It came as a huge surprise to most golfers when, in 2005, distance measuring devices were approved
as a condition of competition by golf’s two rulesmaking bodies, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.
The ruling went into effect worldwide on Jan. 1, 2006.
What it meant was simple: By invoking this condition of competition, or local rule, officials in individual tournaments now have the option of allowing players to electronically measure distances using devices known as EMDs (electronic measuring devices) or DMDs (distance measuring devices).
There are three basic types of devices, ranging in price from $250-$450:
-Hand-held rangefinders that measure distances by bouncing laser beams off flagsticks and other objects;
-Hand-held global positioning satellite monitors that obtain distance information by linking with airborne satellites;
-Cart-mounted GPS systems that include prominent display screens chock full of distance calculations.
Reaction in the United States was swift. Major professional tours, including the PGA Tour, said “No thanks” to these devices in competition.
Some state and regional golf associations announced they would endorse or experiment with distance measuring aids in their tournaments, and other associations flatly rejected the use of them.
As golf officials and golfers try to gauge the effect of this technological development, a phrase often heard these days is “work in progress.”
Jim Gibbons, executive director of the Oregon Golf Association, summed up the current situation: “Everybody is watching. Everybody wants to know how it will affect play. A lot of people haven’t really made up their minds.”
Critics of the devices generally label them as distance demons, as unnecessary modern contrivances in a grand old game.
John Harris, the former U.S. Amateur champion who now plays on the Champions Tour, is one of those critics. Harris attributes at least part of his amateur success to outplanning and outstrategizing his opponents, and he feels part of that advantage is taken away by rangefinders.
All along, advocates have made two primary arguments: First, they claim the devices will speed up play; second, they point out distances already are widely available through 150-yard markers and additional yardages on sprinkler heads.
The leader of the pro-device pack is Rob O’Loughlin, founder of Laser Link Golf, a rangefinder manufacturer. O’Loughlin relentlessly lobbied the USGA and R&A, trying to convince them that rangefinders would increase the speed of play and would not harm the game.
He seems to have succeeded. O’Loughlin’s current crusade is to persuade more golf courses to install reflectors on their flagsticks. These reflectors allow Laser Link’s QuickShot and other golf rangefinders to work quickly and accurately.
In addition to Laser Link, the other two major players in the hand-held device arena are Bushnell and SkyCaddie. Bushnell sells a rangefinder, while SkyCaddie offers a GPS unit.
Nikon and Leica, both optical giants, also have leapfrogged into the golf-rangefinder field. A new company called SureShot is attempting to challenge SkyCaddie’s dominance of the hand-held GPS market.
Bushnell single-handedly caused the USGA to make a second formal pronouncement about the use of rangefinders. After approving the devices as a condition of competition, the USGA came back and clarified the situation: devices that measure the slope of the land (i.e., uphill or downhill) cannot be used in competition or in everyday play for the purpose of obtaining a handicap.
Bushnell makes separate units with and without this slope feature.
“Yes, I am afraid that somewhere, sometime, an unsuspecting competitor will be disqualified just for carrying one of these,” said Lew Blakey, a member of the USGA Executive Committee and acknowledged rules expert.
It makes no difference whether a player uses the slope-measuring feature. Possession of such a device calls for automatic disqualification.
Manufacturers of distance measuring devices have promoted their products with aggressive marketing. Icons Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have been used in Laser Link ads. Many PGA Tour caddies routinely use Bushnell rangefinders to obtain yardages during practice rounds.
At the recent Tavistock Cup, a 36-hole competition between Lake Nona Golf Club and Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, Fla., players were allowed to use rangefinders. Even though Laser Link was one of the sponsors of the event and most players used that company’s product, Tiger Woods was a prominent Bushnell user, looking something like a golf god who was about to produce lightning from the distance shooter in his hand.
Never mind the persistent rumor that Woods had been paid by Bushnell to pose with its product.
“I swear on the Bible that we didn’t pay him one red cent. Give me a lie detector test if you want,” said Jason Seeman, Bushnell’s national sales manager for golf.
Although the R&A declined to oppose the new rangefinder provision, R&A officials have been less than enthusiastic about the use of new measuring technology.
At the Masters, R&A secretary Peter Dawson continued to scoff at the notion that rangefinders might speed up play.
“None of our golfers are paying any attention to them,” Dawson said. “They’re not an issue.”
A few members of the USGA Executive Committee were staunch rangefinder supporters and cleared the way for a rules change.
So why did the R&A acquiesce?
There are two ready explanations. First, to preserve a spirit of unity among the two bodies. Second, to gain a bargaining advantage with the USGA in the future. After all, the R&A never considered the rangefinder crusade to be of much consequence.
Will these devices really speed play?
PGA Tour player Chris DiMarco is skeptical, talking about how much time will be wasted if players start measuring distances to bunkers and other hazards.
At a recent senior amateur tournament that allowed DMDs, prominent player Bob Hullender was seen with three separate devices – a GPS system in the golf cart, plus two different brands of rangefinders.
“I play fast and measure fast,” Hullender quipped.
The current climate may have been reflected best by USGA vice president Jim Reinhart. One of the most influential figures in the rangefinder debate, Reinhart was asked by the Wisconsin State Golf Association whether it should try rangefinders.
“I don’t see why not,” replied Reinhart, who lives near Milwaukee.
Until there is convincing evidence that they detract from the essence of the game, these modern devices likely will take the measure of all golfers.