An Open Letter to the USGA and R&A: New green-reading restrictions are a misguided mistake
Dear USGA and R&A,
We need to talk.
This is where you’ve decided to put your foot down? Restricting green-reading materials?
Because it feels like there’s an elephant on the tee box that no one’s addressing — looking at you, 350-yard drives — and you guys are waving your hands and jumping up and down saying: “Look over here, look over here! Here’s the problem! Look at how easy putting has become!” Sorry, but if we get a calm day at St. Andrews in a couple of years and someone shoots 59 on the Old Course, it’s not gonna be because of a series of little arrows in a book.
So, why the proposed amendment, which among other restrictions would ban the use of green-mapping indicators (arrows, numbers, etc.) on areas of greens that have less than 4 percent of slope?
Sure, these books are a tool that can help golfers play better, much like a yardage book or handwritten notes (which we’ll get to later). But they don’t make a stroke for you or tell you how hard to hit the putt or if there’s moisture in the greens or if the surfaces are slightly firmer than the day before, nor do they smooth out that little twitch from the extra cup of coffee before the round or the fourth beer from the night before.
Your own statement says that the new rule is meant to reaffirm “the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgement, skill, and ability.” I would agree there is a skill to reading greens, with all their idiosyncrasies and imperceptible slopes. But there is also a skill to properly employing greens books — yes, it’s a different kind of skill than, say, hitting a flop shot or a bump-and-run, but it’s a skill nonetheless.
Deciphering the green maps takes work and diligence, in a short amount of time; it’s not as simple as mindlessly plugging numbers from the hole-location sheet into a graph. Used incorrectly, these books can twist you into knots; I guarantee you that as many putts are missed by misreading greens books as are made by reading them correctly. Misplace the hole location or the location of your ball by a foot, and you’re going to miss, plain and simple.
And, man, do your proposed restrictions come riddled with potential headaches and gray areas.
Let’s begin with handwritten notes, some of which would continue to be permitted under your proposed rule, but not all. Who is going to be able to figure this out? We can still jot down notes, including arrows, but not to delineate a slope of less than 4%? Guess what? This data will still exist. Caddies and players will still gather and record it, in one way or another. They’ll use it during practice rounds and in preparation, and surely many would still reference it during tournament rounds. The data may not come from a mass-produced greens book available to all, but it still will be out there. The cat is out of the bag for this generation of players. Asking them to use less information after being allowed to use more is a giant step backward.
I try to do a good job for my player, and I get paid well for that service. For the life of me, I can’t understand why, if I am willing and wanting to map greens on my own — through hours of tedious work — that I should not be permitted to use that information. Why am I allowed to compute exactly how many yards a certain shot plays uphill, or what the carry is over a bunker, and make a note of it, but not how much a putt might break? Is there any difference?
We caddies thrive on trying to gain a competitive advantage over our counterparts. If you restrict greens books, hard-working loopers like Mark Fulcher (Justin Rose), John McLaren (Paul Casey), Michael Greller (Jordan Spieth) and Joe Skovron (Rickie Fowler), among dozens of others, will still be better caddies than most, but by not allowing them to track certain information — no matter how they come about it — you’ll be leveling the playing field and removing a huge incentive for caddies to strive to be better.
As for enforcement? What are rules officials to do? See a guy making putts all day and ask him to turn in both his caddie’s yardage book and his own for inspection? Then what? “We have determined you used illegal information to make that putt on 12, so it’s a two-shot penalty. We also think you used illegal information on 13. But because you three-putted, no foul there.”
Will officials grow suspicious if they see a caddie or player merely glance at his yardage book on a putting green? (Will other players?) How will an official determine if a handwritten arrow in a yardage book was put there through diligence and research, or copied from a previous year’s greens book? It’s an impossible situation for them. How will they know if, say, 4% in a player’s book really means 1%, or if 5% means 2%. Perhaps that “C” actually means 3%, or “Charlie’s Fun Time Circus Show” is code for 2.7357%.
My biggest question is this: Has putting improved because of greens-book usage? Has rolling in 15-footers become so easy as to make that skill less relevant to being successful on Tour? Not a chance. Leading the Tour this year in Strokes Gained: Putting is Jason Day, at a whopping +1.193 strokes per round. Jason does not use a greens book.
The final word goes to Mark Broadie, the pro game’s preeminent statistician, who recently offered this opinion: “Even if there were small [improvements] in putting, with the current data it would be impossible to attribute changes to a player’s putting skill, green-reading books, or green conditions.”
It’s not too late to rethink this proposal, USGA & R&A.
This is one rule that doesn’t need fixing.
John Wood is Matt Kuchar’s caddie. You can read more of his takes in our weekly Tour Confidential roundtable.