Google Earth goes golfing

When I’m not spending time with my daughters, playing with technology, writing for Macworld, or doing household chores, golf is my favorite time-waster. For some strange reason, I enjoy the frustration that comes with trying to swing a club at 100-plus mph and strike a small ball absolutely positively square—the sense of satisfaction when I manage to do just that, typically about one out of every 100 swings, is probably what brings me back to the course. Hours of frustration punctuated by moments of sheer amazement is how a friend describes the sport—for us hackers, at least. Tiger Woods would probably describe it differently.

In any event, I recently played a course here in Portland called Great Blue at Heron Lakes. While the name sounds somewhat like that of a fancy private country club, the course is owned by the city of Portland (and located in a square bordered by a railroad, a racetrack, an interstate highway, and the departure path for Portland International—quiet atmosphere is not a reason to play this course!). With water on 13 of 18 holes, deep rough, and tiny greens, Great Blue is a challenging layout. I was trying to describe just how tough it was to a non-local friend when I realized I could use Google Earth to help with the process.

If you’re not familiar with Google Earth ( ), there are both high- and low-resolution images, depending on what part of the world you’re looking at. Portland, Oregon, is one of the areas with high resolution images. As Great Blue at Heron Lakes is well within the coverage area for these high-resolution images, zooming in on the course gives fairly spectacular results:


That’s the 16th hole at Great Blue, a wonderful “how brave (stupid?) am I?” hole. (The tee is at the lower left; the green is upper right.) Do you bail out to the right and face a long second shot across water, or try to cut both lakes with your tee shot, leaving a chip shot to the green? So one way I could use Google Earth to help my buddy understand the course would be to grab screenshots of every hole. But that’s tedious, to say the least. Instead, I thought I’d use Google Earth’s placemarks (Add -> Placemark) to place the camera above and behind each tee box, then I could just export my list of placemarks (File -> Save -> Save Place as) and send that file to my buddy.

I was heading down exactly that path when another inspiration struck—Google Earth has a Play button in the Places section. Click the Play button, and all of your places will play as a movie, with the camera flying from spot to spot. So instead of just showing my buddy the tee view of each hole, I added some additional placemarks to reflect a typical drive and second (and third, on par fives) shot on each hole. I then modified the appearance of the placemarks, removing the icon for the fairway shots and making their text semi-transparent, and using a small flag icon for the on-the-green placemark—just to make things look a bit cleaner.

The end result of all those efforts is this placemarks file, a quick virtual tour of a round of golf at Great Blue. I could have stopped there, of course, but I wanted to see if I could make a movie of my course tour. So I fired up Snapz Pro X and captured a movie of the placemark playback.

The above video has been reduced in both size and quality for web streaming; here’s the original (15MB, 868x739) if you’d like to see the high quality version. With a self-contained movie, I can now create virtual walkthroughs for any course visible in Google Earth’s high-resolution areas. (There’s just not enough detail in the low-resolution images to do anything remotely like this.) Wonder what it would be like to play Medinah, site of the recent PGA championship? Here’s the first tee. Or the classic Pebble Beach? Or Oregon’s own award-winning oceanfront links course, Bandon Dunes? With Google Earth and high-resolution images, such things are relatively trivial.

Other things you can do

You can use Google Earth to get very accurate measurements of your tee shots (or any shot, if you wish) after a round. During the round, just make a note as to the precise location of the tee-off spot, and where your ball comes to rest. When you get home, launch Google Earth and navigate to the course. Select Tools -> Ruler to put the ruler on-screen, and set the units pop-up to Yards (and make sure Mouse Navigation is not checked). Fly to the hole you’re interested in measuring, then just click and drag from the tee box to the spot where your drive landed, and you’ve got a quite-accurate drive measurement tool. As an example, here’s my drive on the previously-mentioned 16th hole:


Woot, a very rare (for me) 300-yard drive. OK, so it was downwind. And the hole plays downhill. And the tee was up. And I flubbed the chip shot to the green. I’m still happy I managed to find the landing zone after taking the ‘no easy way out’ option!

Another golf-related task that would be quite useful for Google Earth is scouting out a course you haven’t played yet prior to arriving. You can get a good feel for the general course layout (how many left and right dog legs), density of trees, the amount of water (“maybe I should bring the cheap golf balls!”) and even the elevation changes on the course. It’s not quite the same as getting a real practice round in, but at least the lay of the land won’t be completely foreign to you when you arrive.

Ah, golfing in Google Earth…yet another way to waste some of that free time I already don’t seem to have enough of!

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