Turn on CBS for Sunday’s telecast and you’re bound to see an animated graphic of a ball breaking towards the hole. This graphic is part of a bigger simulator that can predict how much a golf ball will break from a golfer’s specific position. And more importantly, it shows where a golfer must aim to make that putt.
That simulator is known as AimPoint and was created in 2004 by a curious amateur golfer with a talent for developing applications, Mark Sweeney. Sweeney is now the putting instructor for many professional golfers, including Adam Scott, the No. 2-ranked golfer in the Official World Golf Rankings and Stacy Lewis, who is No. 1 in the Women’s World Golf Rankings.
Sweeney recently developed a new system based on original fundamentals that went into the TV simulator, with more practicality and ease of use. Called AimPoint Express, it allows for quick and accurate reads from anywhere on any green. I had the opportunity to speak with Mark recently about his career, the Express Read, and the future.
BF: You’ve been called one of the top innovators in the game of golf today. Tell us about your background prior to founding AimPoint in 2007, and what led to you fusing golf and science in this unique way?
MS: I have background in high tech really. I worked in finance, but did a lot of software development. I worked at Hewlett Packard for five years, dealing with technology applications. I had played golf as an amateur, and because I had a background in software development I tried to apply it to putting. I started off really for fun, trying to see if I could write some software to predict break. The research at the time was all dealing with theoretical surfaces, where if you had a surface in the shape of a parabola, how would the ball break? But none of it was done on an actual putting green, and that’s where I tried to attack the problem.
BF: For those who are unfamiliar with your original system, AimPoint, tell us a bit about how it works or the theory behind it.
MS: AimPoint was originally designed as a computer program to figure out how to putt a ball on a green. I originally created a Palm Pilot application in 2004 where if you knew where the ball was and where the hole was, you could figure out how the ball would the ball break. The Palm Pilot platform had all sorts of issues, as they weren’t connected to the internet and the screens were unreadable in the sun, so I left that alone and pretty quickly moved to TV.
It caught CBS’s attention pretty early, and when it launched in 2005 I focused most of my attention on that. I didn’t get a contract with Golf Channel to go on the air until 2007. Between the time we worked with CBS and Golf Channel putting it on air, we slowly grew and I moved more into teaching. It has gotten bigger and bigger until just the last few years it has really taken off.
BF: When did you begin to see the Tour pick up your system, and how was the initial reception?
MS: It’s interesting, because the first person to pick it up on the PGA Tour was Scott McCarron, at least four years ago. His putting stats improved dramatically. He went from about 190th in putting to top 10 within the first six months or so.
He stayed top 10 for the next three years straight, and was actually first the last year he played full time before he got injured. He had tremendous success, and a number of players started to take a look at it. It didn’t get dramatic acceptance on Tour; I think it was perceived as too technical. And even though people had done very well with it, I didn’t get as many players as I had hoped to. On the LPGA, Stacy Lewis was the first player to use it. She won her first major, and in her second year using it she won four more times. So I got quicker acceptance on the LPGA Tour because Stacy did so well quickly.
BF: Would you say that part of the recent growth of AimPoint can be correlated to the general trend of approaching the game in a much more technical manner?
MS: A little bit, but people are still very reluctant to apply a technical approach to their putting, even now. The original reads, including the midpoint read and AimChart … even though they were super accurate reads on paper they took some time to learn and get good at. Lately, the Express system, well since December, has gained much more acceptance as its less technical.
The original read was based on three variables: the length of the putt, the slope and the angle you were putting at. If you had all of those three, you would get what we call a “perfect read.” The problem was that for many players that was too many moving parts and I think that hurt the acceptance overall on Tour. With the Express system, you can basically get the same read with only one variable. So it’s really just a side slope number and you don’t have to worry about the other stuff. Players feel it is more natural and quicker. You can put it in play the same day whereas with the Midpoint read, it took a few months to get really comfortable with it. With the Express read, you can learn and go out to play 10 minutes later and have a pretty good understanding of how it works.
BF: So, you’d say that the Express Read system came as a way of simplifying the original method?
MS: Yeah, exactly. It’s a simplified method of Midpoint, with essentially the same accuracy. I’d say it’s 95 percent as accurate as Midpoint. Technically you give up a bit of accuracy on paper, but in reality you will make more putts because it is an easier read with fewer moving parts. On paper, you give up a bit of accuracy from let’s say 20 feet, but in reality we see people making more [putts] as it is easier and feels more natural.
[With Express Read] you’re simply putting a value on how much side slope there is. If you know how much the ball is tilted sideways, it becomes fairly straightforward to get an accurate read.
BF: We’ve almost grown accustomed to seeing Adam Scott standing behind his ball with various fingers out. What’s going on there?
MS: Holding the fingers out is the Express method. Once you put a value on the side slope, you get a visual picture of how the ball breaks. So when the player holds their finger up, its showing them where to start the ball and how much the ball will break.
BF: How has the reception on Tour been with Express?
MS: There were a lot of players who knew about AimPoint years ago, but saw it as too technical. Now we see them putting Express into play quickly, even the next day. It’s kind of a shocking thing for Tour players to put something into play so quickly, as usually they like to experiment for a while before putting something into competition.
BF: Did you ever imagine that a day would come when the top-ranked male and female golfers in the world would be using AimPoint?
