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Pinpoint Accuracy

Phil Mickelson's rocketlike drive cuts through the hazy sky in a
majestic arc before falling to earth. As Mickelson stands in the
tee box admiring his moon shot, the real rocket science has just
begun. Like Luke Skywalker taking aim at an unsuspecting
stormtrooper, Jack Sweitzer, a volunteer PGA Tour marshal, fires
a laser mounted on a tripod at Mickelson's ball sitting in the
middle of the fairway. No, Mickelson's Titleist doesn't explode
like a mini Death Star. Instead, with the aid of satellite
mapping, the laser is used to calculate the ball's exact
location, which is beamed back to a PGA Tour communications
truck. The information is then dumped into ShotLink, a new, $20
million system designed for use on television, on and
on scoreboards. Starting in March, ShotLink will instantly
provide the precise distance for every shot hit by every pro
playing in every Tour event.

ShotLink was created in response to the booming interest in
television golf (or anything involving Tiger Woods). Steve Evans,
the Tour's vice president of information systems, says the PGA
had first hoped to calculate shot distances with the Global
Positioning System (GPS)--now commonly used in automobiles and
through which an earthbound object's location can be pinpointed
with satellites--but after a bit of research, the Tour saw an
easier way. While using GPS to map courses, surveyors realized
they could use their lasers, a common tool of building and road
construction crews, to locate a precise spot on their electronic
maps: for example, the patch of sand on which a ball is sitting
in a bunker beside the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. Scheduled to
debut at the Doral-Ryder Open, the system will produce more than
220 new statistics, including such revealing numbers as who's the
best putter from 15 to 20 feet and the percentage of iron shots
Ernie Els puts within 10 feet of the hole.

During the first full test of the new system on Nov. 4 at the
Tour Championship, it was apparent some kinks needed to be
ironed out. Two lasers were set improperly, skewing readings for
most of the day, and some Palm Pilots used to record items such
as club choice and ball location were accidentally disconnected
from their transmitters. Still, the potential of ShotLink was
apparent. Sweitzer, 62, a retired director of market research
for Kimberly-Clark, was amazed that wielding a piece of
high-tech laser gadgetry could be such an elementary process.
"If a clunk like me can operate this thing," he said, "it's got
to be pretty easy."

--John O'Keefe

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK With ShotLink, the PGA is creating more than 220 stats categories catered to TV and and online fans.