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Masters highlights getting artificial intelligence treatment via IBM’s Watson computer

April 4, 2017

Recall Sunday, April 10, 2016. Jordan Spieth had just teed off in the final group of a sure-to-be exciting day at Augusta National. Minutes later, across the course, Shane Lowry kickstarted the party.

The Irishman drew his ball to the center of the 16th green, where it curled left and toward the hole. It fell in the cup for an ace and created the first roar in what seemed like days. Lowry punched both fists high in the air, spanked Patrick Reed’s open hand and gave his best Kirk Gibson impression, much to the delight of fans in the stands, Verne Lundquist in the CBS booth and, behind some glass doors hundreds of yards away, International Business Machines (better known as IBM).

One of the largest computer companies on Earth is a global sponsor of the Masters as well as its digital overseer. Since 1996, it has helped run the official Masters website. In 2007, that website began live streaming the competition. Two years later, IBM helped develop and launch the Masters iPhone app. Now, in 2017, IBM’s Watson (the well-known artificial intelligence computer) is here to enhance the many platforms of consumer-facing content.

That’s where Lowry’s ace comes in. Watson’s audio and visual recognition capabilities have helped study (and learn from) every shot during the 2016 event, and pinpoint specific things. Things like player reactions, where Watson knows the difference between a fist pump and a simple tip of the cap, crowd cheering where there’s a clear difference between the common golf clap and the patented Augusta roar, and even commentary from broadcasters. Yes, if Peter Kostis declared an approach “phenomenal,” Watson would know that it wasn’t just good, it was indeed phenomenal.

In turn, each of these things Watson recognized is given a value and mashed together via a special algorithm to determine that shot’s ‘Overall Excitement Level.’ (In case you’re wondering Lowry’s ace earned a score of .87). The obvious question here is why? What’s the value in assigning an excitement level to a golf shot, to every golf shot? Well, it helps Masters.com and the Augusta National editorial team push the event’s greatest action to the fingertips of its biggest digital fans as quick as possible. It’s humans and a computer, working together.

“When you think about the golf that’s going on with the number of golfers and number of cameras out there, it affords the Augusta National editorial team the ability to scale up,” John Kent, the head of IBM’s tech approach at the Masters, said. “I could do a highlight real for Shane Lowry, every shot of his, very easily. I could put a package together of your favorite players. I could create an experience for an individual coming to the site that is much more personal. I could have a recap video when you come on that is just ‘Hey, here’s what happened the last 15 minutes.’ The possibilities are endless.”

If it sounds over the top, maybe it is, but when has Augusta National ever approached anything uninspired? The idea is to bring the special action of Augusta National to those not lucky enough to be there.

Lets say Hideki Matsuyama’s biggest fan in Tokyo wants to see the best shots from his first round, or Ernie Els’s biggest fan in Johannesburg was stuck in a conference call as Big Easy played the back nine. Maybe the second-grade teacher of amateur Brad Dalke couldn’t fork over the money to watch him compete in his first Masters. Scenarios like this are what the augmented intelligence of Watson and Masters.com are hoping to reach in the not-too-distant future.

Mark it down, for now, as the most recent step of a slow-to-act club working to show off its crown jewel like never before.