MS: No [laughs]. All of it hit me about a month before it happened. Obviously we were very excited about Stacy because Stacy was the No. 1-ranked women’s golfer in the world a year and a half ago, lost it, and then got it back. It was really great to see Adam doing it as well. Both of them use it very well. They use it the way it is meant to be used. It is very exciting for us, because we AimPoint instructors know how good the read is when you use it the way you’re supposed to use it. To see players like them use it and putt better with it, statistically, it’s great to watch.
BF: Could you tell us a bit about your relationship with them and what you’re working on with their individual games?
MS: They both strike the ball on line very well. It was a little bit easier to get them using the system quicker, as once you gave them the read they would roll the ball there. Versus the majority of players, if you give them a read, they won’t roll the ball on that spot, they’re missing their line by a degree left or right. So [for amateurs], you also have to patch that hole; its not just the read, but you have to hit the line and speed. But with Stacy and Adam, it’s neat to watch because they are so good at starting it on a line. You say “don’t hit it here, hit it there,” and then they hit it there. They both have had quick success with it because of that. Most of the hard work was done in the beginning, and when I see them now, its mostly just fine tuning. I see Stacy three or four times a year at the most and it’s just really little tweaks here and there.
BF: Today’s average golfer may not have the time or funds to be constantly working on his or her game, but still wants to get better. Does AimPoint Express help this amateur? And if so, how?
MS: One of the ideas that got me into doing the Express read was because I was doing a charity event. I was with a typical average golfer, one who played six to ten times a year. We were teaching him how to use the original system, the Midpoint read, and he missed an 18 foot putt by about 2 inches. When you’re used to working with professional golfers, you miss by two inches and you immediately try to figure out why that happened. When this guy missed his putt, he basically said “I don’t care if I missed an 18 foot putt by 2 inches, that’s good enough for me.” I thought, wow, I’m so used to trying to get every half inch of accuracy out of a stroke whereas 95 percent of golfers in the world don’t care if they miss that putt; hitting it to 2 inches is a great putt. It was probably a week after that that we came up with the Express Method.
The thing about Express is that it works better than we thought it would. I thought it would be a way to get really close really fast. What we found was that it was almost as accurate as the original chart read. It was surprising that Tour players were learning it, saying we like this, and using it immediately. It started off as an adaptation for amateur and junior golfers, to get them very close with very little training, but for the same reason that the amateurs liked it so do the Tour players.
Sweeney (on left with white/black hat) leading a seminar on AimPoint Express.
BF: One of the interesting things I find about Express is it’s universality among the full spectrum of skill levels. Essentially, a basics lesson for a Tour player is the same as a bogey golfer?
MS: If I teach a brand new golfer or a tour player, I teach the exact same read to them both. The only difference is with a Tour player you are also spending a bit more time focusing on the specifics of starting exactly on line and training that, whereas with an amateur they can get 90 percent of it within the first hour. The amateur knows he is missing his line, but he isn’t as concerned. If he makes a good putt from 15-to-20 feet, he is happy. But with a Tour player, as I said, if they miss by a degree we try to tweak that to get a little more accuracy in hitting the line. What I teach a 36 handicapper and Stacy is exactly the same.
BF: We’ve seen the progression from AimPoint to AimPoint Express. What do you see as the next progression?
MS: Well, it’s hard, because I didn’t see the Express method happening until the day it happened. We are always trying to improve our method and make it more simpler to common golfers. I don’t know if there is a way to simplify it any more; I think we’ve maxed that out. So I think the next step is putting all the pieces together for putting. Not just green reading, but understanding start line and speed control, because only 3-to-5 percent of golfers start the ball where they want to start the ball. To be able to help them with that is the next piece of the puzzle.
BF: In the future do you see your technology being applied to areas outside of putting?
MS: I don’t understand the full swing well enough to go into that area, but we certainly use it on chipping and pitch shots. All short game shots, any ball that hits the green, we do apply it for that. As of now, I don’t have any plans of going into other zones in golf. Believe it or not, I am playing around with applying it to baseball. I have a pitching simulator where we see that the physics behind ball movement is very similar to golf, in a way.
The idea is understanding the cause and effect; why the ball moves how it does. Once we understand that, we can apply that to help people perform better. The key to it is making it practical, because there are lots scientists and researchers who do very elaborate mathematics, but their results are not practical to apply in the field.
BF: What type of progression do you see from a business/marketing perspective? Happy with the Tour being the main method of advertising, or other plans?
MS: From a marketing perspective, there’s more demand for AimPoint then there ever has been. I’m teaching way more than I ever have, and most of my instructors say the same. I think it’s really caught on with the public, especially with people seeing Stacy and other Tour Players doing it on TV. It has all happened so quickly with AimPoint becoming popular over the past few months that I really haven’t thought of how to market it to more people yet. I would like to, I just don’t quite know how yet.
BF: Last question. How can our readers learn to putt like Adam Scott and Stacy Lewis and pick up AimPoint Express?
MS: Right now, the best way to do it is to go to my website and find one of my authorized instructors. I have about 175 worldwide, with the majority (100+) in the United States. At some point, I plan to release a book as well; I’ve had it about 90 percent finished for four years now. My goal is to get that out within the next year and it will provide a different avenue to learning.
BF: Thanks for your time, Mark.