The first few words out of Niklas Bergdahl’s mouth were delayed because they were traveling across an ocean and six hours into the past. The delay is fitting because we’re discussing the future of golf and how the technology he’s been a part of for four years is changing that landscape. “We have a new radar system that we call an ‘ultra-high-frequency radar system’ that allows us to track the ball as it rolls across the green,” Bergdahl said. Bergdahl and his colleagues at Trackman Golf are rolling into a new frontier of golf analytics.
Trackman has become the premier launch monitor on professional circuits around the world, and with Dustin Johnson using it to rise to power as the most dominant golfer in the world, the company has gained the attention of casual fans as well. And for good reason. When I was at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio on the last day of practice rounds, there were more players hitting balls with a Trackman than not. And when you fully understand the amount of actionable data provided by Trackman, it seems there’s no other way to truly maximize your game in today’s world.
There are things a launch monitor can see that no naked eye on Earth can. What I learned speaking with Bergdahl and other members of the Trackman team is that those things a launch monitor can see might make the difference, not only in a professional reaching the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, but also in a brand new golfer blossoming into an avid player.
Before we dive into the details of Trackman, I want to draw your attention to a couple of things. In 2003, Michael Lewis released Moneyball. Lewis’ book takes us on a journey into the front office of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics organization. The A’s are notoriously one of the league’s poorest teams, but somehow in 2001, Billy Beane (the team’s general manager) built a team that won more than 100 games. How did he do it with less money than all but two other teams? Paul DePodesta.
DePodesta developed a system for valuing players based on statistics that created runs for the team. In DePodesta’s mind, nothing else mattered. Building a roster to create the most runs was the only answer, and the analytics used in baseball at the time weren’t good enough. There’s a long backstory that we could go into, but it would be better if you read the book. The bottom line is, before DePodesta came along and Billy Beane had the guts to trust him, nobody in baseball was thinking about the value of statistical analysis, or data at all. Moneyball changed that.
Fast forward to 2009: STATS LLC is the data-tracking company that supports the NBA with analytics. In the 2009 NBA Finals, STATS demoed its newly minted SportVU camera system that hovers above the court during NBA games and collects 25 data points per second. Let that sink in. Twenty-five data points per second. Keep that figure in mind for when we start talking about the “ultra-high frequency radar” and putting with Trackman.
The demo went well and at the start of the 2010-2011 season, four teams were using the SportVU technology in their stadiums: the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs. Within a couple of years, teams started to figure out what the practical application of this massive amount of data was, and in 2013, Zach Lowe penned a piece for Grantland outlining how the Toronto Raptors were using the data collected. In his piece, Lowe describes the program the Raptors developed to overlay the defensive schemes used by the team and compare them to every movement of every player during every single play. The result was the capability to produce a video such as the one below for every second of every game.
As you can see, the defensive players are represented twice: once by the lighter circle, called the ghost, and once by the white circle. The ghost is where the player actually is during the play and the white circle is where the staff thinks the player should be at any given time based on the defensive scheme adopted by the team. It’s pretty heady stuff. The application of sitting down a player and showing him this film is obvious. Trackman can do essentially the same thing with golf. And not just the full swing, but now too, with putting.
For the last half-decade or so, launch monitors have been able to provide us with the ball flight of players on television. Anyone who watches the sport from home wishes the broadcasts would show more and more of the colored line on the screen showing us how inferior we are to the professionals. But this article isn’t about the professionals, it’s about the little guy and how Trackman is changing the way we can enjoy the game.
Enter Trackman RANGE.
Along with Bergdahl (whom we’ll return to in a moment), I spoke with Matt Frelich, the VP of Sales and Marketing for Trackman. When I started this piece, I had a hypothesis in mind that the future of golf was personal launch monitors. That eventually we would get to a point where the technology was so affordable that most players could buy one with a little planning, much like rangefinders. Personal launch monitors exist today but in a limited capacity. And the difference between most of those and Trackman is really in the name of the company. Trackman uses Doppler Radar to actually track the entire flight of the golf ball (or whatever object it’s calibrated for), whereas most others use a snapshot reading from about 10 inches before and after impact.
Only a couple of minutes into my conversation with Matt Frelich, my personal hypothesis was blown to bits. For about 10 seconds, I was a little saddened, but what he shared with me soon after nearly made my head explode.
Imagine walking onto a driving range, setting your bag down behind a selected spot of turf and pulling your phone out. You scroll through your apps and select the Trackman app. Once you log on to the app, you’ll be connected to the Trackman server at said range, and then you’ll be prompted to hit a calibration shot. You take a swing, look at your phone once more, and the prompt will ask you, “Was this your shot?” You confirm it is and then you’re locked in.
Now for the next however long you’re at the range, Trackman will provide you the same data the pros are getting for each and every shot with the data hub right on your phone. While you’re checking your numbers, it will also be doing the same exact thing, at the same exact time, for the 75 other golfers hitting balls down range. And you didn’t have to pay a penny extra.
Trackman RANGE, in theory, looks like this.
This is a “single-radar setup”, which means that there is one 3-foot by 3-foot radar installed behind and above the range hitting area. The Trackman package includes the radar and server, and the app and will be available in your respective App Store. Trackman personnel come and install all the equipment at the range, and once installed, the system will track all shots within a 75-yard wide hitting area at the same time, providing unique data to each individual player. On natural turf, you’ll be able to move up and backward just as you do now. Trackman calls these “dynamic” bays as opposed to hitting off mats in what they call “fixed” bays.
They also have a “three-radar setup,” which is the same concept. Using it, the hitting area can be expanded from 75 yards to 130 yards in width.
I was blown away. The most incredible thing is that Trackman has developed the app to track all of your historical data no matter what range you go to; it’s all linked to an account within the app. What’s more, both the single and multi-radar setups will tell you the actual distance to targets on the range. Those flags that you’re currently shooting with a laser rangefinder will now appear on your phone screen. And when your shots land, you’ll know exactly how close you were to hitting the target, which is the most actionable part of the whole set up.
The other unique feature with Trackman and its ball-tracking radar is because Trackman is tracking the ball and not a snapshot of data before and after impact, you will get accurate data on how your ball reacts in poor conditions or high winds. There will be no more guessing as to how much the wind affected your 9-iron. You can see it, and you can learn to make those adjustments on the range instead of guessing on the course.
I asked Matt Frelich how long it would be before I could go and try out one of these ranges. “Assuming you’re willing to fly to Copenhagen, Denmark, you could try it out this afternoon,” he said. “As far as the U.S., our first range should be up by the end of August this year,” he said. I had to make him clarify. It was the first of May when we spoke on the phone.
“Wait, so you’re saying this isn’t a plan?” I asked. “It’s actually being executed as we speak?”
“Yeah, Trackman RANGE is happening right now,” Frelich said. “In fact, we had the multi-radar setup at the year’s first major. We tracked every shot hit on the range for the entire week. All the data you saw on the range during the coverage came from this setup.”
Now, one must keep in mind that Trackman RANGE will only provide ball data, not club data. The use of Trackman 4 is working its way into everyday teaching, however, and for good reason. In our conversation, Frelich and I also discussed the impact this technology could have on how the game is taught. He offered a scenario that resonated with me.
“Imagine you have this player who comes to you and is hitting a huge slice,” he said. “You look at his swing and determine that his swing path is too far outside to in. You give the player a drill to work on and he works on it for a few minutes, then goes back to hitting balls. He still slices the balls and you can’t see much difference in his swing. This continues for an entire lesson and the player leaves frustrated…” I stopped him and said this was the exact reason I’d only taken a couple of lessons.
“Wait, so you’re saying this isn’t a plan? it’s actually being executed as we speak?”
“But with Trackman, I can take that player and do the same thing, but I’ll measure his swing path currently and set an objective.” he said. “Let’s say 0 is the objective and he starts out at -10. I give him the drill, he works on it for a minute, then he starts hitting balls again. He still slices it, but this time his swing path is -8 instead of -10. It’s progress that my eyes can’t see and he likely can’t feel, but his path is getting better. Over the 15 or 20 swings, he gets it down to -6, then -2, then he hooks one and it’s +2. What we’ve just done is take a player who would have left really frustrated and changed his entire outlook because I can show proof that he was improving throughout the session. That’s the difference with using data and not using data.”
