Are Rangefinders Worth It?

By: Blaine Newnham

I got a call from the guy who thought we’d someday all wear soft spikes on our golf shoes instead of those clanging, traditional metal ones. What a concept.

“Blaine,” asked Rob O’Laughlin, the president of Laser Link, “who will willingly turn their back on information that is quick and accurate for information that is slow and inaccurate?”

I’m losing the war. I’m slightly pregnant. I wish they’d never had stuck small trees in at 150 yards, let alone put yardage distances on sprinkler heads or hung them from the windshield of a golf cart, along with an ad for food at the turn.

I wish there weren’t golf carts.

O’Laughlin, a Madison, Wisc., entrepreneur, took over the soft spikes business when few others thought it would work. He’s waited for the next “can’t miss” golf scheme and likely has it in his simple, point-to-the-pin QuickShot laser gun.

For a test, he sent me one, and the nine reflectors to adorn the front nine of the small club where I belong.

You know, they work. You push a button to activate the laser, line up its red dot with the pin and, just like that, you get the distance. That simple. Half the time, however, I forget to use it. Or I’m over a hill with a blind shot to the green. Or think I have a feel for the shot no matter its distance.

The guys at my club like the gun, especially those who hit it to places in the rough where the traditional 150-yard marker gives little clue to just how far the shot might be. Others are surprised how important pin locations are and how much distance there is between a front and back pin, like 20 yards.

They like getting to know exactly how far they hit a certain club. If, in fact, they hit the club the same distance every time any way. Actually, I had hoped that the golf committee at our club might make me proud, and say “no way” to rangefinders on our course.

The United States Golf Association and the R&A – the Royal and Ancient now suddenly concerned about the modern and the technical – have officially left the decision up to us on whether we want to use rangefinders to measure distances on the golf course.

And, of course, we went along, like sheep here in Seattle, following the lead of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association and the Washington State Golf Association, both of which said it was okay if we wanted to invoke a local rule allowing rangefinders for tournaments and everyday play, much like we have a local rule that allows cleaning and placing balls in the winter.

“About half the regions in the country are allowing rangefinders for their tournaments, about half aren't,” said John Bodenhammer, the executive director of the PNGA. “I'm a traditionalist; I don't even like carts. But in this case, there doesn't seem to be much downside to using them. I don't see much difference between rangefinders and a good caddie or a yardage book.”

David Fay, the executive director of the USGA, endorses the rangefinder saying, sure, he'd want the same information Steve Williams is giving Tiger Woods.

So they are legal. Well, sort of. They won’t be used in the U.S. Open. In the NCAA, the men use them but the women don’t. In our area, seniors will but juniors won’t. And while it is legal to measure distance as long as your local rule says it is, it is not legal to measure changes in elevation even though the more sophisticated devices do just that.

There are a number of different types of rangefinders. The Laser Link system gives you only the measurement to the pin, providing it has a prism screwed in the top of the flag pole to receive the laser signal. Another system by binocular makers Bushnell and Nikon measures distance to anything the laser can find, like the front of a bunker or a tree behind the green. A third option, the computer-controlled SkyCaddie, works off a GPS system and has pre-programmed distances stored in it. It looks more like a mobile telephone and costs $350.

The Laser Link gun at $250 is less than the others, although the investment in screwing the prisms to the tops of flags is about $1,000 for 18 holes. The Laser Link gun tends to be simpler, quicker and more accurate, but much more limited. And without the prisms, it doesn’t work. So you can’t normally take it with you.

O’Laughlin, obviously, has gone after private clubs and has nearly 1,000 signed up around the nation. He sought and got the support from both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He has his prisms atop flag sticks at clubs like Cherry Hills and Oakland Hills. Here in Seattle he has 50-60 members of the historic Seattle Golf Club using them.

“Our members know where the hazards are,” said Seattle’s pro, Doug Doxsie. “They are looking for the distance to the pin. They aren’t taking the extra 30 steps to walk off yardage from a sprinkler head. They don’t even have to leave the bag. For us, it has definitely speeded up play.”

Doxsie doesn’t understand the fuss. “If it is in the rules and helps people enjoy the game, there is no reason not to do it. I remember when the little trees at 150 yards were controversial.”

So, now besides a $300 driver, we can buy a $300 rangefinder to add onto the information we get from 150-yard markers, distances on sprinkler heads sprinkled throughout the course and maps supplied by Global Positioning Systems.

What a game.

I've read that if golf doesn't embrace technology it will be cast aside by a younger generation armed with mobile phones and Palm Pilots.

Isn't golf the place where, ideally, we get away from those things? A sanctuary safe from electronics, a quiet, the way-it-used-to-be place?

In my opinion, we're already too far gone watching golf on television to quit lining up putts from every imaginable angle. Now we're going to care whether it is 68 yards to the pin, instead of the 70 you could easily estimate by looking at the 100-yard stake.

We're going to care as much as Davis Love III does, even though we might be fortunate just to get the ball on the green. Anywhere on the green.

I mean, distance is just one factor. The rangefinders, right now anyway, aren't allowed to correct distances for changes in elevation, and yet they do.

“Rangefinders are now USGA-approved,” said an advertisement in the Golfsmith catalogue for the Bushnell PinSeeker, which, at $449, will not only measure the distance but adjusts it for an elevation change. The ad barely mentions that the rangefinder is USGA-approved only in the “non-slope” mode.

Hey, man, you got that thing in the non-slope mode or not?

So while there is no stopping the advance of the rangefinder, we can still wonder whether the average golfer needs it. Hitting a shot the precise yardage is only one factor. You must consider elevation and wind, but also temperature and time of year, and what kind of ball you're playing. And whether, frankly, you'll hit the shot baked, or half-baked. How many of us know?

Is the rangefinder vital, or just another toy and an excuse to spend money – and time – on something besides lessons and practice?

O’Laughlin thinks there will be a market for all the various rangefinders, just as there is for various hybrid clubs.

But I wonder when we will remember what we like about the game, the search for a better swing without really ever finding it in a place that is sublimely quiet and rid of the rest of the world?

I know, I know. I swing a big-headed driver and wear soft spikes. Sure, I do.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together – Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens – before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine continues to write a weekly column for the Seattle Times while playing golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association’s Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.