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December 4, 2017

90 Million Swings Later – Cracking the Secret of the Perfect Golf Swing

Alex Woodie and Tom Tabor

(Mikael Damkier/Shutterstock)

Golf is a notoriously difficult sport, despite how easy the guys on the PGA Tour make it look every weekend. But thanks to the power of big data and advanced analytics, amateurs have powerful new tools to emulate their swings and improve their handicaps along the way.

The pursuit of the perfect golf swing is something that consumes countless hours for golf aficionados —  beginners and seasoned veterans alike. Some people hope to glean insights by watching videos or reading books, while others seek the experienced counsel of instructors to improve their swings.

However, that approach is largely hit or miss. Instructors often have their own unique theories on what makes a good golf swing, while others may not be operating with any theory at all. The whole thing is quite subjective, and the quality of the training varies widely as result.

Now a Colorado outfit called GOLFTEC is taking a more objective approach by tapping into the power of big data analytics to provide a “ground truth” measurement for golf swings.

The heart of the company’s TECSWING system is a series of wearable sensors and cameras that track the actual mechanics of a customer’s golf swing, such as shoulder twist and hip angle. All told, the system measures nearly 100 variables across a dozen elements, including the degrees to which the hips and shoulders turn, tilt, and bend.

During training sessions in its hitting bays, the company collects data on the actual stroke, such as exit velocity and spin rate, to determine where the ball would have landed on the course. The swing data and ball projection data is then correlated to identify what areas of the client’s swing are working and what areas need help.

GOLFTEC’s TECSWING system collects and analyzes data to encourage good swing mechanics 

GOLFTEC has been helping people improve their golf swing since the mid 1990s, when Joe Assell hooked up some sensors to record swings in the basement of the Cherry Hills Country Club south of Denver. The idea took off, and today there are 200 GOLFTEC locations around the world, each with a series of hitting bays outfitted with the TECSWING system.

Over the years, the company has recorded 90 million golf swings from 13,000 golfers, all of which is stored and analyzed in its SwingTRU Motion Study, which is stored in the company’s AWS cloud repository. That adds up to millions of good, so-so, and downright awful swings. However, the company also has recorded the swings of about three-quarters of the players on the PGA Tour, including a number of former Tour players. All told, this corpus of swing data from 200 professional golfers provides a “gold standard” that correlates to success on the links.

The goal is not to make everybody swing a driver like Dustin Johnson or hit approach shots like Rory McIlroy. Instead, the goal is to identify which areas of a person’s swing need the most attention and then take steps to improve it through work with actual instructors, explains Nick Clearwater, GOLFTEC’s vice president of instruction.

“Once you identify the problem and have measurable characteristics of the person’s swing and how they hit the ball, then we take the most invasive part of swing that are causing the problems and start chipping away at those,” Clearwater tells Datanami in a recent interview. “That quantifiable data gives you an edge on anyone else who’s just trying to guess how to get better. It gives you a great starting point.”

Using the SwingTRU data from the pros as its guide, GOLFTEC created numeric goals for each biomechanical variable during different parts of the swing. Those figures sometimes go against the grain of what golf instructors often teach. For example, during the all-important back swing, many golf instructors teach their clients to keep their shoulders level to the ground. Big mistake, says Clearwater.

“Every single golfer who’s any good in the game tilts their shoulders to the left,” he says. “A lot of people teaching golf, or golfers themselves, are trying to turn level to the ground in the back swing. But our study suggests that you want to go 36 degrees to the left or more than that at the top of the back swing, so there’s something that contradicts the top instruction.”

Similarly, the data provides a guide as to how to craft the best follow-through. “There’s a degree of shoulder tilt to the right that the best golfers exhibit,” Clearwater says. “Where the average Tour player is tilted 49 degrees to the right, when his right arm is parallel to the ground in the follow-through…. the worst hitters have their shoulders much more level to the ground.”

Once the problem is identified, the GOLFTEC instructor works with the client to improve certain aspects of their swing. In addition to hands-on instruction, the TECSWING system employs a feedback mechanism that uses a series of red, yellow, and green lights as well as audible tones to let the client know their swing is close to optimal or still considerably out of tolerance.

Trying to keep nearly 100 variables in one’s head while swinging a golf club would probably ruin an otherwise nice day out on the course. (Golf is supposed to be fun, right?) The good part about the GOLFTEC system is customers can do as much with it, or as little, as they want, Clearwater says.

GOLFTEC has more than 700 hitting bays around the world

“It enables us with all these measurements to get as complicated of a game as you want, or to keep it as simple as you want, for any golfer to digest as much of the teaching system as they want,” he says.

GOLFTEC keeps 12 developers busy with its software, which is all built in-house and is all proprietary. It also works with Denver University’s biomechanics lab and statisticians to devise ways to analyze the swing data.

In the future, the company plans to increase the number of data points it collects from 96 variables to about 1,000. It will also increase the data sampling rate, which in turn will create a 10x to 20x increase in the amount of data that it collects and analyzes, Clearwater says.

This will allow GOLFTEC to get much more detailed in breaking down swings. “At that point, we’ll have so much quantifiable data about what separates a good player from a bad one that we’ll be able to pick out a part of the swing that’s so small, and use that to study variability from player to player,” Clearwater says.

Getting the company’s 700 hitting bays outfitted with the new data collection equipment is probably the biggest challenge the company faces at this point, he says. After that, the sky’s the limit in terms of what can be done to improve golf swings with data.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Clearwater says. “The only limitation we really have is not the size of the data. It’s not data manipulation. It’s really just getting more data, more data points.”

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