Toptracer: Behind the incredible technology on Tour, at majors, and driving ranges around the UK
If you’ve watched any golf on TV this year you’ll almost certainly be familiar with Toptracer, the tracking technology which has revolutionised both our TV and driving range experience.
The technology, which traces ball flights and displays data (including carry distance and launch angle) in graphics on your TV screen at every PGA and European Tour event of the year, is broadcasted around the globe through various TV networks.
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It has been integrated so well that it’s easy to take for granted what we have become so accustomed to, but each facet of these technologies are expertly controlled by the dedicated team at Toptracer, who have in a few short years established themselves as one of the key pieces of infrastructure in golf broadcasting, fan experience, and player data.
At major championships, they have taken the technology one step further. During three of the four majors of 2019 (and the Players Championship), Toptracer had a giant LED Screen set up on the driving range, displaying a plethora of data that includes ball speed, carry distance and launch angle from players on the range while they hit in real time – a function that is popular with both fans and players.
But their technology is not just reserved for the upper echelons of the game: Toptracer has now been implemented in to 50 driving ranges in the UK, a number that is set to continue to rise imminently, allowing golfers access to the same tracking equipment and data that helped players like Champion Golfer of the year Shane Lowry hone in his numbers before each round at Royal Portrush.
We visited the team at this year’s Open Championship, where we got a behind the scenes look at how TopTracer played their part on the range and on TV Coverage, and they talked about their ambitions to bring the technology to as many golfers as they could.
It wasn’t that long ago that team of six people headed up the small Swedish brand called ‘Protracer’, which was founded by Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Forsgren back in 2006.
Forsgren’s vision was to create a product which could track the flight of a golf ball in a camera feed, and add graphics to make this visible on screen, which has been made possible through the proprietary technology developed by the company.
The first range came in 2012, and in 2016, Protracer was bought by Top Golf and rebranded to Toptracer. And now, the company is at the forefront of shot tracking coverage around the globe at the biggest events of the year, and the team has grown considerably.
From tracking every single shot on the range at the Open Championship to broadcasting footage and graphics from around the course, Toptracer assisted the key broadcasters around the World to capture shot traces and produce data for live feeds, putting up those graphics that have become so crucial to the TV experience.
And it doesn’t stop at major tournaments, as their tracking systems are in place at every single European Tour and PGA Tour event of the year, and available for public use at driving ranges across the World, something they are continually trying to increase.
Toptracer have already established themselves on Tour, but they have bigger ambitions still: The brand are certain that every driving range in the world over the next 5-10 years will have some form of technology in them, and they plan to be a big player in making that happen.
We caught up with Toptracer’s Dustin Thomas, who was in charge of working the tournament range at this year’s Open Championship
Four large trusses flanked the driving range at this year’s Open Championship, each operating cameras that track every single shot players hit from the bays at the range, as well as coveraging the SkyZone.
The cameras are strategically placed to capture each driving range bay 100%, sending the information back to the Top tracer sensors. Those are then operated by Dustin Thomas (no the name is not lost on him), who works in a tent a short distance away to make sure the data is displayed in real time on a large LED alongside the players.
He manages several monitors that all service the giant screen on the range, analysing the data coming from each bay to decide which player or players (maximum of four) to display at any given time.
“The cameras trace the entire range,” says Thomas. “All of the yardages come up right here so I filter through and see what’s interesting and we select players based on what they are hitting.
“My laptop (directly in front of Thomas) is showing exactly what’s happening on the range, every bay, so I know exactly who is hitting what. It shows every potential bay out on the range, and the dots that come up are a shot: so when a player hits a shot it will show up as a dot and then we can confirm by this little tablet the name of that person hitting the ball and then I start queing up and doing interesting things for the fans.
“We have a battle mode, so if two players are hitting close together we’ll go battle these guys and when they start shots it will show up on the right hand screen. If it’s interesting enough we will push them to the board.”
It’s become such a popular feature with players, that they, or their caddies, will often come in and ask to be put on the screen so they can look at their stats. When asked who was the most common visitor to the Toptracer tent to ask to be put up, the answer was uninamous: Tommy Fleetwood.
“We can put a couple of people on the board or just one in different modes,” said Thomas. “There are a couple of players who know our routine by now and know our guys so they’ll come in and ask to be put up on the board as part of their warm-up.
“We have had tournament range at the US PGA, Players, U.S. Open and the Open. The English players know our guys over here so they ask for it, and the U.S players are starting to ask for it a little more.
With the help of a company called SMT, Thomas uses an app on his phone to find out which player is in each bay on his screen, and then can determine who is hitting what distances.
“The caddies will come and request time for the board so they can get their numbers. If it’s windy or its rainy they get their notepad out and start writing. It’s pretty interesting when they come requesting their data.
“The players love it. We also have spotters on the range and if the players are hitting golf balls and they’re looking and their name isn’t on the board we pay attention to that and the spotters will communicate that to me and I will change the player and get them going.”
The other part (a team of 10-12 people) of the Toptracer team at the Open were stationed in the TV Compound, operating the on-course tracers and providing feeds for each of their cameras – including the range and Open Zone – to various TV networks around the world.
The technology is fundamentally the same, but the biggest difference is between how shots are traced on the range and on TV, which is simply down to the number of cameras per tracer.
“We’re in charge of the data, the trace and the graphics. It’s the same as on the range but here there’s a full screen format.
“The broadcast unit has one tracer on top of a camera, so it’s one unit for one shot, whereas here you’ve got multiple cameras for the entire range.”
At Royal Portrush, that number of broadcast units was 18, including 11 stationary cameras on tees, 2 roaming systems which could be used anywhere on the course, and a reverse trace with a bounce and roll affect that was set up on the 17th hole. The last feature, and one of the roaming cameras, was set up exclusively for use by NBC, who signed a deal with Toptracer at the start of the year to have the technology on all 18 holes during PGA Tour telecasts on NBC and The Golf Channel.
The rest of the systems are shared between NBC and the World Feed production, as well as Sky Sports. There was also three different outputs from the system down on the range, which is going to Sky Sports, NBC, Golf Channel and the World Feed that is shown throughout the week as the players warm up, and it is heavily featured on the golf channel. TopTracer also serviced two cameras for the SkyZone.
The team who operate Toptracer in the TV compound are then responsible for speaking to producers on up to four different shows at a time, while constantly providing the feed from the tee or the player they want for that moment in time, as well as controlling the graphics – which take up a third of the screen.
It’s a big operation, and to make sure they got it right part of the team travelled to Ireland months ahead of time for scouting out the best locations. The cameras were then put in place the Friday before, and most of the Toptracer team arrived a couple of days later to go live on the practice days.
Yet in terms of the scale of the operation, the Open wasn’t as big for Toptracer as the PGA Championship earlier in 2019.
“We had our own broadcast truck, there was 20 people in there at all times to do the tracing, but it’s (The Open) still a big operation definitely.
“We’ve been at all majors this year, we have all the PGA Tour tournaments that we do Toptracer systems for, and the European Tour, which we also have every single week. Usually the Rolex events are a little bit more than a regular tour event.”
Taking over driving ranges in the UK, Toptracer is a game changer when it comes to getting the most out of your practice, and it’s no surprise that they’ve increased their number from just 12 to 80 across Europe in just 18 months.
For a start, it’s simple to use – download the app, register, scan the screen when you arrive and choose from Launch Monitor, What’s In The Bag, Closest to the Pin, Long Drive, Points Game and Virtual Golf modes.
The technology then tracks and analyses every shot you hit, showing you the trajectory and a wealth of data such as distance (carry and total), ball speed, spin rate, launch angle, peak height, hang time and landing angle.
“Ultimately the camera technology is very similar, but instead of a big LED board there is an individual 24-inch screen in the bay. The mechanics are similar, but we have different game modes so that people can play virtual golf or closest to the pin challenges.”
And with over 50 locations (and counting) in the UK, you’re bound to find one near you.
How it works: Using cameras mounted around the facility and 21-inch touchscreen monitors found in each hitting bay, Toptracer Range technology displays an array of details of each shot – including distance, speed, launch angle, shape and more. Data is instantly recorded and displayed on the screen through a player profile that can continuously be accessed through the Toptracer Range Community App (free on iOS and Android).
The six play modes
• LAUNCH MONITOR: Most of us rarely have access to a launch monitor, yet the info
they provide can be invaluable. This one tells you all the key stats – total distance, carry, ball speed, height, hang time… It’s all relayed to an app on your phone for future reference.
• CLOSEST TO THE PIN: Just want to work on your ironplay or wedge game? Choose a target, tell the screen which one it is and re away. It’ll tell you how close you got, and even share that with the world on a daily leaderboard.
• VIRTUAL GOLF: With virtual golf you have a chance to play not only to targets on a range but also on real courses, including Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St Andrews. It’s great fun, and brilliant for several golfers
• WHAT’S IN MY BAG?: Want to try a new driver? This tells you if it’s longer. Not sure if you need a 4-iron? This reveals if it goes the same distance as your hybrid. Great for working out your yardage gapping, especially wedges, or just seeing how short you really are with a 7-iron…
• POINTS GAME: Want to spice up a range session with some friends? This mode turns targets into points; there are even bonus points on o er for hitting it on a certain trajectory through an “In Air” ring. It operates o the existing targets on the range.
• LONGEST DRIVE: Settle who’s the longest in your fourball once and for all! There’s no hiding from the cameras… You can even turn a range into a long drive grid, the same width as the one used in the World Championships. Bombs away!
Toptracer locations in the UK
Colin Park, Scarborough, Belfast
Lavender Park, Ascot, Berkshire
Wokingham Family Golf, Wokingham, Berkshire
Wythall Driving Range, Wythall, Birmingham
Altrincham Golf Course & Driving Range, Altrincham, Cheshire
High Legh Park Golf Club, Knutsford, Cheshire
Sidcup Family Golf, Sidcup By-Pass, Chislehurst
Parley Golf Centre, Christchurch, Dorset
Ferndown Forest Golf Club, Ferndown, Dorset
One Stop Golf, Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire
Golf World Stansted, Bishops Stortford, Essex
Golf Kingdom, Chadwell Heath, Essex
Rayleigh Golf Range, Hullbridge, Essex
Ingrebourne Links, Rainham, Essex
Wellsgreen Golf Driving Range, Leven, Fife
The Golf Club, St. Peter Port, Guernsey
Portsmouth Golf Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire
Winchester Golf Academy, Winchester, Hampshire
A1 Golf Centre, Arkley, Hertfordshire
Wycombe Heights, Loudwater, High Wycombe
Westridge Golf Centre, Ryde, Isle of Wight
Longueville Golf Range, St. Clement, Jersey
Manston Golf Centre, Manston, Kent
Pedham Place, Swanley, Kent
Mearns Castle Golf Academy, Glasgow, Lanarkshire
Leeds Golf Centre, Shadwell, Leeds
Forest Hill Golf Club, Botcheston, Leicester
Charnwood Golf Complex, Loughborough, Leicestershire
Leicester Golf, Oadby, Leicestershire
Boston West Golf Centre, Boston, Lincolnshire
Aintree Golf, Aintree, Liverpool
Liverpool Golf Driving Range, Merseyside, Liverpool
Trafford Golf Centre, Stretford, Manchester
Stokesley Golf Range, Stokesley, Middlesbrough
Close House, Heddon on the Wall, Newcastle upon Tyne
Snainton Golf Centre, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
Kingfisher Golf Club, Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire
Ballers and Hackers, Hucknall, Nottingham
Drayton Park Golf Club, Drayton, Oxfordshire
AB Golf, Thame, Oxfordshire
Lytham Golf Academy, Warton, Preston
Paul Lawrie Golf Centre, Aberdeen, Scotland
Forthview Golf Range, Airth, Scotland
Oaks Sports Centre Golf Club, Carshalton, Surrey
Silvermere Golf & Leisure, Cobham, Surrey
World of Golf Croydon, Croydon, Surrey
Horton Park Golf Club, Epsom, Surrey
Sandown Park Golf Centre, Esher, Surrey
World of Golf London, New Malden, Surrey
Wentworth Golf Club, Virginia Waters, Surrey
Cardiff Golf Centre, Cardiff, Wales
True Fit Golf Centre, Cuerdley, Warrington
Draycote Hotel & Whitefields Golf Course and Club, Rugby, Warwickshire
Calderfields Golf Academy, Walsall, West Midlands
3 Hammers Golf Complex, Coven, Wolverhampton
Rustington Golf Centre, Angmering, West Sussex
Tilgate Forest Golf Centre, Crawley, West Sussex
Moreton Hills Golf Centre, Moreton, Wirral