Achenbach: A hang-up for smartphones

When it comes to distance measuring in golf, smartphones may not be so smart.

Many smartphones contain features and functions that do not conform to the Rules of Golf. As a result, they cannot be used for measuring distances in tournaments or for posting scores in everyday play. The penalty is disqualification. In the future, even more smartphones appear to be headed for the nonconforming category.

Why? Because they include applications capable of measuring golf-course conditions other than distance. These conditions include slope, as well as wind velocity or direction.

Even if a smart phone is not used for slope or wind measurement, the mere fact that it has the app loaded into the phone is enough to make it nonconforming.

“A smartphone in and of itself isn’t a problem,” said David Staebler, director of rules education for the USGA. “The problem lies with the applications that may be available on the phone.”

Do golfers really know which DMDs are conforming and which are not?

Probably not. In general, golfers seem to have no clue what is or isn’t permissible in the distance-measuring arena.

“We see a lot of people using smartphones on the golf course,” said Craig Winter, director of rules, education and junior golf for the Oregon Golf Association. “Most of them have no idea that what they are using might be nonconforming.

“It’s rules versus marketing. A manufacturer might say it’s a legal device without really being specific. That makes it really complicated for somebody to interpret.”

The USGA and R&A decided in 2005 to allow distance-measuring devices only if a local rule were adopted, authorizing the use of DMDs. This provision took effect in January 2006. Before that, all distance-measuring devices were nonconforming.

Special provisions never have existed for smartphones. If a phone contains prohibited features or functions, it cannot be used to measure distances under any circumstances.

The R&A joined the USGA in allowing distance-measuring devices in tournament play if a local rule were adopted. (However, devices are not allowed on the PGA Tour and most other professional tours.)

Distance-measuring devices include laser rangefinders and GPS satellite units. Under the Rules of Golf, DMDs can measure distance but nothing else.

The widespread use of the local rule permitting DMDs, coupled with the popularity of smartphones, can place an extra burden on rules officials.

A 2011 survey by Golfweek revealed only one state or regional association – the Maryland State Golf Association – that does not allow DMDs in its amateur championship. The Middle Atlantic Amateur, associated with the MGA, also prohibits the use of DMDs.

“We continue to look closely at all the distance-measuring devices submitted to the USGA for evaluation,” said Carter Rich, manager of equipment standards for the USGA. “It’s part of our job to respond to questions regarding such devices. Whether a unit can be used under the local rule depends on the functionality. That’s the bottom line.”

DMDs in a nutshell:

• Prohibited functions of DMDs or smartphones include the measurement of ground slope (uphill, downhill or sidehill), wind velocity and directional orientation.

• Some rangefinders from major optical manufacturers are nonconforming right out of the box because they perform prohibited functions. Prominent examples are the Bushnell Tour V2 Slope Edition and the Leupold XG-4. Even if a local rule is in effect, they cannot be used. Penalty: disqualification.

• Many smartphones contain apps that are not permitted. Thus, they are nonconforming as distance-measuring devices whether or not the prohibited apps are used. They cannot be used in competition. Penalty: disqualification.

• A compass is included in some popular apps that come with smartphones. The presence of a compass makes smartphones nonconforming as DMDs. They cannot be used in competition. Penalty: disqualification.

• Golfers cannot post scores for handicap purposes if they use a nonconforming DMD.

• Laser and GPS rangefinders, including cart-mounted GPS units, can be used if a tournament invokes a local rule allowing their use. Under the Rules of Golf, DMDs are prohibited unless the local rule were adopted.

• If a local rule allows distance-only DMDs, these units may be shared by various players.

• There is no penalty if a smartphone with prohibited features and functions is carried but not used. Having such a device in a golf bag without using it does not constitute a rules violation.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification