GPS Fore the Golf Course

April 30, 2002
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Centimeter accuracy is par for the course.



This Triangular Irregular Network (TIN) of Pebble Beach was created from data shot on hole 7 of the California course.
With his distinctive yellow backpack and antenna, Darryl Sharp doesn’t look like your normal golfer. When asked what he’s doing on such illustrious courses as Pebble Beach Golf Links, TPC at Sawgrass or Poppy Hills Golf Course, he’ll say he’s been hired as a lightning rod—or to test shoes for Nike. But those who recognize Global Positioning System (GPS) technology when they see it know otherwise. Sharp’s mapping and consulting firm, Geodetic Services Inc. of Blaine, Wash., is one of the few companies that uses GPS to create accurate and detailed maps of one of our favorite recreational spots: golf courses.

Since 1997, Geodetic Services teams have walked the greens, fairways and bunkers of many of the nation’s premier courses. With Trimble’s GPS surveying systems (Trimble, Sunnyvale, Calif.)—and at times non-GPS survey equipment—Sharp and his team gather position data for more than 120,000 points on most courses. He’s mapped 55 U.S. courses to date and plans to map international courses in the future.

Geodetic Services collected 6,596 points of this hole in 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

GPS Makes Video Golf Accurate

Under a five-year contract with video gaming manufacturer EA SPORTS (Electronic Arts Inc., Redwood City, Calif.), Sharp—and GPS—has helped make playing simulated golf on some of the most elite courses in the country amazingly accurate for anyone with a PC or PlayStation.

Load Tiger Woods’ PGA TOUR 2002 video game, choose one of six top-ranked golf courses, and you’ll find the results of Sharp’s mapping: the realistic graphics are based on terrain models created using GPS technology. Drive the ball 164 yards down the fairway and you’ll see exactly what you’d see on the actual course. End up in a bunker and you’ll be told precisely how far you have to hit the ball with your sand wedge to get it out. Everything from tees to trees is accurately logged and all aspects of the terrain are digitally and precisely represented. And Geodetic Services mapped them all with Trimble GPS.

“It’s a unique field that people don’t know much about,” Sharp says. “To get realistic graphics you need accurate models based on the real thing. So we offer the data they need—at a cost and speed no one else can match.”

Simulated golf games have been around for years, but the accuracy of the data used for the game’s backdrop graphics was at first considered marginal. Graphic artists have traditionally created the visual backdrops using video cameras and digital imaging. But with sophisticated GPS technology, getting the video golf game precise and realistic—required by today’s high-tech savvy customer—has become an exact science.

Using GPS to map the course—from tees to sprinkler heads, cart paths to rock outcrops—Sharp’s crew is able to generate an abundance of data that is then used to create precise three-dimensional models of each aspect of the course. The models outline specific features like water hazards, trees, cart paths and slopes. By adding such physical features as grass (including different textures for fairway, green and rough), trees and sand, EA SPORTS’ artists generate the finished product: a computer version of the real thing.

“The tremendous amount of work Darryl puts into mapping the courses really shows in the end product,” says Orlando Guzman, EA SPORTS golf producer. “His use of advanced Trimble GPS survey equipment is a huge benefit for us. With the data Darryl gives us, we’ve been able to make the graphics as close to the real thing as possible. Anything more realistic and you’d see the grass growing.”

This rotated, shaded screen of Coyote Creek Valley hole 18 in AutoCAD shows how data points built the terrain model.

One-Shot-A-Second Box

On the course, Sharp measures each point using his GPS survey system, downloads the data to his laptop computer and imports it into AutoCAD’s Land Development Desktop (Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif.). Before leaving the course, Sharp checks for gaps in the data and remaps where needed.

“We’ve been able to triple our production based on the advances in the GPS equipment,” Sharp says. “It’s a true one-shot-a-second box.”

Back in his home office, Sharp creates the line work and 3D modeling of each fairway, then exports it to EA SPORTS. He used to build each fairway as an individual model; now, for the new version he’s working on, he’s building an 18-hole layout on one surface.

Initially, EA SPORTS hired Geodetic Services to train their people how to map on the Poppy Hills Golf Course in Monterey, California in 1997. They mapped 5,000 points, but half of them were unusable and the product was very rough.

“I told them they were artists trying to do mapping,” Sharp says. “That’s like me trying to build a video game.” EA SPORTS turned the rest of the courses over to him.

Sharp’s first solo course was TPC at Summerlin in Las Vegas, where he mapped 45,000 points in about three or four days. He’s now decreased his mapping time to two to three days, and increased the amount of data collected to more than 135,000 points—a 300 percent increase over the Summerlin course. (Sharp has since remapped Summerlin and generated more than 100,000 points for greater detail.)

“I’ve shot more than six million points on golf courses,” Sharp says. “That’s more than anyone would think of. We're pumping the data in with GPS—one hole at a time.”

Since Summerlin, Sharp has mapped (and at times golfed—a perk of his work) such well-known courses as Heron Bay in Coral Springs, and TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida; Piper Glen in Charlotte, North Carolina; Spyglass Hill Golf Course and The Links at Spanish Bay Golf Course in Carmel, California; and Warwick Hills Golf Club in Grand Blanc, Michigan, among many others.

Darryl Sharp gathers data with the Trimble GPS total station rover at Washington's Semiahmoo golf course.

GPS at Pebble Beach

At California’s Pebble Beach Golf Links, where golfers play against the stunning backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, Sharp steps on the course early in the morning with another mapper (he uses a two- or three-man crew on most courses) and his two GPS rovers.

As cars slowly drive by on the renowned 17-Mile-Drive winding through the golf course, Sharp’s crew sets up one GPS system as the base station, assumes the local coordinate system and sets up control. Mapping the 18th hole first, the crew moves backward down the course, gaining about four hours before golfers catch up to them. When the last group tees off, the crew may fall in behind them to start mapping the first hole.

For the next five days (it took longer as they weren’t able to use a cart), Sharp and his rodman hike across the course, typically starting with the fairway outlines, intermediate cuts, bunkers and green. For a par 5 hole, they’ll gather an average of about 8,000 points, he says. All with GPS.

“My mapping “toolbox” revolves around my GPS equipment because GPS controls everything on the course,” he says. “It’s all set from GPS. I’d need a team of eight using conventional methods to do what my team of two can do with GPS.”

By the end, Sharp’s crew has gathered 120,000 points: horizontal accuracy is 2 cm on the fairways, less than 1 cm on the greens and sprinkler heads, and about 6 mm vertically, obtained with augmentation from non-GPS equipment. Differing accuracy comes from the variety of techniques he uses: while he shoots one epoch on the fairways, he’ll shoot more epochs on sprinkler heads and valves.

On courses like Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington, where there are Douglas fir trees soaring up to 60 feet tall, Sharp says he uses GPS to set up control, but switches to non-GPS survey equipment under the trees.

“If I tried to do it all with robotics, I’d have a hard time setting control,” he says. “I’d have to traverse around the golf course. That’s the beauty of GPS. You can move all over the golf course. We spread out over each hole and map the heck out of it. You name it, we map it.

“GPS has paid for itself over and over. I couldn’t do my job without it. In fact, without GPS I’d have to add a couple days to each job for sure. I’d lose $5-6,000 per job without it. It adds up fast.”

A self-proclaimed “accuracy freak,” Sharp uses his own specs for the golf jobs. Since his first course with EA SPORTS, he’s developed a system of mapping and transferring data that really works. He won’t share his trade secrets, but the data is always accurate.

“I’ve never had any complaints,” he says.

In fact, Sharp says when Tiger Woods played the Pebble Beach video course, Tiger was able to forecast almost exactly what the ball would do when he hit it.

“Tiger would look at the course layout and say, ‘This ball will break left there,’” Sharp says. “Then he’d putt the ball and the ball would break left. If our data is incorrect he’d definitely see it in the game.”

A custom graphic in top down view of data captured on hole 1 at Heron Bay golf course.

GPS and the PGA TOUR

Sharp has mapped several of the courses twice: once for EA SPORTS and again for the PGA TOUR. PGA TOUR hired Geodetic Services to map courses for its new ShotLink scoring and statistics system, which captures and reports real-time information on every shot, by every player, in every tournament. The new system, which includes an onsite Internet component dubbed ShotLink Tournament Tracker, has been designed to bring fans—whether live, via television or in cyberspace—closer to the game.

“ShotLink will help fans around the world experience PGA TOUR events as if they were inside the ropes,” says Steve Evans, the PGA TOUR’s vice president of information systems.

In addition to the GPS-based 3D maps EA SPORTS requires, the TOUR asks for location information on the sprinkler heads and valves as well. The TOUR will use this data to orient about 19 Trimble 5600 Total Stations with Direct Reflex (DR200+) technology on each tournament course. The total stations will measure the length and accuracy of every shot around and on the greens; DR200+ technology measures to white objects (golf balls) up to 600 meters away.

When the system is completed, two officials—positioned parallel to the landing area for tee shots and near the green—will use the total stations to locate a player’s ball when it comes to rest; a third official will record shot details such as stance, lie, location and time of each shot. The equipment will automatically send the position out the RS232 port to a series of IBM servers, and instant plots of the ball on the system’s GPS-based 3D maps will be available. The TOUR believes the ShotLink system will lead to more than 250 new stats.

In addition to being used at each tournament, the 3D maps of each course will be used to create a virtual golf course in cyberspace, making every player’s shot available in real-time on the Internet. Announcers can also use the GPS-based maps to give details about each course to viewers, such as depressions in the sand bunkers and pitch of the green, as well as data on each player.

Such precise data can also help in golf course maintenance. Management can use the information to redesign an existing course from detailed sets of “as-builts,” build yardage booklets, enhance drainage studies or manage maintenance activities.

Sharp took a circuitous route to the world of golf. Always an outdoorsman, he worked as a commercial fisherman and then got into mapping with a surveying company in Washington. But it was when he was introduced to GPS technology that he found his niche, quickly learning how to use a GPS receiver well enough to be asked by a local dealer to train a customer. That began a new career: he got certified as a Trimble trainer, wrote his own manuals, and eventually started Geodetic Services for training and mapping. Sharp does mapping projects—95 percent of his business—on his own. For surveys, he works under surveyors. He got hooked up with EA SPORTS when the video gaming company asked Trimble for a mapping referral. And the rest is golf—GPS for golf, that is—history.

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