How tech will help the PGA golf tour return to Europe

Picture: iStock

This is the first on a series of sports returning from lockdown.

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 is roping in new technology from Hewlett Packard Enterprise company Aruba, called ESP. 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 this week, Aruba ESP is an automated platform that continuously analyses data, identifies anomalies and optimises itself, 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 where people, devices and things connect to the digital world,” says Aruba.

“This ability, based on data, is pertinent during this unprecedented time 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,” says Michael Cole, chief technology officer of the PGA European Tour.

“For CTOs like myself involved in the sport industry right now, these are challenging times. However, It has created a moment of opportunity for accelerated innovation, 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 the time for technology to bring people in sports together in the safest of environments and to set a new vision for the future. 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 ‘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 contactless approaches and a safe bubble environment.

“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?

“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.

“For 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 persons and for larger crowds.

“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 sanitisers, particularly the gel levels on every unit.”

Interaction with the media will also change dramatically. In the early events, numbers of media will be heavily restricted on site and some activity will be “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 journalists with the choice of either physically attending tournaments, or accessing a range of digitalised media facilities.”

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

“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 to minimise interaction with our staff, and maintain social distancing on the course.”

The PGA European Tour had consulted with players on health strategy, via a tournament committee chaired by a former golf professional, player representatives, and a chief medical advisor who specialises in pandemics.

“Our players have been very supportive. They just wanted to get back to play in their sport again,” Cole said.

“Never before has the importance of planning been so apparent as during this pandemic. Now we’re delivering from the cloud, minimising people and maximising processes to the very edge, to drive intelligence and insight where it absolutely matters: on the course.”

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