Most golf fans, if they're lucky, will get to spend four days in early April at the venerated Augusta National Golf Course, scene of The Masters Tournament. Shannon Yates was on the course, sunup to sundown, for 10 straight library-quiet days, coming to understand it in ways even a professional golfer never will.
"There were a couple of times when we were out on the course, literally all by ourselves, in the quiet of the early morning," said Yates, 48. "It felt like we were in a church. No one was around us at all. It was an absolutely amazing feeling."
Yates, 48, is an environmental artist for EA Sports, whose Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters, lands on shelves Tuesday. Yates also was the lead technician on the team whose laser scanning survey of Augusta National's 18-hole course - and its par-3 course - renders it in the game with striking realism.
The Masters CourseView, a Facebook application EA Sports set up is, more or less, the comprehensive account of their work on the course back in August. You may use to to inspect everything they imaged, which is to say more than every inch of Augusta National. It's every six millimeters of the course, the base tolerance of the high-tech equipment used.
The luxurious, high fidelity visuals are often the first feature mentioned when the laser scanning is touted. But there's an enormous gameplay mandate Yates and his team were serving, too. Normally they'd measure a course for inclusion in a game using Global Positioning System devices. That method wouldn't deliver Augusta National with enough fidelity that its real world challenges - which depend greatly on the shape of the greens and the undulations of the fairway - really carried over to the game.
Over the course of three years, EA Sports worked out a solution, using high performance surveying equipment used wherever pinpoint accuracy is absolutely mandatory, such as construction sites, or even preserving and analyzing crime scenes. After testing it at a private golf course near EA Tiburon's location in Maitland, Fla., Yates and his team were booked for a 10-day all-expenses paid trip to Augusta National in August, where they wouldn't play a single hole of golf, and couldn't tell a soul - not even family - about the visit.
Yates, an Oregon native, is a lifelong golf fan and his six year career with EA Sports has shown him much of the uncommon beauty the sport delivers, but nothing like Augusta National. Its scenic impact is two-pronged: First, it is a painstakingly manicured and maintained course, with postcard shots of southern flora - dogwoods, forsythia, swaying longleaf pines and banks of azaleas framing a tee box - factoring into every frame of the broadcast. Second, as the only major tournament played at the same course each year, every hole - nearly any lie your ball finds here - could find some famous antecedent in the 77 years of The Masters.
Yates briefly indulged his curiosities during the 10-day stretch. He was particularly interested in standing where Tiger Woods lingered on No. 16 in 2005, lining up what would become one of the greatest shots in tournament history, a winding chip from the border of the second cut that proved critical to his playoff victory and fourth Green Jacket. Players may attempt to recreate this shot in the video game.
"Several times as we were working, maybe we were standing in on the tee box of the next hole, someone would say something about what had happened at this hole," Yates said. "At No. 16 (pictured, in-game) I remember someone mentioned Tiger Woods' shot, so when we got to the green we walked over to stop where he chipped in. We tried to find the exact location he was standing."
They imitated the stance and the swing, then got back to work. "It was absolutely amazing, to recall things we'd seen, and then to be standing at that exact spot." Yates said.
But it was back to work, and there was a lot to be done here. The scanning technology - three surveying lasers on tripods - has a maximum scan distance of 300 meters and a maximum density of one millimeter. Without getting too technical, the manner in which the team overlapped their scans meant they could resolve features down to 6 millimeters. "That's the width of a blade of grass," Yates notes.
It's not a fast process. "We'd take about 90 minutes per par," Yates said, meaning a par 3 hole would require four and a half hours to image. "On some we spent even more time because of the specific placement of certain features, such as the green complexes around the sandtraps. We wanted to make sure we got every perimeter right, so we'd do an additional scan at those locations in addition the base scan.
"We spent two full days on Amen Corner," Yates said. This is the most famous stretch of Augusta National, comprising the second shot of No. 11, all of No. 12 (whose arched stone Hogan Bridge, over Rae's Creek, is arguably the course's most recognizable feature) and the tee shot from No. 13.
If they did nothing else right during this visit, Yates reminded his team, they would have to get Amen Corner dead solid perfect.
"When we crested the hill on No. 11 we set up the scanner at the narrow part of the fairway, right where you see into Amen Corner," Yates said. "I remember talking to the assistants gathered at the scanner, and saying ‘We have to get all of this exactly right. We will scan this as many times as we have to, to get this right."
Indeed, in the game, No. 11's presentation of the fairway down onto the green is a weirdly engrossing view, seeing and interacting with something in uncommon clarity while your brain still processes its detachment from reality. The afternoon shading that dapples the fairway is informed by a scan that took in the exact dimensions of individual branches in the surrounding foliage, to be rendered in-game.
"When we finished up the green on 11, and set up in the tee box on No. 12, that's the time we really started focusing on every detail behind the green," Yates said. "These are shots people have seen on television for years.
Now they will see them captured as never before in a video game, delivered by Yates' group, who made perhaps the longest and slowest tour, ever, of Augusta National's 18 holes.
"When we set up on No. 1, we already had our plan of attack ready. We'd done a walkthrough and taken notes on where we needed additional information, we were ready to go," Yates said.
"I remember looking over at the 18th green right next to us and thinking, ‘In a little over a week, we'll be coming up that hill. We'll be done, ending up right back here.'"
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.