One in a weekly series of stories about golf gear to run each Wednesday.
By Gary Van Sickle
This is a coming-of-age year for laser rangefinders and GPS devices. They will be accepted for use in more competitive events than ever, and they are one step closer to maybe, someday being used on the PGA Tour.
Distance-measuring devices, or DMDs, still aren’t allowed on the PGA Tour, but beginning this year they can be used in Monday qualifying for PGA Tour, Champions and Web.com events. They also can be used in PGA Tour pre-tournament pro-am rounds (but not in pro-am format events such as next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am).
In addition, DMDs are now permitted for use during tournament play on the PGA Tour’s lower-level tours in Canada, Latin America and China.
Among the U.S. Golf Association’s slate of tournaments, DMDs may be used in all championships except the national opens (men’s, women’s and senior).
I am therefore declaring victory on behalf of the game’s DMD addicts. The majority finally has been heard. What’s taken so long for golf’s stuffiest shirts to ease up on DMDs is a different story for another day. But I don’t need to see Rory McIlroy wielding a laser or Dustin Johnson checking his GPS wristwatch to get a yardage to claim that this battle has been won. This year’s new rules are vindication enough.
If the PGA Tour never allows DMDs for competition, I’m OK with that. The Tour already has got the world’s best caddies and yardage books, which are accurate to the last anthill. No one needs DMDs less than the PGA Tour players, who nonetheless use them religiously during practice rounds to check yardages.
That said, remember Jordan Spieth and his excellent adventure at Royal Birkdale last summer when he hit an errant drive, took a penalty drop on the practice ground and then, after 25 minutes, played an iron shot short of the green? Had rangefinders been allowed, he could have shortened that ordeal by 15 minutes or more. Caddie Michael Greller could have walked to the top of the ridge to laser the yardage back to his boss, turn and laser the distance to the flagstick and then add the two numbers to determine the total yardage. Instead, both men did a lot of interminable pacing while the rest of us, including playing competitor Matt Kuchar in the fairway, waited and waited.
It’s good to see the PGA Tour taking a newly progressive approach to an issue such as DMDs.
This year’s tweaks stemmed from Jay Monahan taking over from the retired Tim Finchem as PGA Tour commissioner. Monahan is open to new ideas and not afraid to think outside the box. So DMDs were tested during four-week stretches last summer in competition on three tours: Canada, Latin America and Web.com. The results were inconclusive, said Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour’s chief of operations.
“The tests went well, but there was really no change in the pace of play,” Dennis said. “We saw some players using the yardage book and the laser, some using lasers all the time and some hardly ever using them. It helped on the off-line shots, but overall, there weren’t enough measurable benefits.”
Laser Link Golf president Rob O’Loughlin, one of the game’s most vocal DMD proponents, laughed when I called him in Madison, Wis., and told him that DMDs didn’t speed up play when tested in Web.com Tour events.
“I could’ve told you that before they started,” he said. “Slow play in the pros isn’t about the time wasted getting yardages. It’s all about that kabuki dance they do on the greens.”
O’Loughlin is right about that. DMDs have been proved to speed up play in most recreational and amateur competitions, in which players often have to walk a considerable distance to find a recessed sprinkler head with a yardage on it. Slow play in pro golf is due to different reasons. Dawdling on the greens is the No. 1 impediment. The other is, they have no place to go. With 144 or 156 players in most fields, the course is full. Backups occur because so many players can reach the par 5s and have to wait for the green to clear before hitting their second shots. It also has become fashionable to set up a drivable par 4, another guaranteed backup.
“The PGA Tour’s policy board looked at DMDs twice previously over the last 15 years before this time, starting with right around when DMDs became allowable under local rules [in 2006],” Dennis said. “Each time, the board ultimately decided they didn’t want them, primarily because of the image of the Tour player and what it might mean for that.”
Tour officials didn’t like the look, in other words, of a Tour player peering through a rangefinder. Last summer’s Web.com trial helped assuage that fear, however. “The image of it on TV wasn’t that bad,” Dennis said. “You didn’t see a player using it that often. For the fans onsite, though, that was a new element.”
The other thing working against DMDs is caddies. Having a great caddie, some Tour players said, was an advantage that could be minimalized by allowing DMDs.
“Tiger Woods was once asked about allowing lasers,” O’Loughlin said, “and his answer was, No, absolutely not. I’ve got the best guy out there, Stevie Williams. Why would I want to give up that edge?”
But if the PGA Tour allowed a rangefinder, O’Loughlin said with a chuckle, “Name one player who wouldn’t use it.”
The new use of DMDs at places other than the PGA Tour is primarily due to practicality.
“There generally isn’t a good yardage book at the qualifying courses, so it’s very useful in those cases,” Dennis said. “On our smaller international tours, especially Latin America, the players sometimes struggle to find good yardage books, or any yardage books at all.”
The question remains whether DMDs will make it to the big tour, but they have established a new foothold this year in amateur golf and some of the highest levels of professional golf.
“Amateurs love them; we know that,” Dennis said. “The pros are more of a mixed bag. There’s no overwhelming feeling one way or another. We just did not find a measurable benefit to using them.” But, Dennis added, “We’ll look at it again in a few years.”
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle