2006: Going the distance (rangefinders)

Using a distance measuring device can be a frustrating experience. After a golfer learns the characteristics and eccentricities of any DMD, however, the measurement process becomes less mysterious.

It may not be easy, but it is straightforward.

Hand-held laser rangefinders are like guns. They are aimed at targets (flagsticks). They shoot laser beams that bounce off these targets and provide yardage readings. Imagine aiming a gun at a flagstick that has a diameter of roughly a half-inch. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss.

Mother Nature can be the fiercest opponent of these distance calculators. If the wind is blowing, the flagstick might provide a moving target. Furthermore, the golfer might have a hard time steadying his body.

Here is a detailed look at the rangefinder landscape, followed by some helpful hints on using the devices:

The easiest devices to understand are the large screens, installed on golf carts that display global positioning satellite information. These GPS systems generally provide yardages to the flagstick, to the front and back of the green, to the landing area and to many hazards.

But there can be drawbacks. Distance to the flagstick, for example, can be inaccurate. This is because the distance on the screen is not really measured to the flagstick. Instead it is measured to the middle of a particular section of the green. The bigger the section, the bigger the potential discrepancy.

It is possible to pinpoint the exact position of the flagstick if golf course personnel, working with a computer, take the time to divide a green into dozens, or even hundreds, of sections. Then the GPS measurement can isolate the precise section. Most courses, however, don’t do this.

Under the new rule, a tournament committee can mandate that GPS systems in carts be turned on. This provides instantaneous yardage feedback for competitors who ride. Before 2006, these GPS systems had to be turned off.

An obvious disadvantage to cart-bound GPS systems is that golfers who choose to walk do not have access to the information.

To address this situation, hand-held GPS systems are available. SkyCaddie is the 800-pound gorilla in this category, and the company has thousands of courses in its library of measured and accessible golf facilities.

SkyCaddie is easy to use and boasts many loyal fans. It can be carried by a golfer or attached to a golf bag. Over time, SkyCaddie can be more costly because of its fee structure, which includes an annual membership fee.

Hand-held GPS systems such as SkyCaddie, SureShot and iGolf pinpoint distances to hazards as well as greens. However, these systems provide yardages only to the front, center and rear of a green. They disregard the hole location, forcing a player to study a pin sheet.

Finally, most DMD attention is being focused on hand-held rangefinders. The competition has heated up – even boiled over, it might be said – between Laser Link and Bushnell.

Laser Link, the most affordable rangefinder, relies on reflectors that are installed in the flagsticks. Without these reflectors, Laser Link does not work.

Laser Link is simpler to use than any other rangefinder. Aim it at a flagstick, push a button, and the rangefinder beeps when it has locked onto a reflector.

In a few areas of the country, such as Palm Springs, Calif., virtually every course has reflectors in the flagsticks.

“I’m an old-fashioned guy, and I don’t own a rangefinder,” said Terry Wilcox, tournament director of the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship, played at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “But every time I play, there’s at least one of them in the group, and I have to admit that they seem to speed up play.”

The Bushnell rangefinder works with or without the reflectors. Learning to use it without reflectors, though, can require some training. If a golfer misses the flagstick while aiming, he may be reading the yardage to the branch of a nearby tree. Obtaining yardages on a windy day can be an experience.

Whereas the Laser Link QuickShot was designed strictly for golf, the Bushnell PinSeeker has its heritage in hunting. Nikon rangefinders also were developed for hunting. Bushnell and Nikon proclaim proudly that their current golf models were inspired by golfers for golfers.

To get its foot in the door, Nikon signed on as official rangefinder of the PGA of America. Many rangefinders are sold by club professionals, although they too are in the process of learning all about these distance measuring devices.

The PGA’s Metropolitan Section in New York recently held what amounted to a rangefinder demo day.

Several manufacturers were invited to participate. Each gave a presentation, then was allowed to demonstrate its product on a particular hole. The club pros went from one hole to the next, and so on, testing the different devices.

When it comes to distance measuring devices, golfers and golf pros alike need to be educated.

A quick guide to using distance measuring devices:

  • Reflectors on flagsticks make the use of rangefinders much quicker and easier. Courses have several options for the installation of reflectors: buying new sticks with reflectors built in, cutting existing sticks in half and retrofitting them with reflectors in between the two halves or placing add-on reflectors on top of existing sticks.
  • Rangefinders can be used comfortably up to 300 yards and beyond. Hint: If you get to 250 yards, put the device away and hit the ball as hard as you can.
  • A potential shortcoming of GPS systems is the measurement of distances less than 100 yards. All golfers are advised to be wary and double-check these yardages.
  • For short shots, rangefinders generally can read yardages accurately down to 35 yards or 40 yards.
  • Using a rangefinder in a short-game practice area is a great way to figure out how far the ball flies with different wedge shots. The most effective way to do this is to practice with a friend. One player hits, while the other holds a reflecting target and notes exactly where the ball lands. This precise distance can be recorded on a chart.
  • DMDs run on 9-volt or lithium batteries that are inexpensive and widely sold. A battery should last at least half the season, even with heavy usage.
  • The yardage tolerance for rangefinders is plus or minus 1 yard at a distance of 175 yards.
  • Do not mistreat these devices. If dropped enough times, they can go bad.
  • The front glass on a rangefinder should be cleaned regularly. A dirty rangefinder is like a dirty windshield – hard to see through.
  • It is imperative to keep your body steady while measuring yardage with a rangefinder. Bracing yourself against a golf cart is one way to promote steadiness.

Now, brace yourself for the future. It probably will include a whopping amount of distance measuring.

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