volunteer will not get wet in case of rain. On the fairway, a laser operator stands just inside the ropes and points the movable tripod to where the ball lands on the green. The volunteer points the trigger-controlled laser directly at the ball and the drive distance is sent to the ShotLink van. Volunteers are not allowed to give any information to players, caddies or fans during the tournament, but the data is provided to the media. Sue Johnson, who has volunteered as scoring coordinator since 1997, says the measurements provide broadcasters with talking points. They get statistics from the specific location a player’s ball lies, and are able to make comments similar to, “Fred Couples is eight feet from the pin,” or, “most players have bogeyed from there.” Meanwhile, caddies and players use landmarks like sprinkler heads to gauge distance. After the tournament, the statistics can tell players what to work on, for example, that a golfer is making 50 percent of his putts, or how he does on putting inside ten feet of the hole. After years of laser operator experience, Vargo found out the Toshiba Classic would no longer use ShotLink to measure distances. “Two years ago they cut back from having lasers on each green and on the fairway,” Vargo said. “They switched to just measuring the drives on two holes.” Comparatively, that sounds nominal, but before ShotLink, the only statistic recorded was the longest drive of the week, and it was measured on two holes. The holes, chosen by tour officials, are picked based on long straight fairways. Without a dog-leg or water hazard, a player will be free to hit as hard as he can. Last year, holes 15 and 16 were measured; the year before, the volunteers measured holes 5 and 16. Meanwhile, the regular PGA tour still uses lasers to measure distance every time a golfer touches the ball. Johnson compared ShotLink to an expensive toy that they don’t need, but was not sure if it was discontinued for expense reasons. Johnson said the tour contacted her before the tournament to say that she needed only four volunteers for each of two holes instead of the 36 laser operators it would take for the PGA Champions usual nine holes measured. “It was a very last minute situation,” Johnson said. “A few had signed up to be laser operators, so I sent out an email to the laser operators, saying, I need eight of you.” The sans-ShotLink system was set up by tour officials and had been modified between each Champions tournament before it came time for the Toshiba Classic. “The new system is improvised,” Fankhauser said, “There was an accuracy issue the first year we did it.” He lamented that the person sent by the tour to train his team was less cognizant than the group of volunteers. “She didn’t understand basic trig,” Fankhauser said. He was instructed to measure distances from the side of the fairway, in line with the 200-yard marker. That number, he would add to 200 and then add or subtract the distance the pin was from the middle of the green. “I just did that in my head,” Fankhauser said. The problem was, measuring from the side of the fairway creates a diagonal instead of a straight line, and dilutes the measurement. The new protocol for measuring requires a team of four volunteers per hole. In Vargo’s case, he took charge behind the tee box of hole 16 and held the palm pilot to record measurements. Teammate Pat managed “fairway right” while teammate Caroline held down “fairway left.” Fankhauser stood behind the tee box with Vargo, ready to operate a high-quality contraption that measures distances. “Tom Watson hitting,” Vargo might say into the radio headset, which the folks on hole 5 used as well, but on a different radio frequency. After the ball landed, Vargo would radio in, “fairway left” so Pat and Caroline, whose positions on the sidelines are less favorable for spotting the tiny white ball land, would know where to look. As soon as the last golfer in the group teed off, the fairway volunteers scrambled out to stand over each hit, so measurements could be calculated before golfers walked up to take their second shots. Fankhauser pointed the Bucknell rangefinder at the flag held up by fairway volunteers. This was an improvement on the Ping Pong paddles used the first year of the improvised system. Vargo enjoys seeing the players come through his hole while he’s operating the laser. “Jacobsen cracked jokes,” Fankhauser said. “Bobby Wadkins wanted nobody behind him. We normally stood back there and watched the balls.” For Wadkins, Fankhauser and Vargo moved to the side of the tee box instead of the back until Wadkins was done hitting. At the barbecue for volunteers held after the tournament, the champion golfer will come by and sign autographs. There are also prizes and golf club giveaways. Last year, Vargo won a putter. “It’s hard to find a freebie that he doesn’t already know about,” Fankhauser said, but claims that on the first day of the tournament, he snagged $15 off coupons for local golf shop Roger Dunn, while Vargo didn’t track down the coupon guy until the third day. That’s not where the added bonuses of volunteering stop. Since the tournament is a fundraiser for charity, Vargo mentioned that his mileage to and from the course is tax deductible. “It’s basically fun,” Vargo said, “and you get to get out and watch the professional golfers, golf.”