Achenbach: USGA decision is sign of times

PINEHURST, N.C. – Few things are more incompatible in tournament golf than a dumb golfer with a smartphone.

Smartphones once again are front and center in golf, thanks to an announcement Thursday by the U.S. Golf Association that distance-measuring devices will be allowed in all USGA amateur championships. These devices will remain forbidden in the U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open, U.S. Senior Open and their respective qualifying events.

The provision takes effect immediately, meaning that competitors in the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Women's Amateur and all other 2014 USGA amateur championships can carry laser rangefinders and GPS satellite units that meet specified requirements under the Rules of Golf.

Smartphones, with the appropriate apps, can serve as GPS distance-measuring devices. However, a key question applies to smartphones on the golf course: What is legal and what is illegal?

If a golfer is smarter than his smartphone, he will understand that distance-measuring devices are not allowed to gauge the slope of the ground, the strength and direction of the wind or the air temperature on a golf course. A smartphone that provides such information is nonconforming by definition.

Even if a golfer does not access such information, its mere existence on the smartphone places the device in violation of the Rules of Golf. The result would be disqualification.

Craig Winter, a member of the USGA rules staff, provided a big-picture view. "What golfers can and cannot do with distance-measuring devices is much clearer now," he said.

Winter referred specifically to "the compass decision" and "the weather decision" in the DMD rules arena. Now, golfers can use smartphones for determining distance even if the phones have a compass function. The same is true if a smartphone is capable of providing weather reports or forecasts.

Neither a compass nor a weather report was deemed by the USGA and R&A to provide an unfair advantage to a golfer.

To be absolutely certain about the use of smartphones and particular apps in golf competition, players should contact the USGA in advance of any tournament.

The USGA announcement on Thursday was preceded in January by a similar statement from the R&A. Their agreement on distance-measuring devices places golf's two major governing bodies in rulesmaking alignment once again.

Why did the USGA do this?

Thomas J. O'Toole Jr., chairman of the Championship Committee and incoming president of the USGA, effective Saturday, offered an explanation.

“We've seen progressive developments in technologies available to golfers who seek to improve their playing performance and enjoyment,” O'Toole said, "(while) maintaining the essential elements of the game. It is in this spirit that we are allowing the use of distance-measuring devices in our amateur competitions.”

Big deal, I say. Rhetoric aside, this move was inevitable because yardages have become a common denominator in golf. They are available at the flip of a switch.

Don't forget that golfers still have to hit the shots. Knowing a yardage is just the first step in the complex and demanding process of striking a golf ball.

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