When the NBA implemented the SportVU camera system, they didn’t yet have the tools to process it on a practical level, but they knew that in order to constantly improve, they needed the data. Three years later the Raptors had developed a system that can tell each and every player how far out of position they were on each and every play. SportVU gave the NBA coaches and players actionable data that is virtually impossible to see and convey to the naked eye but can easily be conveyed and comprehended through the digital world. Trackman is doing the same thing with golf.
We’ve already seen what Trackman’s technology does for the best players in the world, but the best players in the world aren’t the future of golf. The kids and teenagers playing in junior tournaments, learning the game with this type of data, are the future of golf. The people who decide to pick up the game in their 40s, who will be able to go to a range with Trackman installed and can tell if their progressing, are the future of golf.
Trackman RANGE is cool, but the final frontier of data collection in golf is putting. To this point, radars have only been able to track objects in flight, which has proven difficult to adapt to putting. “What makes putting data difficult”, Bergdahl says, “Is the fact that the ball is on the ground, but also that the putter tends to get in the way. With the radar behind the putter, the follow through has given us trouble in the past to be able to see what the ball is doing. With Trackman 4, we’ve solved it.”
Bergdahl would go on to say that with the Trackman 4, the ultra-high-frequency radar can give the player an effective Stimpmeter reading of the green by using the “ball deceleration rate,” basically how quickly the ball loses speed. Knowing the quantifiable speed of the green you’re practicing on can be huge in honing your feel for speed in putting.
While measuring the speed, it also tracks when your ball stopped skidding and when it started rolling. It breaks that down into a percentage of the putt. In the graphic above, you can see that the sample putt was 18 feet, 9 inches. The ball was skidding for 34 inches of that putt, which means it was only rolling end over end for 85 percent of the distance it traveled. The one thing you’re trying to do when you’re putting is always put a good roll on it. Now you see the fruits of your labor with Trackman.
Another way to think about it is this: You’re working on five-footers at your club. You’ve hit about 50 of them thus far and feel good about your stroke, but you also know that seven or eight of those putts that went in the hole went in because you got lucky. Maybe you hit it too hard and it did one of those “bounce up and in” deals, or you pulled it a little bit and it just barely caught the edge of the cup. Without hard data, your mind will simply log those “accidents” as successes. But if you have Trackman, it’s going to tell you where the ball would have ended up had it not gone in the hole. Trackman will tell you if your putt was going to roll two-feet past the hole or if it was going to stop just short and to the left. Those insights can better inform you of where you are in your path to improvement. Again, the message here is “actionable data.”
The difficult part of this technology is that Trackman 4 won’t be available to the casual golfer like Trackman RANGE will be. Trackman 4 starts at $18,995, so its Performance Putting Software won’t be as readily available as the range setup will be. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be available at your local golf shop.
Data has revolutionized professional golf. As I’ve written about before, the evolution of ShotLink technology and Strokes Gained Analytics has given players the ability to understand and improve areas of their game that, until the 2000s, weren’t even measurable. What I think is important about where we’re headed is that we will potentially see non-golfers become casual golfers and casual golfers become avid golfers. And in a time where everyone is screaming that the game is dying, I have to believe this is a shining light into the future.
Photo Credits: TrackMan Golf/Media Kit
Flatstick Focus: Anser-Style Draft and Interview with Nate Stone from Chirrp
In Episode 10, Glenn and Parker draft a team of 5 Anser-style putters to compete for listener votes on Instagram. We also interview Nate Stone from Chirrp Golf to discuss their new product coming to the market later in 2020.
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
The best golf commercials of all time
The world of golf has seen its fair share of commercials; both memorable and well…not so much.
Lucky for us, and cinematographers alike, production values, camera technology, and creative concepts have certainly improved over time with the biggest creative leap thanks to Nike golf. This is look back and both some and the best and, let’s say less creative.
Golf’s Not That Hard, Right?
The Moment Tiger introduces Joe the 27 Handicap, you know it’s not going to end well.
Titleist DT – It’s Wound In.
I don’t know if the best part of this commercial is the music, the fist pumps, or the classic sweater and stiff collar outfits worn by everyone involved.
This was a big Superbowl commercial and it was long after that shankapotomus became part of the golf vernacular.
Kenny G Sells Clubs?
