‘We rushed it’: Spikemark skids out of gates as NCAA golf’s new scoring provider
The first full-field tournament of the 2023-24 NCAA Division I men’s golf season was fast approaching, and Eastern Kentucky head coach Justin Tereshko, whose squad was hosting the Colonel Shootout, was attempting to navigate the administrative portal for the Aug. 31-Sept. 1 event. In previous years Tereshko would’ve set up his event – lineups, tee times, pairings, etc. – on Golfstat, college golf’s longstanding scoring and ranking service, but with the NCAA signing a new contract with Spikemark Golf LLC this summer, Tereshko and countless other coaches turned to the new venture for their tournaments’ live scoring.
Immediately, Tereshko encountered some difficulties. There were some intricacies that were foreign to someone who had grown so accustomed to the old way, and Spikemark’s site was slow with load times, often crashing and prompting some to coin the nickname, “Spinmark.” But keeping in mind that this was a new system, Tereshko remained positive, and he eventually finalized his pairings.
“I knew I was the first tournament, and I knew there were going to be hiccups,” Tereshko said. “Now, it was much, much worse than I was anticipating.”
By the time the first tee balls were struck that Thursday morning at the University Club at Arlington in Richmond, Kentucky, Tereshko quickly realized that there were major problems. And over the next few days, as more and more tournaments got underway, Spikemark’s failures out of the gates became manifest – the site briefly shut down after a reported cyber-attack, and its live-scoring platform remains paused – and while the new company scrambles to pick up the pieces, coaches, players and their supporters are left frustrated and uncertain about what comes next.
“It’s bad,” said a prominent person within the sport. “College golf is in jeopardy right now.”
• • •
Moving in a different direction
DEREK FREEMAN SPENT TWO decades as a college golf coach, first at NAIA Oklahoma City, where Freeman initially fundraised for his salary, and later at Division I power UCLA, which Freeman led to the 2008 NCAA team title. When Freeman abruptly announced during the Bruins’ 2021-22 campaign that he was retiring from coaching at season’s end, he revealed that he’d be transitioning to a couple new careers, one making his own wine, called Overshare, and another that he was keeping close to the vest. The latter venture ended up being CEO and founder of Spikemark.
The idea for Spikemark didn’t happen overnight. The business filing for Spikemark Golf LLC was made Jan. 9, 2020, in the state of Wyoming. At that time, Freeman was still at UCLA and simultaneously serving on the NCAA Division I Golf Committee, a position he held from 2018 until he retired. While on the committee, Freeman said he fielded numerous calls, almost weekly, from coaches, many of them complaining about the Golfstat rankings and a perceived lack of transparency, or at least a lack of understanding how Golfstat’s formula worked. It’s clear that Freeman wanted to erase those concerns. He told Golf Channel in July, after Spikemark was officially announced as the NCAA’s new partner, “College golf is in a really good place, and we want to move it forward, and I think we can do that with this platform.”
As Freeman picked the brains of consultants, his biggest move was enlisting stats guru Mark Broadie, the creator of the strokes-gained system who also played a big role in the revamped Official World Golf Ranking, to develop a specialized ranking for college teams and players. The points-based ranking that Broadie produced for Spikemark would be a transition from the head-to-head- and stroke-differential-based rankings of Golfstat and Golfweek, which uses a formula developed by another stats legend, Jeff Sagarin. Freeman also hired a development firm based out of Los Angeles to build out a live-scoring platform and fresh-looking website, an aesthetic upgrade over the bare-bones look of Golfstat, and he furnished it with logos from every Division I, II and III program.
But even with all that, Freeman still needed to secure the NCAA contract, and that meant an unproven idea unseating the incumbent of over three decades.
Golfstat’s inception can be traced to 1984, when founder Mark Laesch wrote a program to keep his own golf stats. Soon after, he began doing stats for Illinois State, his first client (he charged them 25 cents per round the first year). The following season, Laesch sent out about a hundred letters to schools across the country and got exactly one bite – it just happened to be Oklahoma State, now the preeminent program in the country. In 1989, Golfstat’s partnership with the NCAA began after the association’s previous women’s rankings partner was giving them trouble. Three years after that, Golfstat was the official rankings provider for the men as well.
For 30-plus years, Golfstat’s rankings were used by the NCAA golf committees to determine the fields for NCAA regionals, so much so that the committee would traditionally go straight down the Golfstat rankings using the S-curve method. Over time, Golfstat would also cultivate its live-scoring platform, offering an array of customizable features for a complicated sport that competes in multiple formats – 5-count-4 stroke play, 6-count-5 stroke play, individual and team match play, and more – and uses several different starting methods and ways of grouping fields. There’s a reason why many people refer to college golf as the “Wild, Wild West.”
“We aren’t college basketball where you know everyone is playing 40 minutes,” Ball State men’s head coach Mike Fleck said.
As he entered Spikemark into the pool of bidders this summer, Freeman promised many upgrades over Golfstat. Above all, Spikemark’s modern ranking would be “fair and transparent.” Secondly, Spikemark would essentially be a one-stop shop for college golf information – scores, schedules, statistics, etc. – and in a more digestible experience for users, compared to Golfstat. Thirdly, Spikemark would hold teams accountable for their schedules by requiring coaches to send out and accept invites into tournaments at the start of the season, and this would also allow people to see tournament fields months in advance, a feature Golfstat didn’t provide. Freeman’s pitch clearly impressed.
The NCAA goes through what’s called an RFP process (request for proposal) for all its contracts with outside vendors, and that includes the contractor for its scoring and ranking services. According to John Baldwin, the NCAA’s managing director for championships and alliances, the NCAA received “considerably more interest” from companies this time. That group included Golfstat, which lost both of its presidents, Mark Laesch and his son Brian, to ALS in 2017 and 2021, respectively, and was operating on a one-year extension from the NCAA for the 2022-23 season.
In recent years, several sources around college golf had heard rumblings that a new company was about to come along and compete with Golfstat for the NCAA contract. Some even had inklings that Freeman was spearheading the new venture. But according to current Golfstat president, Mark’s ex-wife Kathy, Golfstat was “totally blindsided” when the NCAA informed them in May, just before the NCAA Women’s Championship, that they were moving in a different direction.
“We were taken by surprise like everyone else … and we then had to figure out, well, what do we do now?” Kathy Laesch told Golf Channel. “The whole company was designed specifically for the NCAA.”
Spikemark was officially announced on July 10.
Golfstat began layoffs not long after.
“We are pleased to announce Spikemark as manager for NCAA golf scoring and ranking services,” said Joni Comstock, NCAA senior vice president of championships, in a release. “Spikemark’s effective use of current technologies, including the implementation of a transparent ranking system with daily updates, will provide a statistical approach that has been widely adopted throughout the golf community, and one that will positively impact the user experience for our membership and the championships. On behalf of the collegiate golf community, we want to express our sincere gratitude to Golfstat and specifically to the late Mark Laesch and the Laesch family for their many years of partnership and dedication to collegiate golf.”
Added Baldwin to Golf Channel in July: “Ultimately, through all the feedback that we received, we felt like the platform that Spikemark presented, the things that they had to offer, best suited the desires of our membership and they were best suited to serve college golf as we move into the future.”
There was just one problem: Spikemark wasn’t ready.
• • •
‘A full-on cyber-attack’
THE BIG DAY HAD arrived. In addition to getting his team ready to compete in its season opener, Tereshko gathered his field’s 91 players, including several competing as individuals, and began to run through the directions for player-input live scoring on Spikemark’s app.
A couple hands then raised.
The players, who had Android phones, couldn’t find the app in the Google Play Store. Come to find out, the Spikemark app had only been fully developed for iPhones.
With a few groups unable to input live scores, the tournament began anyway. But when Tereshko and other coaches opened the live leaderboard on Spikemark, they noticed the scoring was off. Individual hole scores were correct, but the software was incorrectly applying the 5-count-4 format, doing so per hole rather than per round. Later, when trying to verify completed scores, Tereshko encountered another issue. One verification screen displayed all 91 scorecards, with each line containing four clickable boxes – official, WD, DQ and an all-red box that said, NO. After selecting the official box didn’t do anything, Tereshko reached out to Spikemark, which provided an answer: Tereshko needed to click the red box; it would then light up green.
“I verified about 15 scores before I discovered scores that I changed were reverting back to the wrong scores,” Tereshko explained. “I then find out that you have to click save after each change, so I do that, click save, and all the boxes turned back red…
“That’s when I said, forget it, I’m going to Golf Genuis.”
Tereshko wasn’t alone in pivoting to a different live-scoring provider. Fleck, who hosted Ball State’s annual Earl Yestingsmeier Invitational the following weekend, opted to use BlueGolf, another popular live-scoring engine, after observing the early issues with Spikemark. He was still waiting on other coaches to input their lineups when he messaged Freeman and asked for a refund. Freeman immediately responded, asked for Fleck’s credit card info and within minutes Fleck had his $475 credited back to his card.
Matt Terry, the men’s head coach at Louisiana Tech, texted Freeman about his home event, Sept. 10-12 at Squire Creek in Choudrant, Louisiana, asking if he should proceed with Spikemark or find an alternative. Freeman recommended the latter, so Terry reached out to Golfstat, which despite “downsizing” reopened its live-scoring offering to schools in need.
Kathy Laesch said Golfstat hosted live scoring for over 30 tournaments this past weekend and planned to do more in the weeks ahead.
“We really took a hit,” she said, “but we also have a lot of pride, and that’s why we’re staying in the game right now, because we’re needed … and we haven’t turned anyone down yet.”
One men’s coach, Brian Lane of D-III Transylvania, did manual live scoring, sharing leaderboards on social media for the first two rounds of his Sept. 2-3 Transylvania Fall Invitational before having players text him their scores after nine holes of the final round. He then shared handwritten 45-hole leaderboards before squeezing in a four-holes-to-play update.
“No live scoring available sucks, and I hate it for the parents and our student athletes,” Lane tweeted along with his final wrap. “I have complete confidence it will get fixed quickly nationally because too much is at stake.”
On Sept. 1, as Spikemark was crashing on web browsers across the country and tournament organizers were scrambling, Freeman sent out an email to coaches that said, “Even though we had tested the system rigorously multiple times, as with any new platform and application that deals with user input, once used in the ‘real world,’ weaknesses were quickly exposed. Our development team is working around the clock to repair and address all of these issues.”
The next day, Spikemark’s website and its apps were completely down. Visitors were welcomed by a message that described the site as being “ground under repair as we carry out essential maintenance.” Two days later, Freeman sent out another statement on Twitter, claiming that Spikemark’s website, which uses Amazon Web Services, had experienced a cyber-attack.
“It was a full-on cyber-attack, and it’s caused problems, it’s caused damage,” Freeman told Golf Channel last Thursday. “When live scoring really picked up on that Friday, some funky things started happening. The website started slowing down. The app was acting funny. And then it just basically crashed, and everything stopped. So, you start investigating. … Because it wasn’t functioning, we just shut it down. By Sunday, AWS had explained that we had gotten attacked from some overseas IP addresses and it basically was at such a high level that it just crashed everything, and it did some damage to our code. That’s why we were down and having to go through and address everything and fix everything, and we’re still not there.”
Freeman shared with coaches in another email, this one sent on Sept. 6, that internet bots were spamming Spikemark’s server between 10 and 100 times a millisecond. He also revealed that the scoring app was not communicating with his database properly, causing incorrect scores to show on leaderboards, and that live scoring would be down “at least a week” and not return until it was “error-free.”
“To put it in terms we can all understand, basically we hit it OB off of the first tee, duffed the chip, and followed up with a nice three-putt,” Freeman wrote in that message.
Two days after Freeman’s second email, on Sept. 8, the NCAA emailed its membership the following:
“We want to offer our sincere apology for the challenging start to the fall golf season. While we anticipated some bumps during the transition to Spikemark, the first week of the season has not gone as anyone had expected. Our staff has been in constant communication with Spikemark, and we are confident that you will see noticeable improvements in the coming days. To that end, we expect that Spikemark’s public website will be operational no later than tomorrow.
“While Spikemark’s live scoring is not yet available, we know that their team is working around the clock to restore this functionality within their system. We know there are other live scoring options you may choose to use for your events in the coming weeks. We also understand that this may be an inconvenience and, as such, we have worked with the Spikemark team to ensure that, until their live scoring functionality is restored, we will collectively shoulder the responsibility of entering tournament results into the Spikemark system, rather than relying on tournament hosts to do that manually. As noted in Spikemark’s Sept. 6 communication, we ask that you please email any results from completed tournaments to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will ensure that those are correctly entered into the scoring database for proper inclusion in the Spikemark rankings. Results will be displayed on the website as they become available.
“We share in your frustration and disappointment, and we appreciate your patience and understanding as we work with Spikemark to make this right for the college golf community.”
Meanwhile, tournament results are starting to pile up…
• • •
‘We’ve got to have the right data’
FREEMAN IS HONEST AS he talks over the phone. It’s Sept. 14, two weeks after the start of the season, and Spikemark is still trying to resolve its “functional issues.” As Freeman freely admits, “This whole thing, you know, we rushed it and probably put it out too fast,” but he maintains the remedy won’t be hastily made.
“I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, I don’t leave the house,” Freeman adds. “It’s not healthy, honestly. That’s how concerned and committed I am to making this right. I’m doing everything humanly possible to make sure that this works.”
Since Spikemark flopped in its debut, Freeman and his team – he brought on Marcus El, a widely respected and former Golfstat employee, as a consultant last month; and he’s now hired a second, more golf-savvy development firm – have some work to do to get Spikemark operational. The live scoring still isn’t live again, and Freeman doesn’t have a definite relaunch date. “We’re not going to put it out until it’s ready,” he explains. “I don’t know if that’s later this fall, or January, but it will be well in advance of any championship.” (It’s worth remembering: The NCAA contract only requires a ranking and live scoring for the postseason; regular-season tournaments have always been able to use the live-scoring platform of their choosing.)
The good news is, the website is back up with an upgraded and more secure server, though the not-so-good news is, its noticeably incomplete. Most team pages lack a schedule, clicking on a tournament often displays the previously viewed tournament’s results until the page is refreshed, and hitting the back button sometimes takes visitors completely out of the site. Most of all, Freeman has a backlog of tournaments that still need to be inputted. And with Spikemark’s rankings system reliant on hole-by-hole scores, it’s more difficult a process than just simply asking tournament hosts for their round-by-round scores. The array of live-scoring providers doesn’t help either. Plus, that pileup is only growing as dozens of tournaments at all levels, men and women, are being completed every few days.
(There are other parties reliant on this data, too – World Amateur Golf Ranking, PGA Tour University, the Golf Coaches Association of America, etc., all of which got results sent to them, directly or indirectly, by Golfstat via an automated process.)
Initially, Freeman had been asking tournament hosts to go in and recreate their tournaments and input the scores themselves. But after some pushback – “If he thinks coaches are going to go type in all those scores, he’s crazy,” said one coach – Spikemark has assumed full responsibility with as many as 10 people, per Freeman’s estimate, tasked with loading in tournament results.
“The challenge is our system was built for you to build your tournament as a host, invite teams, set it up, score however you want, but you have to input that data and then we take that data,” Freeman said. “Now, people are using other live scoring and just sending us the data, and the tournament creation process still has to take place.”
Freeman insists, however, that the data that is coming in and going into Spikemark’s database, even if it wasn’t showing correctly on the frontend, is still accurate. That’s important because of the rankings, which are supposed to debut on Oct. 15. That’s the NCAA’s No. 1 priority right now, according to Baldwin.
“Our focus has been around the integrity of the data, the tournament results,” said Baldwin, who added the NCAA and Spikemark are communicating daily, sometimes multiple times a day. “We’ve got to have the right data, the right results, and they have to be accurate so they can feed into a ranking. Based on what they’re telling us, we’ve got confidence that we’ll be able to hit the marks that we need to and that they’ll be able to deliver the product that we expect, and that college golf expects.”
When asked if he’d be able to run the rankings on time, Freeman said, “Absolutely.”
But Freeman also knows he’ll have to earn back the trust of his former coaching peers. There were already critics of Spikemark’s rankings formula. Freeman held a few seminars this summer to explain it all. The gist: Once the initial ranking is established and teams acquire a Spikemark skill number, which is determined through scores and strokes-gained numbers, that information then dictates future strength of fields and teams compete at tournaments for a portion of the total Spikemark skill points available. Think of it like how the PGA Tour doles out FedExCup points, only teams and players receive points based on finish and stroke differential.
Some people contend that points-based rankings have been tried before in college golf and failed. One argument against Spikemark’s method is teams get no credit for beating a team in late October that gets considerably better as the season goes on, whereas Golfstat and Golfweek both kept those connections all season. Even those rankings, though, had their cynics. At past conventions, coaches would stand up and complain about not understanding Golfstat’s rankings, and often they felt like their qualms went unheard.
There is also concern that Spikemark will favor Power 5 schools more than Golfstat. Freeman’s test ranking used scores – though not every tournament, Freeman clarified – from the 2021-22 season, and one coach noticed that Wright State, which won nine times that season, was ranked about 30 spots lower in Spikemark compared to Golfstat. Conversely, Maryland, which struggled that year before finishing third at Big Tens, was ranked considerably higher in Spikemark, though that can be explained by a 20% conference-championship boost that Spikemark initially factored into its ranking but has since taken out after several complaints.
Now, with Spikemark’s launch issues factored in, coaches are skeptical, with a few of them reiterating this premise from one veteran coach: “It’s hard to have trust in a ranking if the other stuff doesn’t work.”
“What if a coach loses their job or misses out on a huge bonus because data is inputted improperly?” Georgia women’s head coach Josh Brewer said. “People’s livelihoods are on the line.”
In response to the lack of confidence in Spikemark’s ability to produce a valid ranking, Freeman was assuring.
“In time,” he said, “everyone will understand that it’s the most comprehensive, widest, deepest college ranking that can be created.”
• • •
‘Give us a chance’
THE BURNING QUESTION IS still how Spikemark, with no real-world experience of running live scoring or producing rankings, managed to procure the NCAA contract.
There is no shortage of rumors, some more outlandish than others. But this isn’t some lucrative business as some have stated, and whispers of shady, backroom dealings are unfounded.
Freeman, acting with good intentions, had an idea to improve the sport, and the NCAA, which had complete jurisdiction over the decision, clearly thought Spikemark would be the best option in the long run. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have awarded it the contract.
Spikemark just was closer to an idea than a proven concept.
The NCAA trusted that Freeman could execute his master plan, and he’s yet to do so.
Freeman certainly didn’t know what he didn’t know. There is a list of details and features that Freeman, admittedly, hadn’t thought of. For example, until July he wasn’t aware that Divisions II and III started using paperless scorecards, a Golfstat creation, during the pandemic.
“This isn’t as easy as people think,” Kathy Laesch said. “Golfstat is time-tested, and time-tested is important.”
Spikemark has been called an “ongoing experiment,” a science-fair project where “the lava has yet to flow out of the volcano,” an example of “trial and error, only without a trial and all errors.” Freeman disagrees with those assessments.
Yes, he was ultimately ill-prepared, and Spikemark never operated in real-time prior to the season starting, but he’s dedicated to addressing its shortcomings. “Our technology hasn’t been 100% perfect,” he says. “We’re working on that, and college golf is going to be better off. It’s been a tough rollout, it’s been bumpy, but it’s going to be OK. ... I’m very comfortable with where we’re moving. We’re in a much better space now than we were a month ago.”
Yes, Freeman has taken on a lot himself, but he’s far from a one-man band. “It hasn’t just been me out there on an island by any means,” he stresses, adding that Spikemark, now that it officially has the NCAA contract, has capabilities to ramp up manpower as needed.
Freeman argues that some of the backlash is coming from people resistant to change – the same people who tell Golf Channel that “Golfstat was good enough” – and he’s asking for more time. “I just want people to give us a chance,” Freeman said, “and we’re going to make it right. … I’m not saying what we had was bad, but I think we deserve something more.”
There are some coaches already wondering if the NCAA could – and should – renege on its deal with Spikemark, or at least press pause and use Golfstat in the interim while Spikemark sorts itself out. Golfstat has said it’s ready for anything, though others argue it’s not as simple as Golfstat turning back on all the lights. “They fired everybody,” one person said.
“Spikemark is here to stay,” Tereshko said, “and if it’s here to stay, I think everyone wants it to work.”
Said GCAA CEO Gregg Grost, Freeman’s college coach at Oklahoma: “We are obviously concerned for the benefit of our members about how quickly Spikemark can get up to speed so that it doesn’t affect anything this year in terms of the rankings, etc. ... This is all unfortunate, but they’ll get it right. I know they’ll get it right.”
And Baldwin: “We absolutely know that there is trust that needs to be regained – or earned in the first place, in some cases. We have confidence in what they’re doing. … Spikemark is working on solutions, and hopefully, we’ll be able to show some of that here shortly.”
Golf Channel has learned that there will be some sort of update on Spikemark’s progress by the end of this week. What that is exactly is unknown.
Has Freeman made significant headway? Or is Spikemark still a ways away?
And is college golf actually in jeopardy? That depends on who you talk to.
In the meantime, there are still birdies to be made, even if it’s hard to keep track of who’s making them.