Golf Takes Step Back with High-Tech Distance-Measuring Devices

By: Jeff Shelley

Golf has been losing players for well over the past decade because it costs too much, takes too much time and is too hard to master. Now, another hurdle has been added to the list: It's gotten more technical with the advent of distance-measuring devices and their widespread use.

Despite various initiatives that it's introduced to increase interest and draw former and new players to the game, the USGA implemented a "local rule" for 2014 allowing distance-measuring devices (hereafter called DMDs) in all of its championships, excluding the three U.S. Opens for men, women and seniors.

The Royal & Ancient followed suit by sanctioning DMDs in its 2014 tournaments, save for events involving professionals. Wisely, all the professional tours still don't allow such aids. That's because there's a lot of money at stake and the temptation for misuse (read: cheating) is perceived to be high.

I have an issue with these organizations allowing DMDs in top-level amateur competitions, primarily because the utilization of such high-end, and costly, equipment by elite players encourages Joe Golfer to do the same, and that the devices have become an accepted part of the game.

This me-too phenomenon first came to the fore when television viewers began observing big-name pros dilly-dallying over shots, checking yardage books, consulting with caddies, testing the wind, flicking off detritus near their ball, pacing off distances ad infinitum, plumb-bobbing from fairways and greens, taking myriad practice swings, nervously twitching the club as part of a protracted pre-shot routine, etc., etc., etc.

The result was thousands of Tour-wannabes and never-will-bes on public and private golf courses around the U.S. doing the same, thinking that that's the way the game must be played to achieve success. Instead of completing a round in four hours or less, five-plus-hours became the standard as flow screamed to a halt amid all this suddenly crucial pre-shot prep.

Even if they ended up with their usual total of 100 or more strokes for 18 holes, Joe Golfer thinks, "By God, I need to do this before every single swing because the pros do it. I paid my green fee and can do it too."

You can't tell me a 30-plus handicap - or, for that matter, a 15 or 10 - needs a DMD, just as he or she needn't follow an involved procedure before pulling the trigger. They, like me, are simply not skilled enough to adjust their swings and select an appropriate club that makes the difference between a 170- and 175-yard shot.

I belong to a club where many high- and mid-handicappers pull out their DMDs - which now come in all shapes, technologies, sizes and price points (it's no coincidence that many smart phones - which have spawned a national addiction - now have distance-measuring apps). It's agonizing watching an obviously unskilled player - who seems to have no sense whatsoever of his or her ability, nor enduring familiarity with a course they play two or three times a week - withdraw their device from its custom case, carefully point it at the flag from 200 yards out, take several practice swings, do the pre-shot drill, etc., when they have a snowball's chance in hell of coming close to the green, let alone the flag stick.

I certainly don't mean to kill one's fun or offend anyone, certainly not my mates - I'm just observing. But it sometimes looks like some people still harbor hopes of making it onto a major tour. Or, is all this yardage-fussing because the club made radical overnight changes that totally altered their golf course? I don't think so, in both cases.

I regularly play with some buddies who are fairly adept golfers but have grown reliant on their DMDs. Our four par-3s range in length from 140 to 200 yards. Built in 1927, our course has small tee areas with only two blocks for men and one for women (we're adding a new set of "gold" - forward - tees).

I've been a member of the club for over 20 years, and can recite what the very slight distance variances are on these holes. So it's common that when my friends check their DMD and, just before reporting a yardage, I ask, "What is it - 162?" I'm usually within three yards and often have their tech-measured length right on the number.

What's lacking with DMDs is that, while they give you the accurate distance (that's another problem since the devices can get out of calibration) they don't factor in wind velocity and direction, humidity, air temperature and other ever-changing, natural factors. Golf's ruling bodies have opined that electronic sources providing that kind of information - which is more important than yardage - during any competition is illegal.

Even though the vast majority of courses have gone to the expense of offering laser-measured markers on sprinkler heads; shiny blue, white and red buttons on cart paths denoting 200, 150 and 100 yards; embedded plastic pie plates showing those yardages; and assorted other visual aids to help golfers negotiate their fairways, such helpful signposts have been deemed obsolete.

Apparently, another contrivance was needed to further remove golf from its essence as a "feel" sport. Even worse, the clinical nature of these devices nullifies one of the game's key endearing traits - mystery.

In the pre-tech era we simply eyeballed distances, went with our gut, picked a club and fired away. But DMDs, yardage books, GPS in carts, aerial Web fly-overs and other "tools" have essentially removed age-old questions such as: "How close is the bunker to the green?" "Can I bounce this ball in or do I have to carry the green on the fly?" "What's over the hill?" and golf's many other inscrutable conundrums that will exist despite technological advances.

I have no idea how much the use of DMDs has helped grow golf. But I do have a sense for what they've done to the bottom lines of the companies selling them.

Jeff Shelley is the editorial director of Cybergolf.