I’ll never quite understand that demographic that was targeted at. People, that enjoy forgiving clubs and smooth saxophone? I guess Lisa Simpson wasn’t available.
Boo Weekley – Launching It
When it comes to characters in golf, Boo Weekly will always be remembered as one of the finest. Although considering VJ is well knows for living right next to TPC Sawgrass I feel like they took some liberties with shooting locations.
Get Custom Fit!
Although the company certainly isn’t around anymore the message is a good one – You’re going to play better with custom-fit clubs. Throw in a groin-hit for good measure because that’s always fun right?
Big Bertha Caddies
This one is pretty good, and if you have ever caddied for any period of time it’s quite relatable. But regardless of the clubs there players are gaming, I’d rather not be carrying a staff bag around for 36 holes unless there is “a little something for the effort.”
PING G10 Irons & Driver
These will always be my favorite golf commercials. They are endlessly funny and play directly into many golfers often farsighted aspirations around their own golf games. Best line “Exactly. One good year and that’s all taken care of.”
What did we miss, GolfWRXers? Let us know your favorite golf commercials in the comments!
A 2015 conversation with Dean Snell
Have a bit of time travel with us, as we go back five years and read what Dean Snell had to say.
Dean Snell lists positions with Titleist and TaylorMade golf ball divisions over his 25 years of involvement with the development of golf balls. In 2015, Snell founded Snell Golf, selling golf balls directly to the consumer. He agreed to answer our interview questions, so have a read.
1. Give us an idea of how Dean Snell found golf and how it became the focal point of his professional life.
I actually did not like golf at all growing up.. I was a hockey player my whole life. My first golf experience was when i was playing hockey out in Hershey PA, my dad came out to see me play, and we had a day off, so he wanted to play golf. I rented clubs.. he was a very good player. The first hole I shot my ball so far right, never found it.. he made par.. Second hole I was again way right, in the woods.. when I heard a huge commotion in the fairway.. my dad was also a big boy, and took no crap from anyone… well these two guys were in his face, so I ran across fairway, clothes-lined one guy and we beat the crap out of these two guys on the second fairway. needless to say they threw us off the course.
I asked my dad what happened on the ride home… evidently he was waiting for me in the woods, and the guys behind us hit their ball and it rolled into him.. so he grabbed a 3 wood and fired it back at them… then they came down and it was GAME ON… so i thought maybe golf can be a fun thing after all.. haha..
I was actually working at BF Goodrich Aerospace and Defense in 1990 designing composite parts for F16 and blackwhawk helicopters when I answered an ad for a quality engineer at Titleist… which happened to be in my hometown of Acushnet MA… they sent my resume over to R&D because of the engineering degree and background I had… two weeks later they offered me a job and I started my career in golf.. i didn’t even have a set of clubs…So I got some clubs, started playing and have been hooked on golf since… which makes it easier cause my hockey days are not over…I started working on designing the engineering process to make cast urethane golf balls, and introduced the first cast urethane ball in Titleist Professional in 1994/95.
2. What were the most important lessons you learned while at Acushnet and TaylorMade?
I love both companies… Both extremely professional and very technical… While at Acushnet, I truly had to learn the game of golf.. engineering, performance, what was important, testing, EVERYTHING…. then i began to work with the tour players and developing a good understanding of what they would look for in a design. At TaylorMade it was a complete business start up… They had one ball patent, and didn’t even have a scale to weigh a ball.. so very interesting in building factories, processes, designs, development and complete business practices.. Again, worked very close with tour players and continued to understand what they need and how to make products they eventually would play and win at the highest level. Today, a lot of these players are still good friends and I keep in touch with.
3. Snell has two golf ball lines, the “My Tour Ball” and the “Get Sum.” What are the most important features of each ball?
MY TOUR BALL is a 3-pc CAST URETHANE covered ball..this cover technology has been around since 1994 and I believe nothing will ever replace it.. it is outstanding… allows very soft covers for soft feel, extremely durable urethane and we cast it very thin to allow outstanding short game spin and control…The core is very low compression and FAST in ball speed, which equates to lower driver spin rates and faster ball speeds, both of which make the ball very long off the tee… the mantle layer is designed to control the iron spin… it works with the core on longer irons to keep spin down and prevent ballooning, and then works with the soft urethane cover to create high short game spin and control…LONG, SOFT, ,DURABLE, and spin control… great combo.
