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Golf turns to tech to go the social distance

In the first on a series on sports returning from lockdown, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK finds out how tech will help the PGA golf tour return to Europe

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Lightning and rain are probably the worst enemies of the golfer, which means golf courses and clouds have never been the best of friends. It is a wonderful irony, then, that cloud computing is coming to the rescue of professional golf as it finds its way out of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The PGA European Tour has revealed that it is roping in new technology from Hewlett Packard Enterprise company Aruba, called ESP. No, not telepathy, although it feels that way. It stands for Edge Services Platform, and is described as “the industry’s first AI-powered, cloud-native platform that predicts and resolves problems at the network edge before they happen”.

Launched, appropriately, during an online media event this week, Aruba ESP is an automated platform that continuously analyses data, identifies anomalies and optimises itself, in order to deliver a cloud experience at the edge of the network.

What does this tech-speak mean in practise?

For large enterprises, which generate massive amounts of data via both people and things connected to the network, instant analysis of the data can be used to improve efficiencies, enhance experiences and enable new business outcomes.

“The key to turning these real-time insights into meaningful actions is to analyse and process this data at the point of origin – the edge – where people, devices and things connect to the digital world,” says Aruba. “This ability to generate actionable insights based on data is especially pertinent today during this unprecedented time in history where businesses, employees and, subsequently, the corporate network must adapt to rapidly evolving business and workplace needs.”

It turns out that a golf tournament is not very different to a corporate workplace – and that a golf course is quite compatible with cloud computing.

“The whole principle of ESP is very exciting and totally aligns with our thoughts,” says Michael Cole, chief technology officer of the PGA European Tour. “For CTOs like myself involved in the sport industry right now, these are indeed challenging times. Nobody wished for this period. However, It has created a moment of opportunity for accelerated innovation, and for the technology industry to rise to this challenge, with enhanced security protection for the organisation, health protection bubbles for our venues, automated no-contact operations, and remote broadcast production techniques.

“While we are preparing for the new normal, this is a moment in time for technology to bring people in sports together in the safest of environments and to set a new vision for the future. This needn’t be a pause. It’s an enhanced approach to a new chapter in digital transformation.”

That term refers to the digitalisation of all processes used to run an organisation or industry. Typically, it allows companies to do far more with their data, and to do it far more quickly. Cole has an unusual perspective on this potential.

“It’s human nature to talk about more. But I’m going to focus on the word ‘less’. In this new world, where health and safety is paramount, we need to minimise all physical interactions with social distance, while our tournaments are being played out as close to normality as possible. So we need to create or accelerate contactless approaches and to create a safe bubble environment.

“These concepts have always been on our strategic roadmap, but now the timeline and the importance changes. I’m driving us towards a mobile-first approach, and that really important edge processing, at all our venues.”

The venues are one thing. What about support staff and players? And how does a global sport adapt to a world in which every country is imposing new rules and shifting the course as they go?

“It remains a work in progress,” says Cole. “Our greatest asset is also one of our greatest challenges: we are a global player, and therefore we have to work with governments around the world in terms of resetting and rescheduling our return to the sport.

“For our tournaments, we’re upgrading our CCTV cameras to undertake thermal protection as part of our proactive position on early symptom checking of COVID-19 – both for single person detection and also for larger crowds as we as we scale up.

“We’re deploying contactless sanitisers across the courses. Given the unique challenge of building overlays across a really large sporting venue, such as a golf course, we have selected Internet of Things (IoT) devices to ensure that we can monitor and manage those sanitizers, particularly the gel levels on every unit. This is very much part of our vision for a smart course environment.”

Interaction with the media will also change dramatically. In the early events, numbers of media will be heavily restricted on site and, as with football, some activity will be “BCD”, for “behind closed doors”. Virtual press interviews will become a norm.

“It’s a necessity for the short term, but we hope it’s a strong legacy for the longer term, providing optionality in our world for journalists to have the choice of either physically attending tournaments, or accessing a range of digitalised media facilities.”

Finally, the golfers themselves will find themselves in a changed world.

“We have a key focus on our players and ensuring that the bubble concept protects them from COVID-19. We are going to create a contactless environment by digitising as much as we can for players. Things like on-course registration, course layouts, yardage books, their tee times, how they book their practice slots on the course, getting access to the driving range, will all be done online , all very much geared to minimising interaction with our staff, and maintaining that all-important social distance environment on the course.”

Cole told us that the PGA European Tour had fully consulted with players on health strategy, via a tournament committee that is chaired by a former golf professional and includes player representatives, as well as a chief medical advisor who specialises in pandemics.

“Our players have been very supportive of the approach. They just wanted to get back to play in their sport again, so they are fully accepting of the plans that we’ve put in place.”

Ultimately, the readiness of golf to return is a factor of golf having been ready all along, thanks to the use of technology. Where most cloud computing operations tend to be labelled “software-as-a-service”, the PGA has embraced “tournament-as-a-service”.

Says Cole: “Never before has the importance of planning and ensuring readiness been so apparent as during this COVID-19 pandemic. When we set out on our strategy to migrate to an agile and cloud-based environment over two years ago when I came on board the PGA European Tour, this was critical for us.

“Now we’re delivering from the cloud, we’re minimising people, we’re driving efficiency, and we’re maximising processes to the very edge, to drive intelligence and insight where it absolutely matters: on the course.”

· Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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