HOYLAKE, ENGLAND – Golf fans who watch coverage of the sport on television are used to seeing a now-familiar graphic that traces the flight of a golf ball from tee to land. Viewers can easily see if the tee shot flies straight down the fairway or makes an unfortunate turn right or left.
The Protracer system was originally only a replay graphic used by several television entities, but ESPN was the first network to use it in live shots, debuting at The Open Championship in 2010. During its four-day live coverage of this year’s Open at Royal Liverpool, which starts Thursday at 4 a.m. ET, ESPN will utilize the system on six holes at the seaside links course.
ESPN’s Emerging Technology group took the Protracer system to another level. In some instances, the shot could not be used because the camera was mounted on a tripod and was stationary, and if a golfer teed his ball too far to the right or left of the teebox, he or she wouldn’t be in the camera shot.
The problem was solved by the development of a “rail cam” system.
“The rail cam allows us to position the camera at the best angle based on how each golfer lines up to tee off,” said Kim Bloomstone, ESPN associate operations manager. “It gives us an advantage over other broadcasters using the same technology provided by Protracer.”
Stephen Berntsen, senior technical specialist in ESPN Emerging Technology, said that his team worked with Protracer to make sure the camera for the rail cam was suitable for Protracer’s needs. The camera was light enough to move back and forth, and the completed system was a mobile, rugged weather-resistant solution.
After using one stationary camera in 2010 at The Open, ESPN came back in 2011 with one camera on a rail, then the current six in 2012.
“Protracer is vision-based, so it sees the ball at impact and it traces the ball’s path,” Berntsen said. “There’s no instrumentation. If it was an instrumented system with radar, if you moved the camera, you’d have to recalibrate every time. But if you move the camera and it’s vision-based, as long as it sees the ball, it works.”