GET SUM is made to have low compression, low spin core and thin soft ionomer cover to give very soft feel. This ball is lower in spin, launches a bit higher with all clubs.. great ball for higher handicaps, as the lower spin helps reduce hooks and slices and helps the ball fly straighter… also easier to get up in the air, which is sometimes a challenge…
4. How does a start-up golf ball company hope to compete with established companies, boasting decades of success at all levels of the game?
In all honesty I do not think we plan to compete with the big companies. This is an on line direct to consumer based business where we reduce a lot of expenses and pass the savings on to the consumers… The larger companies will still have the big stores, on course and off course retailers, and even they sell some on line… I am trying to bring the best technologies and processes and performance at a lower price to consumers to help them play more, and want to play more..The way we sell will not be measured in any market share numbers reported by the larger companies.
5. Snell golf has a members forum on its site, for supporters to ask questions, contribute comments and offer opinions. What is the value in dedicating a portion of the site to your customers?
I love education and think that golf is very tough and technical.. I have some good experience and stories over the last 25 years, and if I can find a place to share this info to consumers, I love to do that. anyone can log on and submit any technical questions they may have about golf balls and technology, and I will do my best to give my technical opinion and help them out…
6. Currently, Snell golf balls are available only through the company website. Why is this and will it continue into the future?
We are a small start up… the niche today is selling direct to consumers.. so no big marketing expenses, no big tour contracts, no sales reps, no mark ups… so the balls cost the same to make as other balls, but all the expenses we can save is passed on to the consumers…I have a lot of pro shops call and want to carry… will it ever been seen in pro shops, I am sure it will… but today we have a niche and are not set up to support this type of system. If any pro shop wanted to call and place an order for their club or members, we would certainly take the order and ship out the next day…I have a crawl, walk run philosophy in business… i think if you try to do too many things too fast, you fail. we have a had a lot of requests to have distributors overseas… great ideas, but just not ready to do this yet… LET IT DEVELOP is my favorite saying.
7. How will you measure success for Snell golf balls?
Our plans are realistic and we plan to start small and let it develop… learn and try to do things right. We have target goals to meet in a 3 year plan, and will work hard every day to meet these goals…
8. What aspects of golf ball development and production are most unknown/confusing to the consumer, and deserve clarification?
I think I have two…compression.. people think they have to play a low compression ball to “compress” the ball..not true at all every golfer compresses the ball.. compression is a designers tool that helps us understand spin rates and has a small factor in the overall feel of the ball.. so dont worry about compression.. most balls today have not ratings for a reason.. they are not important… Second is swing speed… in my opinion players should not choose a ball based on swing speed.. if a player picks a lower compression ball based on swing speed, that means he or she is playing a ball that has a lower spin rate… so think about it… you are picking a ball that “may” increase your ball speed by 0.5 mph with a driver.. lets say that did happen.. that means now your 230 yard drive just went 231 yards… so now you are a whopping one yard longer (maybe) and you have to play the rest of the hole with a ball that is made to have no spin or low spin… and where do you need spin the most? around the green…you should play a ball that fits your game around the green.. test several models from inside 70 yards.. chips,… putts, etc.. then dont worry about driver.. they all go about the same distance today… but you score around the green… choose the ball that fits your game where you play the most… not off the tee…
9. What questions haven’t we asked, that you wish we had? Ask them and answer them, please.
Is this a cheap tour ball?
No, I never use the word cheap.. people believe that if the tour ball is cheaper then it is not as good.. i only ask that you try it… I used the same technologies and materials that have been used in tour balls for over 20 years… proven on tour… the performance is there.. the cost is a savings for you to hope you play more…
Will there be any tour players in the ball?
At this point, we have had a few players contact us to play the ball.. unfortunately, as a small start up, we are not paying large tour contracts at this time, and are passing this savings on to you the consumers… I have designed or co designed golf balls for the best players in the world over the last 25 years at both Titliest and TaylorMade, and have a good understanding of golf ball performance, and what it takes to create this type for performance. Golf is my passion today, but hockey is still my favorite sport… even if I have never been successful to tie the two sports together like I had in my first golf experience with my dad.. haha..
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