AI — artificial intelligence — is already in golf


Artificial Intelligence has more than crept into golf. It came in years ago, built a couple houses for itself and fired up the barbecue grill. It’s here to stay.

There’s so much AI in golf that it would make your head spin, but only if you were an artificial person or a particular actress in “The Exorcist.” AI is in the PGA Tour television broadcasts, nearly all golf equipment and golf course design, to name some big examples. And it’s not new to golf. It’s been around for several years.

You just have to think about what artificial intelligence really is to realize that we’ve all been using it for some time. Basically, AI uses computers to predict performance of something, like a golf club or a golf ball or even of a golfer.

For the PGA Tour, for THE PLAYERS and other tournaments, AI may have shown up first with Shotlink.  You know, that graphic that shows how many players have hit balls on the fairway or rough or who has hit the green? Or stats that show how far a drive went? That is part of a program called Shotlink that was actually developed by the PGA Tour with a company in Jacksonville that was called IDS (now SportsMEDIA Technology Corporation) and by IBM.

You also see their work when you go to the stats page at PGA Or when you click on a player’s name on the leaderboard and then click on a golf hole where it shows you the location of every shot hit by every player.

By having this data, it’s possible to make some predictions on how well players will play based on what they have been doing recently. That might be important if you wanted to make a bet, for instance. 

Data for the PGA Tour’s Shotlink system is gathered by volunteers each week. The way it works was explained in the Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) about eight years ago. According to that story, there are two lasers on each of the 18 holes on a golf course. (I’m going to guess there is probably just one on each of the par threes, but the Dispatch said two per hole.)

One laser is halfway down the hole and the other one is by the green. (That is why it seems that on par threes, there’s probably only one laser.)

After a golf ball lands, volunteers shoot a laser beam to it, and that records its position on the course. And because it’s always good to have a backup, volunteers also put a dot on a paper grid to show the hole and the location of the ball. A camera then measures the second shot, and the third if needed. 

The laser measurements get sent from the course to a Shotlink truck on site, and they are relayed to and to the TV people, CBS, NBC, Golf Channel and international TV that might be on site.  Those readings can be converted into graphics, like the ones that show where tee shots landed and then what the resulting score was on the hole, par, birdie or bogey. You know, those balls that are red, white or yellow on a graphic.    

So, could AI take over a golf tournament? Could AI create artificial golfers on a course that could cause the viewing audience to confuse them with what is really happening?

It’s unlikely. It would be really hard to have it done on a telecast. Someone would have to control an entire tournament’s television feed, as well as computer modeling of the course and of many golfers in the tournament. Exact digital replicas of the course, the holes being played and the golfers on the course would be required.

Right now, that’s just too complicated, even for the fastest computer chips. They’d collapse under the strain, put their little semiconductor feet in the air and give up the ghost. It would be a lot harder to create a golf tournament than to make that great clip of puppies in the snow, as cute as it was. It could be done, but why? It’s so much work, and we have real people out there actually playing golf. It’s not going to change the outcome of the real event. It’s unlikely that the animation is good enough to fool avid golf fans.

However, when it comes to golf equipment, AI is definitely there in a big way. You can’t get any closer to it than the name of a new driver, Paradym Ai Smoke, by Callaway. The company says it will give golfers 19 yards of shot shape correction. That thing has to be flying off the shelf! 

The design was likely done by computers doing simulations of golf shots plus (most likely) real golfers hitting golf shots to figure out how to make the club face correct the ball flight of not-very-good golfers.

AI was used to design the Callaway Epic Flash five years ago, according to an article in Forbes. They used a standard club body and then asked a supercomputer to design the face of the club.

The supercomputer did 15,000 versions of the clubface until it found the one that would have optimum characteristics with the rest of the club and would give the fastest possible ball speed within the USGA limits at the time. The result was the “Flash Face” driver plus a matching set of fairway woods.

Callaway calculated that it would take 34 years for them to do all the calculations that the computer did to get the ideal solution, which became the Epic Flash.

And when it comes to artificial intelligence, the golf ball companies must use so much of it that it probably makes an IBM mainframe or the computer in the cloud smolder. (And remember, the “cloud” computer is still just a computer that you access via the internet instead of having it in your office or home.)

AI could be used to calculate the size, shape and number of the dimples and to count, measure and arrange the dimples and non-dimpled spots for optimum flight and stopping characteristics. Then, they could test the ball in imaginary flight for aerodynamics, and then test it with the golf machine, Iron Byron, named after Byron Nelson and then test it with actual people.

AI can calculate what happens to the ball in no wind, in sidewinds, crosswinds, downwind. It can test kinds and colors of paint on the balls and test what different kinds of plastic-like, silly putty, cookie-dough stuff that’s inside the balls does to distance, straightness, ball flight and stopping ability.

Another area in golf that uses a ton of AI is golf course design.

Golf course architects use CAD systems — Computer Aided Design — to create and draw golf holes before dirt is moved to make them. There have been CAD systems in use for more than 50 years, and they’ve been in common use for between 35 and 40 in course design.

One important thing CAD can do in golf course design is to estimate how much dirt has to be moved to make a mound or dig out a bunker. The reason that’s important is because moving a cubic yard of dirt has a dollar cost, so much per cubic yard. Just look at the mounds around the golf holes at the TPC Sawgrass course. CAD can calculate how many cubic yards are in a hill that has to be built or removed. Like that one that used to be between holes 6 and 7 on TPC Sawgrass that’s now a lake. I wonder where that dirt went? Never mind how much it cost to take it down.

So, while it may be fun to make fake puppies and fake people, AI is actually a great advancement for anyone involved in predicting or simulating manufacturing processes or making new designs of just about anything from clothes to cars to houses to golf clubs and balls to spaceships.

What else can it do? You want to build a golf course on the moon? Or Mars? You’re definitely going to need some AI for that. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup slide rule, calculator, some extra batteries and a person who knows how to use all of them in case there’s a blip in the solar power on your moonscape.

Like all computer-created entities, AI is only as good as the people who know how to use it, know how to make it work and know how to fix it or get the job done without it. Remember Apollo 13? When an important part failed, the people on the ground and the astronauts had to figure out how to make a work-around device out of items the astronauts had in their capsule to get them back home because they didn’t have enough oxygen to finish the mission as planned.