PGA Puts Data in the Fast Lane for Pros

By Matt Hines  |  Posted 2006-03-17

PGA Puts Data in the Fast Lane for Pros

With tournaments, players and other workers scattered around the globe, and a business that changes its primary address almost every week, the PGA Tour has long been searching for new ways to keep its people on the same page.

In the old days, the Tour would simply mail out reams of paper to its golfers and tournament workers in hopes that everyone got all the materials they needed to be part of its whirlwind season.

But knowing that golf professionals, their agents, and many of its employees were rarely home to receive their paperwork, the Tour has been working to utilize technology to help bridge gaps.

In 2004 the Tour began building a new collaboration system made up of layers of online intranets that allow people to use the Web as their primary interface for communicating.

Now, in a step beyond its Web strategy, the PGA has launched a sophisticated IVR (interactive voice response) system meant to help PGA pros and other workers stay up to date.

Built on IBM technology and a voice automation system from Voxeo, Tour IT executives said the project has yielded major benefits for almost all of the people involved with it.

Improvements range from players happier to have a 24/7 point of contact for getting their personal information, to teams of PGA workers better informed as to whats going on a specific tournament, said Steve Evans, vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour.

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"Each player is an independent contractor and each tournament is like a small nonprofit business," said Evans.

"We as the organizing body are trying to make sure that there is great communication; a tournament is like a business thats only open one weekend of the year, the players are a mobile workforce, and theres a huge amount of collaboration that needs to happen between all these parties to make everything go smoothly."

The IVR was introduced during the fourth quarter of 2005, and Evans said that a growing number of players are using the system every day. When the Tour recently asked players for feedback, Evans said that most people involved with the program had questions and suggestions regarding the IVR system, and very few complaints.

"We expected more kickback, but we werent hearing a lot so we went out to interview people individually to get their experiences working with the voice system," said Evans. "We found that people had very specific questions and suggestions, not that they were frustrated, which was huge."

The PGA Tours collaboration network and intranet infrastructure was built on IBMs eServer iSeries, xSeries and zSeries servers, as well as its DB2 database and WebSphere applications infrastructure software. The Web site network currently supports about 15,000 users, Evans said.

Using the new IVR system, Tour players can call in from wherever they might be around the globe to get all their communications done on the fly.

By dialing in, players can do everything from register for a tournament, to check their status after completing a round or find out their tee time for the following day.

The IVR system is customized to each players preferences and features a human voice responding to almost all commands or queries.

The mobile application has been trained to understand all the various accents players might carry from their respective homelands, and claims to understand contextual information specific to the PGA Tour in order to help tailor automated replies to typical requests or problems.

The secret behind the sophistication of the voice system is Voxeos application development software, said Clegg Ivey, vice president of business operations at the company.

The firms Prophecy application building environment, which uses HTML and XML to translate commands into its IVR system, allows for faster and cheaper development of voice automation applications, said Ivey.

Voxeo, an IBM partner, contends that its tools allow companies greater freedom to try out new voice recognition applications because it eliminates the need for more specialized, expensive development.

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"Even though speech recognition has been around for quite a while, adoption hasnt been as fast as wed like, but thats also because its been far too complex and expensive for companies to take a chance and see how this impacts their business," said Ivey.

"Everyone has Web developers, who are much cheaper, and who are already writing HTML and XML; we told the PGA Tour that they didnt need any new skills to add to the enterprise, as we created the equivalent of dynamic Web applications that instead handle phone calls."

PGA Tour professional Jimmy Walker is on the comeback from a neck injury and who spends a lot of time sitting on airplanes.

As a result, traveling light is a top priority, said Walker, 27, who even goes so far as to prefer his Motorola Rokr phone for its audio capabilities as it saves him the trouble of carrying a separate MP3 player.

Using the IVR collaboration system, Walker said hes able to stay better informed of his business using nothing more than the handheld and a notebook computer.

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In mid-February, Walker boarded a flight to Los Angeles unsure whether or not he was heading to the Nissan Open as a top alternate, or already placed as a member of the field.

When he landed on the West Coast and flipped on his handset the information was available immediately. He shot a 69 on the Riviera Country Club course that Sunday and finished one-under-par for the tournament, his best result of the year so far.

"Obviously with any new technology it takes some getting used to, but I trust it now and have used it quite a few times and had nothing but success with it," said Walker, who admitted having a slight advantage over other players in adopting the mobile applications since his father-in-law works for Motorola.

"The voice feature is really neat; most of these things sound so computerized but when you say your name or the tournaments name the voice on the other side talking back at you is real, which is nice," Walker said.

"Its also easy to work with because it recognizes the kind of things you need to say to it and responds, rather than asking you to run through a number of menus."

While players arent allowed to talk on their phones while playing official rounds, Walker said he knows a number of other pros are using the mobile system to stay informed at most other times.

In addition to the mobile voice application, the golfers and other Tour employees have access to a network of online intranet and portal sites to help organize their work and share information, dubbed as TourLinks.

Through the network of roughly 13 internal and external sites, players, tournament workers and other employees can attend to almost every element of their communications with the Tour, said Evans.

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Evans said that the Tour traditionally has been conservative in terms of its IT strategy, and that he couldnt have imagined the whole collaboration enterprise working as well as it is now even two years ago.

TourLinks currently also supports professionals playing on the Champions and Nationwide Tours, which are satellites of the PGA.

While it took a lot of custom coding and systems integration to make all the pieces fit together, the executive said that he feels the collaboration infrastructure will serve as a platform for other applications going forward, including a text messaging program the Tour is testing that could help keep players apprised of each others performances while on the course.

And if the online and mobile communications systems become too confusing for a player, the tools can be customized to fit, much like golf clubs, said Evans.

"The biggest challenges have been around educating and training all the people, and to get them to trust that when they hit enter or say yes, the registration they completed or commitment they made isnt going to get lost somewhere along the line," Evans said.

"Being able to do that, which we have, and making sure that everyone is up to date with what we can offer them is one of our biggest jobs; and we think theres a lot of potential to do even more in the future."

Check out eWEEK.coms for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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