The R&A approved range finders in amateur events, so what is USGA waiting for? Plus the Van Cynical Mailbag

January 28, 2014

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The irony would be delicious if only it weren’t so annoying.

It’s been eight years since the USGA and R&A, golf’s self-appointed governing bodies, decided that distance-measuring devices or DMDs (rangefinders, GPS models) could be approved for use in golf competitions by an optional local rule.

Monday, the R&A announced that DMDs (not to be confused with WMDs) will be allowed in all R&A amateur competitions in 2014, including the British Amateur Championship. The DMDs will not be allowed at the Open Championship at Hoylake or for any Open qualifying events.

Here’s a message for the USGA, which has not responded to the R&A’s surprising announcement: While we’re young!

It’s ironic that while the USGA made pace-of-play awareness a priority last year, it has heavy-handedly slow-played DMDs even though they speed up play. It’s doubly ironic that the R&A made the first move on rangefinders because R&A head Peter Dawson and friends were the raging traditionalists who were so dead set against rangefinders, according to my sources in the DMD industry. The biggest objection by traditionalists has been that they don’t like the look of a player peering through a measuring device to get a yardage.

So now the R&A has carefully placed one foot in the 21st century. Its announcement signals surrender to the forces of golf. All serious players and their caddies use DMDs in practice rounds to scout courses. I don’t know one serious player, or any recreational players for that matter, who opposes the use of rangefinders and GPS. The devices provide yardages faster than pacing off steps to a distance marker (when one is visible) and they are accurate. They’re also — shhh! — fun. Plus, any golfer who’s played for years can tell stories about woefully inaccurate yardage markers on golf courses.

Faster, better yardages? What’s not to like? The National University Golf Academy, based in California, released a study last month on the effect of rangefinders on the pace of play for mid- to high-handicap golfers. Players played one round at San Diego’s Santaluz Club without DMDs, then a second round using a Bushnell laser rangefinder.

The players with handicaps in the 6 to 13 range played in 4 hours 15 minutes using the Bushnell, nearly 30 minutes faster. The players in the 14-18 handicap range played in 4 hours 16 minutes with lasers, picking up 17 minutes. It’s interesting that the higher handicappers apparently played 12 minutes faster than the lower handicappers in the first round. Maybe because they had more shots where they didn’t need or care what the yardage was?

It was not highly scientific, granted, but it was something. Some critics might suggest that, of course they played faster with the DMD. Bushnell, a laser-rangefinder maker, was paying for the test. True. But do you see the USGA or R&A conducting studies on this topic if it’s so important? Bushnell did what the USGA should have done. It was an informative exercise.

Will allowing DMDs speed up play in competitions? There is no guarantee. Players can find many other ways to play slowly, particularly on the greens. It’s not debatable that DMDs provide yardages faster. At best, play may move a little better. At worst, it can’t hurt.

The pressure falls now on the USGA, while they’re young. Clearly, the attitudes of the masses (at least those who aren’t already deserting the game) is registering with the governing bodies. The R&A’s about-face was one sign. The USGA’s pace-of-play campaign was another. It was during the press conference to kick off the pace-of-play initiatives that I raised my hand and asked if the USGA might therefore reconsider allowing DMDs in competition, especially in light of the emphasis on pace of play in USGA competitions (and a complete lack of marshaling to enforce it) and on poorly marked courses. I got a one-word answer that caused me to nearly fall out of my chair: “Yes.”

Well, that was the middle of last summer. The R&A has reconsidered. Now the ball is in the USGA’s court. I first heard about the R&A’s surprising move while I was on the PGA Merchandise Show floor Friday in Orlando at the Orange County Convention Center. One DMD official I know told me he’d had a conversation with a high-ranking R&A official who had told him the R&A was going to announce the move in February. The DMD official was pleased and asked the R&A man what the USGA’s reaction had been. The R&A man answered, We haven’t told them yet.

The USGA was informed Monday, like the rest of the world. Can you imagine DMDs being used in the British Amateur Championship but not the U.S. Amateur? I don’t think the USGA will let that happen. But I’m not expecting a hasty decision here. It’s been eight years since the USGA said DMDs could be approved for use in competition under a local rule, and then declined to invoke that local rule in any of its competition.

Eight years. We’re way past the “While We’re Young” point, USGA. On this issue, We’re getting closer to, “Hello, Is Anyone There?”

Well, is there?

On to the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Sickle, How do you know a shot is "thinned" when it ends up 15 feet past the pin?
— John (Thin Man) Kim via Twitter

The first clue is that on contact, it sounds like a cat falling on laptop instead of a clean, crisp click. The second is that the wedge shot has the trajectory of a 2-iron into the wind. The third clue is the past history of the golfer swinging the club. Odds are the shot is going to be thin or fat. Why do you ask, Skinny?

Van Cynical, After the disaster at Torrey Pines, is it over for you-know-who?
— Sanjay Iver via Twitter

No. I think Gary Woodland still has a bright future.

Gary, Since the GWAA password has changed does that mean Sergio wins a major this year?
— John Dell via Twitter

John, we are talking about Sergio Garcia here, right? The Sergio? The guy who wore an all-yellow outfit in the final round at Hoylake and a tabloid headline the next day read, “Sergio, you’ll never be top banana.” That Sergio? On the other hand, nobody’s won a major with a claw grip yet. The R&A would have to immediately ban that, too. Doesn’t look proper, old boy.

Sickle, Do you think the caddie race ban at Phoenix will last or will a player tell caddie he'll pay fine, opening flood gates 4 all?
— Douglas Schwimer via Twitter

The ban will last. Snipers will see to it. Besides, I’m looking forward to the Caddie Cat Juggling Challenge, aren’t you?

Vans, the best game-improvement innovations?
— Lapidary Golf via Twitter

You mean all-time or just this year? For 2014, it’s too early to call. Lots of great-looking new stuff from the Big Five (Callaway, Nike, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist) that seem to play pretty well but I don’t know if anything belongs in the revolutionary category. In putters, you’ve got the Radius Roll and The Cure Rx2, which stand out for innovation. All-time, it was obviously the metal wood that changed the game forever. Steel shafts and sand wedges would be right up there, too.

Van Sickle, What happened to Anthony Kim? You can barely find any news on him. Is he planning on playing in 2014?
— Ben Hietanen via Twitter

Since I can’t answer your question, and neither can anyone else that I asked, that tells me SI should do a story on Anthony. Yeah, what did happen to AK? Since his Achilles surgery over a year ago, there is nothing to report.

Van Cynical, Have the LPGA and Champions Tour ever played the same golf course, different years? If so, what were the winning scores and yardage?
— Mike via Twitter

The ladies compete against the seniors and PGA Tour players annually in the Wendy’s Three-Tour Challenge at Rio Secco in the Las Vegas area. The seniors play from shorter tees than the PGA Tour players and the women play from shorter tees than the seniors. Stacy Lewis led the LPGA squad to victory last fall. As far as I can tell, the ladies haven’t played the same course from the same tees as the seniors.

Sickle, What's your take on Graham DeLaet?
— Greg Marshal via Twitter

He crushes the ball. Which I like. Looks like he needs to slightly improve his bunker play and his putting. He is one of the Tour’s better ball strikers but at the highest level, it’s all about getting the ball in the hole. His stats say he needs to get his bunker shots a little closer to the hole and he needs to three-putt a little less off but seriously, he’s finished seventh, sixth and second in his last three starts. What’s not to like? That’s over $900K. He is very, very solid. It wouldn’t take much to make him a top-10 player in the world. And yes, I’m including the Maritime provinces.