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CTO interview: Steve Otto, CTO, The R&A

The Open Championship was fully back in 2022 after Covid, and back at golf’s spiritual home of St Andrews – and it was an opportunity for the club’s CTO to reflect on where technology will take the sport next

Steve Otto, chief technology officer (CTO) at The R&A, is back on home territory – and in more ways than one. After having to create a data-led alternative to The Open due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and having run an event with reduced capacity in 2021, Otto and his colleagues were back with a full-scale tournament for the 150th Open at St Andrews in July.

Commonly considered to be the home of golf, St Andrews is also Otto’s permanent residence. The R&A, which is golf’s governing body as well as the organiser of The Open, is based at the picturesque Scottish town. In a behind-the-scenes tour of technology systems at the course, Otto says it’s great to be home.

“Being back to a full-scale Open – and at St Andrews – is incredible,” he says, adding that the challenges of the past two years have prompted a change in approach to IT.

“We’ve played things very differently,” he says. “We’re encouraging the organisation to slow down to go faster. We’ve invested a lot in having a more robust digital, data and technology strategy.”

Otto says the past two years have been focused on building the digital and data foundations to help The R&A deliver lasting change in the future.

“We’re taking time to realise that’s about human change, process change, and trying to bring people with us,” he says.

“A real pause – and then trying to be able to deliver fast, which is what the industry needs, but also to make responsible decisions, which we are going to be very glad we make going forward.”

Overcoming data fragmentation

Computer Weekly last caught up with Otto during the pandemic in 2020. When social-distancing regulations meant it was impossible to run The Open as normal, the CTO and his team searched for a way to keep golf fans entertained during lockdown.

The answer came through the combination of data and video and the creation a virtual replacement for The Open that included golfing greats from the past 50 years. It was known as The Open for the Ages, and viewers at home got to see in-play clips, leaderboards and statistics during a four-day event. More than a million people watched the final round live.

The Open for the Ages showed what was possible with data – and now The R&A wants to do more with the information it collects, from organising the game to pushing data to broadcasting feeds and on to helping players improve their performance. But before that can happen, Otto and his team must ensure the information is useful and reliable.

“One of the banes of my life in my role as CTO at The R&A and the wider golf ecosystem is fragmented data – a lack of the source of truth,” he says.

“All too often, the use of data is fragmented. It would be great if everyone could take data from practising on the course to improve their game.”

Rather than having unintegrated views of data, Otto wants to bring disparate sources together. By creating an ecosystem of like-minded individuals – whether inside the organisation, externally through partnerships, or by reaching out to amateur and professional players around the globe – he wants to bring a data transformation to the game of golf.

“We are pushing hard to change cultures in the sport to make data more useful,” he says. “All too often, people go to a driving range and they might use sophisticated radar optical technology to track their shots. But that experience ends there. Imagine a case where they are able to take that data with them when they go for a golf lesson and say, ‘Here are my shots. Teach me on the basis that actually I had this failing’.”

“We are investing more in business analysis and project management than we ever have before to mature our approach to change”

Steve Otto, The R&A

Otto says the key element underlying this data-led transition will be ensuring the organisation focuses on enterprise-wide thinking, rather than simply the delivery of local projects.

“We are really trying to say to people, you want to do this and, actually, that’s very similar to what these people over there want to do,” he says. “Let’s have a more sympathetic view – let’s build tools at the core and have an enterprise-wide vision for tools, data and processes as well.”

Otto says this enterprise-wide approach to systems and data encompasses the “whole shooting match” of golf, whether it’s in The R&A’s commercial groups, across a range of amateur championships and professional championships, or across the ranking and scoring systems that Otto’s team manages and maintains.

“It’s about taking a holistic view – and that’s hard,” he says. “When we talk about doing transformation, a lot of our colleagues think about going from A to B. We realise now that it’s a continual change process. We are investing more in business analysis and project management than we ever have before to mature our approach to change.”

Otto says a good example of the way he is looking to manage projects going forward comes through ShotView, a dedicated web page that allows golf fans to see every player’s live position at The Open, together with statistics for each hole.

As part of this project, the R&A and its technology partner, NTT Data, are gathering data from 32,000 shots during The Open and creating a digital twin of golf courses and player performance. The digital twin uses mapping, rendering and algorithms to power ShotView. Otto says this approach will help The R&A to push other data-led changes.

“The use of project management in ShotView has been a significant journey for a lot of our colleagues,” he says. “When we started introducing project management, people said, ‘Well, why do we need it? We’ll just deliver it’. But at the end of the process they said, ‘That’s why – we realise the benefit of this approach’.”

Building effective partnerships

The long-term aim is that innovations from a high-profile week in St Andrews, where The R&A worked with NTT Data to develop data visualisations and digital twins, will go a long way toward supporting technological developments in golf for rest of the year. For this to happen, Otto says strong partnerships with a range of partners will be crucial.

“What we’re always asking our suppliers to do is look at solutions being scalable and sustainable,” he says.

“Now, the budgets for this tournament are fairly hefty, and you can’t really repeat that investment in other environments. But we’re trying to bring those other championships up by learnings from this week.”

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The target is to reuse data models and ways of working in other settings. Otto talks about creating an “integrated dataverse”, where insight created in big-ticket projects – such as ShotView – are then used in other areas of the sport. He hopes to build an ecosystem of data, where all kinds of partners help to enrich the information being collected.

“We don’t need to be experts, but we need to know experts,” says Otto, referring to the partnerships he is looking to build. As an example, he refers to conversations with computer-vision specialist Hawk-Eye, whose video review and creative graphic technologies are used in a range of sports.

“We’ve shared learnings rather than working with them directly,” he says. “We were keen to see what we could learn and what we could perhaps share with them. Sport is driving innovation in a lot of places. Understanding and getting the right kinds of insights really pushes the technology hard.”

The R&A looks for inspiration in many places. Otto’s team has attended medical conferences to understand how marker-less tracking is used in gait analysis for recovering patients. The goal is to understand more about how technology can be used to track player movements and to create techniques that help improve on-course performance.

He has also spent time with film production specialist DreamWorks to learn how it is using real-time data simulation. In all areas of development, the aim is the same, says Otto: “We pride ourselves on going out and looking for expertise, rather than reinventing the wheel.”

Improving player performance

Another priority for The R&A is golfer engagement. Otto says the challenge here is to ensure the organisation engages with 40 million golfers outside the US – whether they are amateurs or professionals – in a long-term manner that provides benefits for the players.

“That involves a value proposition with those golfers, so they will trust us with their data,” he says. “You’ve got to get data governance right, and so we’re spending a lot of time working with NTT Data to make sure that when we’re engaging with players, we’re not just making it look right – it is right.”

The hope is that innovations from world-famous tournaments such as The Open will help show the benefits of data. A fully fledged digital twin would include huge amounts of historical data that could be used to simulate and predict future events. Right now, the focus is on gathering more data with higher precision and lower latency than ever before.

Bringing information together across the sport is a complex task. In a busy week, The R&A has to manage data from 230 tournaments that comes in a range of formats. Across all these tournaments and in all areas of the sport, the objective is the same, says Otto – to create an integrated approach to data that supports innovation across the broader golf ecosystem.

“There’s a lot of focus on what’s happening this week, but it’s interesting to consider whether people play differently in the Open Championship than a PGA Tour event,” he says. “Having the data in the same format allows that comparison to be made.

“With all the data we’re collecting and the innovations in technology, golfers will be able to track their rounds and they will be able to compare themselves against the best players in the world. So, everything we’re doing is about enriching the ecosystem, rather than just delivering one tournament.”

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