Merion goes high-tech

Merion Golf Club will use a 3D imaging service to help determine pin placement for next year's U.S. Open.
Merion Golf Club will use a 3D imaging service to help determine pin placement for next year's U.S. Open. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 17, 2012

TRUE STORY. The best ones usually are. But how many of them might have an impact on the next U.S. Open?

Jon Schultz, president/CEO of a Texas-based company that helps golf courses deal with their hole-location process, was looking to expand his business. So he took out an ad on the back of Superintendent magazine.

"My philosophy is it's probably left face up or face down on somebody's desk," Schultz explained. "So you've got a 50-50 chance."

He had talked some with Matt Shaffer, director of grounds at Ardmore's Merion Golf Club, but came away with the impression that what he was offering might not be embraced by a place steeped in so much tradition. Shaffer's assistant, superintendent Aaron McCurdy, knew that the membership wanted a better way. As it turned out, one day he had to use the facilities in the maintenance area. So he took some reading material with him. After flipping through Superintendent, he tossed it on the floor in front of him. That's when he came across Schultz' ad. Soon, a call was made. And, about 10 days later, an order placed.

You can't make that up.

"They must have called every one of our customers," Schultz said recently from his office in suburban Dallas. "They brought it sight unseen.

"What I've learned is that Merion really is very progressive. They're trying to use everything they can to enhance their golf experience."

By utilizing technology that includes 3D images of putting surfaces, Schultz' company, ezLocator, helps golf courses in several ways. Merion now has the ability to place its pins in places that can make better use of the greens, ease the wear and tear in certain sensitive areas, and strategically, as Shaffer pointed out, maybe even give them new possibilities.

It's not as if Merion needs much enhancing, since it always ranks among the top 10 courses in America. And next June, it will host the national championship for the fifth time, but first since 1981. That also will be the record 19th time any USGA event has been held there.

Merion didn't do this because another U.S. Open is coming. It did so for its everyday play. Yet this step certainly adds to all that's involved with again gracing the game's premier stage.

"It's a good tool," head professional Scott Nye said. "We've always been very slow to go to the technical type of things like this. But we knew we needed something. It's really given Matt and his crew a new perspective on how to do their jobs."

Before going with ezLocator, Merion did what it had been doing forever. Which was rely on the human element. For roughly the past 15 years, that meant Dave Petfield, whom Shaffer calls a "world-class setup guy," would come up with 18 hole locations on a daily basis.

"I think [Petfield] was actually amazed that it worked so well," Shaffer said.

Merion is a walking course. There are no yardage markers. And range finders, which calculate the distance to a fixed object, or in this case wicker basket, aren't allowed. They do it the old-fashioned way. Just go play golf. That means players have to rely on caddies, who had no pin sheets, for their numbers. And without a definitive location to work with, that meant a lot of educated guesstimates.

"Scott was under so much pressure, to figure out a way to get it done," Shaffer said. "It was just a logistical nightmare, how it used to be. It's never been feasible. This system sounded too good to be true, honestly. But when we started using it [in March], it was crazy good. We've even helped [Schultz] do a few things to improve it, with our input.

"Ironically, we've found a few pins we really didn't know we had."

And that could prove to be perhaps the biggest plus, at least looking ahead 10 months. No matter how much expertise Petfield has, he's still one person.

"It's user-friendly," Shaffer said. "We trust it, and it won't work if you don't have that comfort level. We can control so much more now. Everyone loves it. The caddies have all the information they need, so it's an advantage. Before, they were sometimes working blind. So it expedites play. And we can record all the info in our permanent records, which is incredibly valuable.

"We're working with John now on a scenario where different green speeds can dictate what you do with certain pins. If we know the greens are rolling at 11.5 [on the Stimpmeter], we'll have infinitely more pin placements than if they were 13.5. We'll be able to show the USGA all of that."

The USGA saw how Merion performed at both the 2005 U.S. Amateur and the 2009 Walker Cup. So it no doubt already has a game plan in mind. But now it might be presented with even more options. Never a bad thing, even for a course that past Open winners Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els visited earlier this year and basically said could hold a major tomorrow.

"Merion's a difficult golf course to take care of," Shaffer said. "This makes it easier. By looking at our pin sheets and seeing what kind of play we're getting, we can set things up accordingly and avoid making certain mistakes. It allows us to water better. And you know how quirky guys like me are. My wife says we're the only people in the world that gets excited about clouds . . .

"We have a very unique golf course. You have to be able to work the ball here. Our greens are different, than most anything [the pros] play. We have this crazy, old bent grass on them, and you have to embrace the grain. You think it's going to break 3 inches to the left, and then you're like, 'What the heck was that?' That's what makes it a really cool thing. It's like a chess match. Obviously, Mr. Davis [Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director] controls the setup. We'll essentially do whatever the USGA wants, within reason. But I think we'll have a little better idea now going into it."

When Schultz, 57, started all this in 2005, from an idea that was hatched during a 19th-hole conversation, it was a project for his Dallas Athletic Club. Four years later, he got his first paying client. Now he has about 25, with several more in the Philadelphia area about to commit. Merion is by far the most high-profile.

"We bring a lot of things into this, from topography to maintenance to a whole management program," said Schultz, whose concept is being reviewed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "When you do it manually, using the quadrant system, you'd see pins in the same place over and over. And sometimes, they'd be in the wrong place. We just wanted to improve that process. It pretty much sells itself.

"When you're starting out with a business, you want to be identified with the best of the best. If it works at Merion, I can't imagine a better endorsement. We're optimizing pin locations, based on the characteristics of the greens from our database. We weigh all the factors. It's an age-old problem.

"I think it's definitely going to give Merion an opportunity to put itself in the best possible position. It'll give the USGA a lot more flexibility. I think the players may actually see the difference. 'Wow, they're going to play it over there?' I believe it'll really make for a better tournament. It's hard for me to put into words."

Well, how about this? Let's say somebody pulls off a Ben Hogan type of shot at the 18th. Merion will know exactly where the pin was that day, for posterity. Up until now, they'd only be approximating.

"Hole locations can provide a great challenge, no matter how much knowledge you have," Nye offered. "They really determined the strategy of how a hole is played. With this backing up what we aleady had, it takes it to another level. You can never have too much information to go on. It lets you know what works, and just as importantly, maybe what might not.

"The USGA is very detailed, very thorough in what they do. They're really good at it. They have to be. But there's no guarantees. And you want everything to be as right as possible."

Then, and perhaps even later. Because now you can.

"Let's say somebody comes to us [after the Open] and says, 'For our event, can we use the hole locations from Saturday's round, where so-and-so holed a shot from 170 yards or whatever they did? We couldn't have done that before. So it could be very interesting, in more ways than one."

Or, as they often observe on TV, useful.


Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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