Golf is Slow, So Let’s Give Them… Rangefinders?
The PGA of America announced yesterday that “distance-measuring devices” will be permitted during play across its tournament schedule this year, which includes three major championships. That means players in the PGA Championship, the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will have free reign to fire up their laser rangefinders to gauge exact yardages to pins; a technological advantage never before allowed in professional events sanctioned by the major tours.
In traditional professional tournaments, players and caddies are left to decidedly more rudimentary devices—namely, counting paces from yardage-marked sprinkler heads, quick trigonometry, or just some fingers-crossed guessing work—to determine how far they are from their intended targets. The new technology admittance jeopardizes the player-caddie relationship by removing a significant skill set of professional caddies: the ability to calculate the near-exact distance to any target the player points to, on the fly. Anyone can pick up a rangefinder and zap distances to the pin, the bunker on the right, that tree branch over there. But calculating all of those distances with nothing more than a yardage book and a quick wit is one skill that separates good caddies from great ones.
In a release, PGA of America president, Jim Richerson cited pace of play as the lightning rod for enacting this rules change.
“We’re always interested in methods that may help improve the flow of play during our championships,” said Richerson. “The use of distance-measuring devices is already common within the game is now part of the Rules of Golf. Players and caddies have long used them during practice rounds to gather relevant yardages.”
Pace of play is a genuine issue in professional golf. But chucking rangefinders at the players completely undermines the problem, particularly when players are already granted a full minute to hit their next shot without being looked at by the rules officials, much less receiving a penalty. Slow players will always find ways to stay slow and use all the time they’re allotted. It’d be like if your kid was taking too long to wake up in the morning so you gave them a digital alarm clock. The little punk is still going to smash that snooze button to a million pieces and continue to piss you off.
In reality, the work for players and caddies only just starts once they have the yardage to the pin. The rangefinders that players are now permitted to use do not calculate elevation, the slope, wind direction and speed, or provide analysis of the ball’s lie. They don’t factor the course’s conditions, or the undulations of the green that will affect how the ball will travel once it lands. Players and caddies work together on innumerable calculations to determine what yardage the shot is “playing” relative to the raw distance. Grabbing the first number to work from takes little more than a sharp caddie and an accurate yardage book.
Further, professionals at the highest level of competition deserve to be challenged, and this technology allowance is a head-scratching relief of duty that only obscures the problem of pace of play. If a player hits a poor tee shot, sending them into an adjacent fairway, they should be punished with needing to calculate the right yardages for their recovery shot; not given a free pass to beat the ball all over the place, knowing they’ll have just as much distance information as their competitor who hit a perfect drive. Players should be challenged even more so in major championships, supposedly the game’s toughest tests and the bellwether for the best players in the world. Test the theory at the Puntacana Championship, fine, but let’s wait to roll this type of rule change out at the major championships once we’re sure it accomplishes what it's meant to.
Whether allowing rangefinders in professional tournaments will actually speed up golf—an issue in the sport at every level, but one that plagues the big leagues in particular—is something that literally only time will tell. But if pace of play is truly the main concern of the PGA, the decision to allow rangefinders seems like a red herring—or, at least a misguided attempt at solving the problem at hand. If we want players to hustle, let’s instead be more stringent on penalizing the slow players. Don’t just give them a shiny new toy and tell us it's curbed the issue.