Aerial imaging, GIS, and GNSS play a crucial role in the success of golf’s 2018 U.S. Open Championship.
“Basically, we need to construct a small city—every year and in a different location,” said Timothy Lloyd, senior manager of U.S. Open operations at the United States Golf Association (USGA).
Lloyd’s team is charged with planning and constructing the infrastructure and amenities needed to serve and support the expected 200,000+ guests and spectators (and as many as 5,000 volunteers) who may attend one or more days of the seven-day event, and this is no small feat.
Lloyd said that his team must plan for “everything that goes into your experience as a guest. We have to take a golf course and turn it into a venue.” Geospatial technologies and resources have always played a role in planning for such events, but in recent years new tools have greatly improved the efficiency of planning and operations.
The annual U.S. Open and Women’s Open Championships, conducted by the USGA, are among the most prestigious events in competitive golf, garnering national and international attention. The venue for the U.S. Open changes each year, although some courses have hosted two or more times.
On June 14 – 17, 2018, the historic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York, will host the U.S. Open. While clubs like Shinnecock Hills have hosted the U.S. Open on multiple occasions, Lloyd said that each location must be treated like a completely new venue as clubs often make modifications to the fairways, facilities, irrigation systems, and more.
The logistical considerations of putting on such an event can be daunting. “Think about when you attended an event at a dedicated venue, like a stadium or concert hall,” said Lloyd. “Think about the parking, shuttles, walkways, concessions, corporate hospitality, seating, restrooms, medical facilities, rope lines, and fencing. We have to create all of these spaces for the fans, guests, and press to be able to come and experience the event—and we need to do this carefully, respecting the players and preserving top golf courses.”
These temporary facilities are meticulously planned and constructed for each successive venue over a two-year period. Lloyd and a counterpart work at overlapping assignments at current and subsequent sites.
“Our job as operations team is to prepare all of the logistics, including the design of the site,” Lloyd said. “[This involves] getting the guests and fans to and from grandstands to watch live play, and there are experiential areas where, for instance, you can do a simulator for a golf shot. Obviously, there are concessions and restrooms to plan for [with] crowds of this size.”
And this all must be precisely staged and placed amid the existing course features, facilities, and utilities without compromising the beauty of this iconic course. Several key geospatial tools are employed to do so, and recent updates to these have had a tremendous positive impact on planning and operations.
One of golf’s four major championships is the United States Open Championship, played in mid-June of each year. It follows the Masters played in April at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and is followed by the Open Championship played at links in the UK in July and the PGA Championship in August. The U.S. Open rotates through various locations throughout the U.S.
Courses invite the USGA to host each championship, which is staged to test shotmaking, course management, and mental/physical agility. Tiger Woods has been quoted as calling the U.S. Open “the ultimate; it is your nation’s championship—it is the most difficult test in all of golf,” and he said, “The U.S. Open prides itself on where a person has to hit all 14 clubs.”
The championship consists of 72 holes over four days; the winner has the lowest number of total strokes. The final day of the U.S. Open lands on Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June.
The U.S. Open was inaugurated in 1895 by the USGA, the same year it conducted the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur. The Open is a field of 156 players, open to any professionals or amateurs meeting a minimum USGA handicap. About half of the players secure a spot via qualifying tournaments, others through a long list of qualifying exemptions that include the winners of other key professional and amateur tournaments, including some for seniors and juniors. The Open has always provided an opportunity for previously unknown professionals and amateurs to make a splash at a world-class event.
Lloyd noted that the USGA has been using aerial images as the base layer for planning for many years, but for the most recent events the availability of more-frequent high-resolution aerial products has significantly improved the process. Lloyd’s team has been accessing aerial images from Nearmap; these images are being flown as frequently as three times per year with resolution as high as three inches per pixel.
Lloyd said, “We’re sometimes able to identify individual sprinkler heads.”
Nearmap is a prominent player among a new wave of aerial-imagery providers that have broad regions of the U.S. (and other parts of the world) proactively flown on a regular basis and offer the resultant images—now including oblique images in many areas—for direct purchase, subscriptions, or streaming and API options. Image capture is via a fleet of aircraft with specialized camera systems. The process of capturing, managing, and delivering the imagery is automated, enabling aerial maps to be accessed soon after capture.
The timing of flights was particularly fortuitous for the Shinnecock project, with two flights in 2017, early 2018, and late April 2018. This provided an up-to-date “as-built” base layer on which to do preliminary designs, then for “heads up” drafting of the final design, and even to help people see elements of the construction unfold in the lead-up to the event.
“In past designs, we mostly only had old aerials available, like state flights,” said Lloyd. “We would have to go out and see what changes had taken place on the site, make notes, and mark those in [the GIS] maps. The Open was at Shinnecock in 2004, but we could not use old maps; there have been changes since then: features of some fairways, rough lines, and facilities like new tee boxes.”
With legacy aerial images, noted Lloyd, “The only option besides manual mapping would be to contract someone to fly the site with a drone. With these recent aerials we are able to do a lot of the design directly from them.”
A key benefit of using current, high-resolution images “is the ability to draw in viewing lines around various permanent facilities and trees,” Lloyd said. “It is often challenging to determine the range of view when we are standing in the field because we are on ground level looking underneath the limbs, etc. We are unable to evaluate how the views may be impacted once raised on viewing decks and in grandstand seats. But with the updated images we can more accurately plan those viewing spaces and ensure the best vantage points possible.”
The new aerials have already helped with planning for the 2019 Open. Lloyd said, “My counterpart just finished up the 2017 Open in Erin Hills and had since moved to Pebble Beach to start planning for the 2019 Open—this was in September of 2017.”
Lloyd said that 2D aerial images are perfect for helping visualize designs, especially when presenting to a broader team, golf club managers, and stakeholders. Even when viewing the site in person on the course it can be hard to visualize how the features fit into the bigger picture; the aerials help with this tremendously.
ArcGIS Map and ArcGIS Online
Lloyd and the USGA have been using ArcGIS Map for many years for venue planning. The first step in the design process is to create base layers in their desktop instances of ArcGIS Map.
“Then we can draft in the existing site, the structures, fairways, and other course elements.” This is done by “heads-up” drafting with the mapping tools in ArcGIS Map. Features are segregated by type and attributes and are color-coded.
ArcGIS Online is a cloud-based version of Esri’s popular mapping software, but it also acts as a clearinghouse for a wealth of ready-to-use base layer data—transportation themes, geographic features, public-sector maps, environmental themes—a tremendous amount of free or inexpensive data, plus access to for-fee data like the Nearmap aerial imagery.
One key step that ArcGIS takes care of for the user is doing the geographic projections from the reference framework of the source data to what the user is choosing for their project. In this instance the Nearmap images use a spherical mercator (EPSG:3857, also known as EPSG:3785 and EPSG:900913) just like Google and Bing Maps. When loaded from ArcGIS Online, a client can choose the respective state plane projection for that specific golf course.
This projection can also be performed for a user directly from the Nearmap web browser application where the user can save each image, for example, as georeferenced jpeg files. Working in a single projection is also the key to a smooth layout of features with the team’s GNSS equipment (more on that below).
GNSS for Mapping and Layout
External GNSS “corrections” from GNSS rovers are accessed from local real-time networks (RTN); such services are offered by either public-sector entities or private firms from either localized or statewide RTN. Corrections are streamed to the rover via cellular connections. The RTN typically are operating in a published geodetic reference framework, so the Trimble Geo 7X can do the projection to the same state plane system as the design and aerial images. This synchronicity of geospatial references means that everyone is working “on the same page.”
The GNSS rovers provide much of the positioning, but in the instances where structures or tree canopy obscure the sky view, making for difficult GNSS observations, the team will turn to offsets from existing features or GNSS locations out in the open.
The GNSS rovers are used both in pre-design mapping and in picking up features that may not show in the aerial images, demarcation of sight lines, and vantage points, but mostly for layout. For layout, proposed features are exported from ArcGIS by themes as shape files that are then imported into the Geo 7X. Team members view these in the rover’s own map display and navigate to stakeout points.
The “hills” are gently rolling, low dunes on New York’s Long Island, adjoining the famed Hampton’s resort area. The site of the golf club has long been recognized for its coastal beauty and was immortalized in a series of watercolors by celebrated American impressionist William Merritt Chase. With its proximity to affluent vacationing Hamptons visitors, undulating terrain, and relative shelter of the Great Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Hills was a natural for golf courses. Indeed, the course is adjacent to three other prestigious golf clubs.
The club has a distinguished history. It was formed in 1892 and is, by some measures, the oldest formal club in the U.S., with certainly the oldest clubhouse, built in 1895. The Shinnecock Hills golf club has the distinction of hosting the U.S. Open in each of three centuries: 1896, 1986, 1995, 2004, 2018, and it will host again in 2026. The club admitted women from its inception and hosted the first African American/Native American competitor, John Shippen, in the 1896 U.S. Open.
Often listed among the top half-dozen courses in the U.S., the course poses plenty of challenges even for the most-skilled golfers. It offers open vistas to links ahead, but this allows the wind to be a larger factor. Golfers must drive hard and shoot well on some particularly challenging uphill approaches. The history and reputation of the course has factored in its being chosen to host multiple U.S. Opens and other notable tournaments.
These “golf cities” are like the mythical Scottish Highlands village of Brigadoon; they appear briefly once a year only to disappear just as quickly without a trace. In the case of a U.S. Open golf city, like what’s just been constructed at Shinnecock Hills, the process takes several months.
Some features are quite substantial, like the bleachers; hospitality tent; and miles of walkways, rope-lines, and fencing. The design must take into consideration sight lines and vista points for press and live television coverage. Various stakeholders need to review the design, and new features are also segregated by type and attributes and are color coded, with materials and components tagged for construction staging. All of this, with a backdrop of current aerial images, produces a great way to visualize the pathways for the expected flow from hole to hole.
Lloyd said, “Construction begins around the middle of March, with the bulk of the work done by mid-May. Everything has to be done by mid-June and the start of the tournament.”
A small army of constructors, contractors, and volunteers descend on the course to build these temporary structures and add finishing touches. And not soon after the final day of play, the entire city is dismantled, only to rise again the next year at another location. And most important: each course is restored to its original condition, with little trace of the massive event that had just taken place.
If you have the opportunity to watch the 2018 U.S. Open telecast, or better still, if you can make it to the venue to experience world-class golf firsthand, reflect on the unsung heroes who made the event possible. Raise a glass to the design and construction team and their finely honed geospatial process.
Image at top: High-resolution images from Nearmap were used by the USGA to design and lay out the temporary facilities constructed at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for the 2018 Men’s U.S. Open. Credit: Nearmap.