News & Opinion

Green-reading guides: Analysis vs. ‘soul of golf’

When the USGA and R&A stated May 1 that golf’s governing bodies would be investigating green-reading guides, the announcement came as a surprise.

I didn’t think the guides were a problem.  

Then again, I didn’t have much of an issue with anchored putting, and that stroke was banned.

A good putter might not need an aid to read greens, but for the players competing for millions of dollars each week, anything that could offer a legal advantage would be considered.

Each week, the PGA Tour attempts to make its courses as difficult as possible, oftentimes bringing them near the edge of fairness but not quite so far as to embarrass the touring pros.

It’s a healthy balance for the best golfers in the world. When the USGA handles setup, the embarrassment factor goes up a notch. The U.S. Open can be a humiliating experience that requires competitors to use all the help that they can get.

So why do the USGA and R&A feel the need to take an arrow out of the players’ quiver?

Pat Goss, the men’s coach at Northwestern, utilizes a green-reader service for his players and has found it to be helpful. Yet, Goss, who coaches five-time Tour winner Luke Donald, a Northwestern alumnus who historically is one of the best putters on Tour, thinks that the eyes are so important in putting that even golfers who use green guides still must use their vision to read putting surfaces.

“At times, I will say I've seen them slow up play,” Goss said. “I do think it's a concern when you watch golf on TV and you see how long it's taking at times for people to read greens.”

Goss said the guides are more helpful in determining where to hit the approach shot, notably in how to feed the ball into tucked hole locations.

About 100 miles south of Goss’ Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill., counterpart Mike Small of the University of Illinois has built one of college golf’s top programs in Champaign. Many professional golfers have developed under Small at Illinois.

“I think it takes the artistry and imagination and creativity out of playing the game,” said Small, whose Illini do not use the guides but enter next week’s NCAA regional play as a No. 2 seed. “It makes it more analytical. Teams I've had have been better as holistic players, and they play with their instincts, not looking to the book. I think it detracts from their imagination.”

Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who in his prime was one of golf’s best putters, understands the need for players to gain access to whatever tool might be required to play their best, but to what end?

When asked about green-reading guides, Crenshaw referenced the late John Low, an original member of the R&A Rules Committee that was formed in 1897. 

“A racy green, a real racy green, has to be fairly tame, but there's nobody in the world who likes undulation more than I do,” said Crenshaw, who then quoted Low: “Undulation is the soul of golf.”

“Just a great little statement,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw said he is amazed to watch on TV as players consult elaborate green-reading guides.

“Every effort should be made for faster play,” Crenshaw said. “It pervades sometime when people watch players on television and how painstakingly they make it. But it's up to them [USGA and R&A] to say, Are we going to arm the player with any more information? All I know is that when you look through a gadget and you look through a book, that piece of information doesn't tell someone how hard to hit it, whether it's hitting the ball or putting.”

Donald said emphatically that the guides should be eliminated.

“I'm for anything that will speed up play, and I think that that just only slows up play,” Donald said. “You have to find the sprinkler heads. You have to pace it off. There's a process to doing it and to doing it correctly, and that takes time. And I think that there's an art to reading greens, and it's kind of getting lost. It's like a computer diagram showing you where the break is. I think you should have to use your eyes, just like you have to judge the wind on every shot.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli