Ban green-reading materials? One golf innovator says it would hurt amateurs

May 4, 2017

Jim Stracka runs a successful business for golf facilities and superintendents, pro golfers and amateur players. He lives in southern California and oversees a staff of 10 full-time workers.

Stracka, 58, is the CEO of StrackaLine, a USGA-approved technology that uses 3D lasers to create custom maps of greens from around the world. On his company’s app, users can call up putting surfaces at hundreds of courses for a close look at every fall line, hump, bump and subtle undulation. It takes the guesswork out of the read. Drop a point on the green to place the pin, pick the spot where your ball lies, and the app will plot out exactly how the resulting putt will break.

StrackaLine, which Stracka started in 2007, is used by more than 40 PGA Tour pros and 200 college golf teams, plus hundreds of golf facilities and 10,000 recreational golfers. This year he introduced the technology to the PGA Tour. The majority of his business comes from golf courses that use the program for its hole-location software, which helps them plan their daily pins.

But on Monday, when Stracka read that the USGA and R&A will review green-reading materials, his stomach dropped.

“It was like, where on Earth did this come from?” Stracka said.

Might the USGA and R&A ban detailed books on putting surfaces, like StrackaLine? asked the USGA if StrackaLine’s service would potentially be outlawed. The USGA referred to its press release.

“We are simply committing to studying the issue further, and no decisions or changes have been made,” said Janeen Driscoll, the USGA’s PR director. “We felt it important to be transparent in our interest to review the topic broadly and globally.”

To Stracka, banning greens maps is a step in the wrong direction for the sport, which he says should be making the game easier for its amateur players—not more difficult.

To date, StrackaLine has lasered greens at more than 500 courses, collecting millions of data points. Most relevant to the Tour: these detailed maps can be printed and dropped into a golfer’s back pocket, which is exactly what dozens of card-carrying pros currently do. Stracka says Zurich Classic co-winner Jonas Blixt is a user, and several pros subscribe to the “Elite” membership service, where they get a fresh book delivered each morning with the day’s pin locations. Paul Casey, Keegan Bradley, Hudson Swafford, Graeme McDowell, Charles Howell III and Jhonattan Vegas are among those with “Elite” status.

Vegas is a loyal subscriber, but he says the golfers still have to hit the shots.

“If it was that helpful, everyone would be using it and everyone would be a better golfer,” Vegas said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes [the USGA and R&A] get in the way of making the game more fun and getting more people to play. It doesn’t affect the game at all.”

As for pace of play, Stracka insists StrackaLine speeds up golfers, not slows them down. He says that by the time players arrive at the greens they are already familiar with them and play quicker.

During his Wednesday press conference prior to this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, Adam Scott said he thinks the books should be banned, but added that they are only a “small” factor to slow play. (Scott, according to Stracka, is using one of his books this week.) Lucas Glover was in the same camp, saying “I don’t know that pace is the issue with those things.”

On March 1, the USGA and R&A announced a series of proposed rule changes for 2019, and green-reading books weren’t on the list. But Ian Poulter still took to social media to rail against them. He said it hurts pace of play, and that “the art of putting has been lost.” And after Monday’s joint announcement, Luke Donald tweeted to applaud the idea, echoing some of Poulter’s thoughts.

“Some of the older guys think, ‘We already understand these greens. We don’t need greens guides,’ and all they see is people using books and it’s a perception that they are actually playing slower,” Stracka said. He believes golf should have a shot clock and allow players to do whatever they want before they play their ball, as long as it’s done inside the time allotted. “My opinion on slow play is slow players are slow and fast players are fast. It doesn’t really matter what type of technology they have.”

StrackaLine’s service raises another issue that’s been kicked around for years: Does golf need two separate rule books? asked 50 Tour pros that question during its annual anonymous survey in February, and 62% said the Tour should have separate rules from amateurs.

“The pros, obviously, they are the ones we see every week, but I have had a 30-handicap, 60-year-old lady tell me, ‘This changed my life.’ You take five shots off her round, and that makes a difference,” Stracka said. “The PGA Tour is not our primary market. The golf industry has to do more things to help us bogey golfers.”