Forward Thinkers: Five innovators who are changing the world of golf

April 19, 2012

These five innovators range from a Danish designer to a former designer day trader. They appear different at first glance, but they share one thing in common: Their pioneering minds are making golf better — and more fun — for all of us. In this first of a special four-part series on how technology is advancing the sport, we give you golf's game changers, in their own words.

Mark Sweeney, 44
Rewiring our minds into green-reading computer programs

"So I'm watching a tournament on TV back in 2003 when a guy drains a big putt. One of the announcers says, 'Green reading is a God-given skill — you either have it or you don't.' That bothered me. What a hopeless attitude, that if you aren't born with the ability, you'll never improve. Around that time, the Mars rover had landed. I thought if we can send a vehicle to take readings from the surface of a distant planet, we can learn how a ball rolls on a tilted surface right here on Earth. Using detailed digital maps of greens and then simply applying the laws of physics, my company AimPoint Technologies came up with formulas that predict precisely how a putt will behave, whether it's a downhill five-footer or a 150-foot putt with seven breaks.

Research shows that variables like grain, moisture and spike marks have only a minor effect on roll. It comes down to three things: slope, angle and distance. It's just physics. People see AimPoint technology on Golf Channel, with the line showing how a putt breaks before the player hits it. That won an Emmy. The original idea wasn't conceived for TV but for weekend players. That's our new direction. Today, we teach weekend players to putt better by sort of reprogramming the way they read the green. The changes are shocking. I've had students start rolling everything to tap-in distance! We're basically teaching golfers to read putts like a computer. And the computer is never wrong."

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YuChiang Cheng and Fredrik Tuxen

Cheng: Robyn Twomey; Tuxen: Schecter Lee
YuChaing Cheng (left) of World Golf Tour and Fredrik Tuxen of TrackMan launch monitors

YuChiang Cheng, 36
Making virtual golf as authentic as the real thing

"I'm the CEO and co-founder of the free online game World Golf Tour. In 2006, I was in my apartment playing World of Warcraft when my business partner sent me a photo of this incredible course he was playing on the Italian Riviera. I saw it and thought, 'Why can't I play that course online?' Golf is so visceral and experiential, so to distill that into fantasy is difficult. For one, it has to be as visually stunning as real golf. But instead of drawing a complex world, like in a video game, we developed technology [including the remote-controlled heli-cam you see above] that takes a 3D model of the course and covers it with a photograph, creating a detailed and realistic virtual course. People told us we were crazy — that golfers weren't gamers. But that's not true. We've built relationships with the USGA and the R&A, and we have more than four million registered users. A good course will do 100,000 rounds a year. We just recorded our 100 millionth round.

When you play our game, you don't actually swing a club, but we recreate your course management decisions and shotmaking. So if you play, say, Pebble Beach, our virtual course is within centimeters of accuracy of the real course. The mental side of the game is also very similar. Every year, we run a virtual U.S. Open. The experience is so real, people get nervous and their scores balloon. We'll see it again this May, when people can play [2012 U.S. Open site] The Olympic Club, and under Open conditions. How do we know the course is true to life? Because when USGA Executive Director Mike Davis plays WGT, he tells us exactly how the setup should be."

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Fredrik Tuxen, 45
Using his TrackMan launch-monitor technology to reveal the secret to straight shots

"When I was head of an R&D company in Denmark, I designed a two-ton Doppler Radar system that could track a Trident missile leaving the earth's atmosphere. I used similar technology to invent TrackMan, which monitors ball flight and club movement. Believe it or not, tracking a ball is harder than tracking a missile; because a ball moves much more slowly, other objects can get in the way. Before TrackMan, major manufacturers had their own ways of tracking ball flight, with camera-based systems.

When the golf world and instructors discovered and embraced TrackMan, what shocked me was the gap between what was scientifically known about ball flight and what was being taught on driving ranges. Many instructors were focused only on ball flight, but to understand why the ball is flying a certain way, you also need information about the clubhead — the position of the face at impact, the path, the attack angle. Our overarching goal is to get TrackMan in the hands of average players. We're doing that with TrackMan Range. You go to a hitting bay, log in on the touch screen, and learn about your clubhead delivery and your ball fight on every shot. Without that information, you don't know why your ball does what it does."

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Adam Zeck and Jordan Vermillion

Zeck headshot, screens: Andy McMillan/Redux; Gadgets: Getty Images; Vermillion: Mashid Mohadjerin/Redux
Adam Zeck (left) of Grow the Game Golf and Jordan Vermillion of Bushnell


Adam Zeck, 41
Bringing live leaderboards, and trash-texting, to the golf masses

"I used to work in finance on the trading floor in Chicago. Big firms had technology that just hammered us, letting them trade so quickly that a little guy like me had no chance. The idea is similar with Grow the Game, which I co-founded. It's about speed. You want to know where you stand in relation to the rest of the world and you want to know now. What separates golf from other sports is that you usually have no idea where you stand against the competition. How are the other foursomes in your outing doing? Did your buddy behind you make birdie or dunk it in the drink? You have no clue. Our motto is 'Know how, know now.' Our technology tells you your status in real time, using a live-event leaderboard that works with all kinds of smart phones.

We're looking to add features, so you can still play Skins games or Nassaus with your buddies if they're not in your group. There's also a social media component. Your friend makes double-bogey? Trash-talk him on the spot! Or challenge him to a back-nine wager. Playing with your regular foursome, that's fun. But knowing where you stand in relation to everyone on the course, that's a whole new dimension. It's gonna change everything."

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Jordan Vermillion, 42
Pushing to build a better laser range-finder

"I'm the Director of Sports Optics for Bushnell, and in our industry, coming up with ideas is easy. The challenge is bringing those ideas into the real world. Take what happened a few years back when we answered our most persistent consumer complaint. We kept hearing, 'It's so hard to get a reading on that tiny flagstick. I end up hitting a big tree.' That was understandable. When you use a range finder, you're sending out mini pulses traveling at light speed. Let's say you're 140 yards out. If you send out 100 pulses, 85 of them might bounce off a large reflective object in the distance — a tree, a sign — while only 15 will read the flag, so you read the wrong target.

Our response was PinSeeker technology, which involved writing very precise algorithms that prioritized the needed information, shutting out the background objects and displaying the closer, correct object. Around the same time, we introduced slope technology, which calculates and adjusts yardages depending on the incline or decline of the hole. We did this by transferring the technology of inclinometers, used in forestry, to a handheld golf device. At first, our engineers might say, 'It's not possible.' But our job is to push and ask, 'But what if we tried this?' That's how you progress. Our PinSeeker technology gives yardages to within one yard of accuracy, and we're launching a new product, the Tour Z6, which is accurate to within a half yard. That's the goal. As technology gets better, we push and push to get more precise."

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Technology Special Part 2: Recent breakthroughs prove you need two swings to score low
Technology Special Part 3: Can high-tech training aids outperform human experts?