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CIO interview: Michael Cole, CTO, European Tour and Ryder Cup

The highly traditional sport of golf is proving to be an innovator in its field, with internet of things technology and cloud adoption transforming tournaments after Covid

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Michael Cole, chief technology officer for golf’s European Tour and Ryder Cup, is now something of a sports technology veteran. After becoming what he refers to as “a newbie” in the world of golf in 2017, Cole has used all his years of IT leadership experience to help his organisation hit a technology-enabled sweet spot.

“It’s been an incredible time,” he says, reflecting on his period in charge. “A lot has happened in the past four years. Have we reached the end of our pathway? No, absolutely not – we have simply caught up. We’ve made some headway, and we have more to do.”

When he last chatted with Computer Weekly in 2019, Cole said his aim was to create what he called “the intelligent golf course of the future”, combining connectivity, big data and cloud computing with leading-edge trials of new technology. Two years later, and – despite a global pandemic – everything is progressing well.

“It was important to create that platform for a connected course because unless you have that underpinning foundation you don’t have the ability to connect everything,” he says. “We’ve made some good headway in terms of that connected course.

“The next part of the vision is to deliver the intelligent cloud. That’s about creating a smart venue. As an organisation, we’ve been travelling around Europe for tournaments and building what are akin to small towns for many years. Now, the use of technology and data is even greater – and we’re actually building smart cities.”

Boosting operational effectiveness

Cole refers to on-course Covid-19 preparations as an example of the way his organisation is using technology to create a smarter environment. The European Tour deploys between 50 and 100 sanitisers at most tournaments. Managing those sanitisers across large golf courses is no mean feat, and the organisation uses technology to monitor the process.

“I was insistent when we started to look at this area that we would use devices that were able to bring internet of things [IoT] capability,” says Cole.

“Now, we can measure the gel levels of our sanitisers, we can measure the consumption rates and the utilisation. We are able to manage those 100 sanitisers remotely – and far more effectively and efficiently than we would have been able to previously.”

Developments around weather forecasting provide another good example of how the connected course is helping to change the operational processes at major golf tournaments. The European Tour uses on-site meteorologists and intends to in the future. However, Cole says his organisation is also bringing data-led intelligence to its forecasting.

“The next part of the vision is to deliver the intelligent cloud. That’s about creating a smart venue”

Michael Cole, European Tour and Ryder Cup

“We are now deploying weather stations with IoT devices, down at a granular level, at every hole,” he says. “These devices can measure up to 50 metrics of weather every three seconds, whether it’s wind direction, gust, or moisture in the air or soil. We are ingesting that data and bringing it through to our operational processes.

“We’re doing that because it’s useful for the meteorologists and the TV broadcasting teams in terms of articulating weather conditions down at a hole level. We can bring that insight into our digital platforms and it’s then useful for referees when they’re looking at pin positions. They can look at the influence that wind conditions have had on ball position and adjust the pin position accordingly for the next day’s play.”

Cole says these are just two examples of how the European Tour is rolling out IoT technology as part of its ongoing attempts to create the intelligent golf course of the future. Further evolutions in this area will lead to more deployments in the next few years, he adds.

“We will continue on that journey, looking at buggy tracking, waste management and a whole multitude of things to ensure that we are utilising technology to aid our operational efficiency, but also for our fan engagement processes,” he says.

Doing things differently

One area of development connected to the intelligent course that Cole highlighted in 2019 was the potential to collect more data by tracking the players and the equipment they use on the course.

His organisation had already explored using sensors on bags, walking scorers and on-course referees. In the future, Cole says there might also be sensors on balls and in clubs. The use of sensors remains an area of discussion.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us because we don’t own the players,” says Cole. “The players are all contractors, so they will always get a choice about what they do, where they do it and their commitments to their own sponsors. Equally, they effectively own their balls as well, so we don’t have control over the use of the balls.

“But I still think it’s something we will look at in the future. And when regulation starts to loosen up around what we can do with the clubs, what we can do with the balls, and we have the consent of the players to do so, then we should absolutely look at how we can bring technology into that that aspect of the game.”

Cole says it is important to note that some progress in related areas is already being made. He refers to the personal digital fitness device Whoop, which can measure the wearer’s heart rate. He says heart rate-monitoring technology is already being used in the US to push insightful data around player performance to TV broadcasters.

“If it’s happening there, why wouldn’t it happen with us in Europe?” he says. “There’s no reason, other than we need to get the players’ consent, we need to look at regulation, and we need to work through the myriad partnerships that are out there to make it happen.

“But we are the brand challenger in golf. We are very keen to look at how we can do things in a different way to how they’ve taken place traditionally. We want to ensure that we can enhance that experience for our fans using data, whether those are on-course spectators or armchair supporters.”

Breaking new ground

Back in 2019, Cole told Computer Weekly that golf was the perfect environment to test technological innovation. He said he believed the nature of temporary fulfilment associated to the sport – where kit is implemented and moved around quickly and effectively from venue to venue – provides a great platform for testing technology.

Three years later, he still believes that is the case. The European Tour runs more than 40 events a year, across 31 countries. Cole’s organisation continues to engage in a range of pioneering trials at some of these events, which provide a laboratory where some of the technology industry’s biggest names can trial their smart ideas.

“We continue to be the innovation and technology breeding ground for several avenues, which is why I think we attract some of the best and most globally recognised technology partners out there,” he says.

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The European Tour is working with five key technology partners, including Tata, Zoom and Capgemini, across the Ryder Cup and the rest of its tournaments. Cole hopes to bring in more partners over the next year. “Watch this space,” he says.

“That is a step-change from where we were three or four years ago, when we were not attractive to that part of the industry, and now we are far more attractive. It feels like we’re at a new frontier in terms of technology in golf, and particularly here at the European Tour. Data has always been our currency. But, if anything, we’ve really revalued its significance.”

Cole points to important developments in several areas. The organisation is now 100% cloud-based – all its business and tournament services are delivered from on-demand platforms. “That’s really a huge jump forward from where we were two or three years ago,” he says.

Cole’s team collects as many as 700,000 data points from players at each tournament. A mobile-first approach dominates his organisation’s approach to technology. The European Tour now has apps for all its key stakeholders and functions, ranging from volunteer management through to pace of play, referee rulings and in-play betting.

Hitting the front

Just like in other businesses and sectors, the pace of digital transformation in golf has been accelerated by the need to react quickly to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

When people returned to the course, they needed to feel safe and assured – and mobile technology has allowed the European Tour to digitise customer services. Take the recent BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, UK – Cole says the tournament was 100% contactless, cashless and ticketless.

“We were one of the first organisations in sport to bring back major events for our players, for TV and for our fans,” he says. “I can attribute much of the success to some of our early decision-making, such as the introduction of digital technology and extensive use of on-site Covid-19 screening and testing.”

Further innovation will continue into the post-Covid age. At the recent Open de España in Madrid, Cole and his team worked alongside telecommunications giant Telefónica to test how drones might be used to provide better footage and improve the quality of TV broadcasting.

“I think what we do becomes very demonstrable to a global audience,” he says. “One of the reasons that I’ve been particularly passionate about the use and adoption of technology in golf is because its global fan base transcends different industries.

“I can bring a range of capabilities in a range of technologies into my world, whether it’s for security, access control, Covid testing, data mining, or augmented reality. Because of the nature of our on-course spectators – and because of the range of global broadcasters that we syndicate our content to and push it out to over 150 countries worldwide – the impact of innovation becomes demonstrable very quickly.” 

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