Manual Scoreboards Stoke Rivalries From the Inside Out
By Christopher Clarey
The all-male membership rules remain in place at Muirfield, but the British Open is embracing a different form of change.
The proof is on the 7th, 13th, 16th and 17th holes, where large LED scoreboards have been installed for the 142nd edition of the Open.
Such on-course screens are regular sights on the PGA Tour, but they are a first for any major golf tournament. They display video highlights, photographs and biographical information of the players, and up-to-the-moment data on fairways and greens hit in regulation.
Standing close on Friday, one could hear the thrum of the electrical power required to generate all those bells and whistles.
But high above the 18th fairway, the sound effects were different inside the two huge yellow scoreboards that have long been the twin sentinels at the Open’s closing hole.
There were shuffling feet, firmly delivered orders, the scrape of plastic letters and name cards being slipped quickly into slots, and the occasional cry of victory: “We beat Cranleigh.”
LED revolution or not, the most visible and important scoreboards at the Open remain manually operated. And the manual labor has long been provided by students and alumni from Cranleigh School and Charterhouse School, two rival boarding schools from the affluent county of Surrey in southeast England.
The labor force on high at Muirfield is well aware of the paradox in modern teenagers’ doing such low-tech work in an evermore digital era.
“There’s a bit of irony,” said William Legge, a 16-year-old from Charterhouse. “Obviously with everyone my age, my generation, we’re brought up with iPads and iPods, those sorts of things. So I’m not surprised there are digital scoreboards around the place. But I think doing something that is a manual scoreboard is great. Not only do we get involved in the Open, but it’s traditional.”
Charterhouse began running one of the two main scoreboards at the Open in 1979. According to Hugh Gammell, a teacher who was part of the original group, the school got the plum assignment because one of its instructors at the time had done similar scoreboard work while playing golf at Oxford University.
“When he came to teach at Charterhouse, he booked us in for a scoreboard job,” said Gammell, a 63-year-old with a booming laugh who oversees the Charterhouse operation from a modest desk and chair on the second of two floors inside the scoreboard.
Cranleigh, located a short drive from Charterhouse, was eventually assigned the other 18th hole scoreboard after being recommended by the same teacher.
More than 20 years later, posting a leader board update first remains a matter of pride.
“It’s quite a big rivalry between us,” said Daniel Federer, a 16-year-old from Charterhouse. He added that the competition is “quite keen, and they were, by the way, really slow yesterday.”
Perhaps, but Cranleigh was faster last year when it really mattered after Ernie Els won at Royal Lytham. Cranleigh was first to post: “Well Played Ernie. See you at Muirfield 2013.”
“I think we may have lost, unfortunately,” said Harry Light, an 18-year-old from Charterhouse.
Each school brought a crew of 18 people, including four staff members. They arrived in Scotland after a 10-hour journey, and this year they are sharing the same campground in nearby North Berwick.
Windows are hard to come by inside the scoreboards, so the rival students track one another’s progress by peeling back the corners of the numbers and letters that have been placed inside the slots and then peering through the small openings.
Both groups also gleefully provide quality control for the other, communicating through the airspace above the 18th fairway and green with walkie-talkies.
“We keep an eye on them and are quite happy to point out when they make a mistake,” Gammell said, holding up his walkie-talkie. Cranleigh’s team is overseen by Sarah Greenwood, a math teacher who is her school’s head of golf.
“My personal view is this is very antiquated and should be electronic,” she said of the manual scoreboard. “I understand why it’s not: because of the tradition and them wanting to retain that tradition and also the logistics of it, being able to move scoreboards that have to be so big to different locations. If the Open was held in the same place every year, no problem.”
Wimbledon, that other British summer sporting staple, now has an electronic scoreboard on Centre Court. But among the golf majors, only the Masters is at a permanent site, and it has no plan to introduce electronic scoreboards.
The surprise to the uninitiated is that the manual scoreboards at Muirfield — with their stacks of player names and numbers — are only manual to a degree. Gammell runs the operation with the help of a hand-held computer that provides updates from the central scoring system. He announces any lead changes to his student crew, who spring from their deck chairs like a bunch of sailors who have just been ordered to raise the jib.
“I don’t know why we’re doing this,” Greenwood said, shaking her head. “But it’s lovely doing it.”
The same system applies elsewhere on the course, at the smaller manual scoreboards scattered around the other holes. Those are operated by students and others, some of whom are far removed from their teens.
On a low platform next to the ninth green on Friday, Stephen Bull, a 32-year-old from Leeds, had a hand-held computer in his left hand and plastic name cards in his right as he hustled to post updates. He said it was his 15th Open working the scoreboards.
But the arrival of the LED screens has reduced the number of such jobs this year, and increased the sense that manual scoreboards are the typewriters of their time.
“These are good because you know exactly which group is coming through next and, more importantly, which player is hitting next, which is really useful from a spectator point of view,” said Kenneth Kilpatrick, a 51-year-old spectator from Glasgow who was standing in front of the LED screen near the 17th green on Friday.
“This is a very difficult sport to keep up with compared to most other sports. Here, it’s not all in front of you, and you don’t know what’s happening in the other parts of the course. This screen is information.”
Constant information and stimulation. And to watch the fans in the grandstand behind the 17th hole on Friday was to watch a group behaving more like a television audience with their eyes on the screen.
In the distance, the Firth of Forth was blue and luminous; the clouds changed shape overhead, and the next group of players approached, looming larger but never as large as their head shots on the screen.
“We were out on 13 with the electronic scoreboard earlier today,” Gammell said. “And I found it incredibly irritating because it kept switching from one thing to another. There was so much information on it. And then, believe it or not, the screen froze and stuck. So a whole group came through, and we didn’t know who they were. Now with a manually operated scoreboard that doesn’t happen. What you get is the information you need to know. No more.”
But IDS, the American company that runs the scoring system and the screens at the Open, will surely debug any of this year’s problems. Manual scoreboards are very likely to keep disappearing but perhaps, just perhaps, not to the point of extinction.
“I think there will always be a manual piece of it,” said Ryan McDonald, senior business development manager at IDS. “If you look at what they do at 18, I don’t see that going away. When the championships are over and they put up ‘Well Played Ernie,’ those are little things you’d never be able to match with LEDs. That’s tradition.”