2006: Divided we stand

If a presidential race were this close, they’d have to settle it in Congress

– or at the Supreme Court again.

With the U.S. Golf Association now leaving the decision regarding the use of distance measuring devices (DMDs) in local hands, state and regional golf associations are coming out on both sides of the issue with equally convincing fervor and logic.

The decision on allowing golf cart-borne GPS units and various hand-held distance devices in association golf championships is deadlocked.

A poll of the country’s major golf associations shows the country is evenly split (see map). A red state/blue state dichotomy can’t account for this impasse. Nor does the split line up readily with some sort of basic difference between those who embrace technology and those who don’t. It’s more a product of local evaluation, with associations divided on whether rangefinders will expedite pace of play and promote competition or whether they will do the opposite and needlessly encourage golfers to spend money on yet another piece of technology.

The Ohio Golf Association, normally a maverick (as evidenced by its recent decision to require use of a single tournament ball in its Ohio Champions Tournament), has sided with those who view distance devices as a boon to play, and is allowing them in all competitions this year.

Jim Popa, executive director of the OGA, said the rangefinder decision had “nothing to do with the ball issue; it’s based on personal experience by those who have used some of these in play.”

He went on to specify that with GPS technology in carts and the Laser Link system with reflector devices atop flagsticks, “pace of play was increased markedly.”

Popa was quick to add that the OGA decision had “no commercial links involved and no sponsorship money” and that use of the devices is “up to individual competitors. If there’s a downside, not everyone can afford it.”

Buford McCarty, executive director of the Alabama Golf Association and executive secretary of the Southern Golf Association, said he’s “not convinced the (devices) will speed up play” and is comfortable with the decision of his two groups not to allow their use.

McCarty recently attended a college event that allowed the devices and that helped reinforce his associations’ decision.

“The argument about these devices helping pace of play was debunked in that rounds still were taking a little under six hours,” he said.

“We witnessed on more than one occasion players sighting distance and then walking off yardage from a fixed marker. On a couple of instances, after all this, we saw players then walk the distance from where their ball was to the green and back.”

Les Brown, tournament director of the Florida State Golf Association, which is not allowing rangefinders, said use of the distance devices has “no impact on overall pace of play.”

During a trial run at the FSGA’s winter series, Brown said, “There were no significant differences in pace” where both hand-held and cart-borne units were used.

Nor did he see any difference in overall pace of play at three college events where the devices were used. Brown did note subtle differences that might have ramifications down the road.

“There was an increase in speed for the guy who hit it in the woods,” Brown said. “But there was a decrease in speed for the guy who hit in the center of the fairway and checked out his yardages multiple ways.”

Some golf associations that are allowing rangefinders are doing so under restrictive conditions, in some cases as an experiment to judge the impact on play. In other cases, the exception is not including junior events.

“Our board did not want to encourage juniors or their parents to feel it necessary to purchase additional expensive equipment in order to stay ‘competitive,’ ” said Thomas Pagel, assistant director of rules and competitions for the Colorado Golf Association.

When it comes to allowing the use of the devices, “there are concerns about money,” says golf administrator Mark Peterson. “But golfers have always had the option of spending as much or as little as they’ve wanted.”

Actually, Peterson has bigger headaches than the cost of rangefinders. He’s in the unique position of presiding over two associations that have opposing views on their local use.

Peterson is executive director of the Golf Association of Philadelphia, which is allowing rangefinders. He also is executive director of the Pennsylvania Golf Association, which is against their use – for now, anyway. “Two different boards, two different decisions,” he said.

According to Peterson, members of the golf administration committee that runs GAP events have used the devices and were less concerned with how competitors got their distance than with playing shots and course etiquette. The statewide golf association, by contrast, took “a wait-and-see” approach.

There’s even a gender gap on the issue.

The Women’s Golf Association of Philadelphia has chosen not to allow rangefinders, in contrast to their counterparts at GAP.

“We’re letting them be the guinea pigs,” said Charlotte Barnhard, executive director of WGAP.

One key factor that might have tipped the balance of judgment with many state and regional associations against rangefinder use is the USGA’s decision to ban them in USGA championships and in all local qualifiers for those events. With local associations responsible for running those qualifying events, it seemed sensible to conduct championships under the same rules.

“It was a factor,” said Ed Gowan, executive director of the Arizona Golf Association, which has opted not to allow distance devices.

Not that any one issue is decisive in this debate. Administrators appear to be divided, if not torn on the issue, in part based upon their experiences with golfers.

Randy Reed is director of rules and competitions for the Maryland State Golf Association, secretary of the Middle Atlantic Golf Association and executive director of the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Golf Association – none of which are allowing rangefinders.

“In my 20 years of involvement in the golf association business,” said Reed, “not one person has ever asked me: ‘When are the golf associations going to legalize rangefinders?’ ”

The pressure, he concludes, is coming from industry leaders, not golfers.

Bill Dickens, executive director of the Iowa Golf Association, which is allowing measuring devices, has another take. His board accepted them, he said, because “there was more a feeling of inevitability. Is there any competitive player anymore who doesn’t know the distance of the shot at hand? Does it really matter that much how he obtains his information?”

There’s also the promise of a gain.

“If the devices help speed up play then that’s a bonus,” Dickens said. “We’ll monitor closely

to see if that happens.”

Rarely has the golf world been so fundamentally split. It’s unusual in golf to see such a significant rules-oriented decision being made on the basis of so little empirical information. One thing is clear: Associations are being open-minded about the issue and say they will monitor progress and adjust their policies as needed.

Because they realize the consequences for tournament play could be far-ranging.

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