News & Opinion

Proposed green-reading limits miss mark

The genie is out of the bottle again.

This time it’s green-reading technology. It’s ironic that the USGA and R&A, golf’s governing bodies, picked Tuesday to announce their plans to limit the green-reading materials that players can use in an effort to retain the art and skill of reading greens. I just finished testing a new phone app that scans a green and tells you exactly how much break to play on a putt and how much you’re going uphill or downhill. It worked stunningly well, and I enjoyed using it for four holes, especially when I holed a couple of longer putts.

Two days later, Killjoy & Co. reminds me that this app, along with the green-reading books that are popular among PGA Tour players, are not in keeping with the spirit of the game. 

I don’t disagree. The proposed guidelines for green-reading materials are complex and confusing. In a nutshell here they area: Future green maps must be pocket-sized; scaled no larger than 1/480; and any putting surfaces with less than 4 percent slope must be left blank.

Traditional yardage books are still allowed, as are green representations in them that include only general indicators of ridges and slope. Handwritten notes are still allowed, but any detailed facsimiles of more complex greens maps are not.

The real problem is, the USGA and R&A are always lagging on technology. How could they not? Who foresaw a phone app that could read greens in a few seconds?

Technology is not beatable, and the proposed guidelines, which would go into effect at the start of 2019 unless there are strong objections, have some problems.

First, this is pretty much a professional-golf rule. Most recreational golfers don’t play by the letter of the rules, anyway, and they certainly don’t play at courses where detailed green-reading maps are available. It’s a moot point for us choppers. So, it’s a little odd to make a rule for fewer than 1 percent of the world’s golfers … while continuing to do nothing about 350-yard drives.

I understand why the guidelines seem necessary, but at the same time, the PGA Tour could say, We’re still going to allow the books.

This whole thing reminds me of the rise of rangefinders. Purists were appalled and wanted them banned. Except almost every golfer wants accurate yardages, and now rangefinders are allowed at almost every level of competition, other than the highest. Even there, the genie has a foot in the door. Rangefinders are permitted in PGA Tour Monday qualifying events.

Second, who’s going to enforce this rule? Will a player have to get his or her mapbook or notes approved before each tournament round? That doesn’t seem likely. It’s a lot more likely that enforcement is going to fall to other players, much like the ban on the anchored stroke. And the USGA got that wrong, too. If I call another player out for anchoring the club, all that player has to do is say, “I didn’t intend to anchor the club,” and that’s the end of it.

This doesn’t seem like an enforceable guideline. Will I have to sneak a peek over another player’s shoulder on the seventh green to make sure that his map isn’t too big? “Hey, your map’s scale is 1/460, not the required 1/480. Citizen’s arrest!”

Who is going to look through a player’s greenbook before each round to check and make sure that the flatter areas, where cups are most likely to be located, are actually blank? Maybe it would be part of the new pre-round ritual for touring pros.

The R&A conducted a surprise driver test at Carnoustie during British Open week, looking to see whether any players had drivers whose faces exceeded the allowable COR limits for spring-like effect. All 30 drivers passed. Maybe there will be popup checks on greenbooks, too. I doubt it.

Third, it doesn’t seem as if it would be too difficult to get around these limits. The technology is already out there to scan the greens. Players simply can study the topographic maps at night, make handwritten notes and look at those when they get on the green. It’s new homework for pro golfers.

At the Masters, for instance, we pretty much know which four hole locations will be used during the four rounds of competition. I could take my camera-phone app out during a practice round, hit some putts around the compass points of where I know the holes are going to be and make copious notes. After three or four practice rounds, I’d have the greens pretty well scoped out. I wouldn’t need the actual maps anymore.

These maps wouldn’t be a gigantic help for us hackers even if we could get them. The most common cause of our missed putts is hitting them off-line. Reading the green wrong is a distant second in this department.

I feel the USGA’s and R&A’s pain. It does seem as if a certain sanctity of the game has been violated with this new technology aimed at reading putts. But just like yardage books and rangefinders, the genie isn’t going back into the bottle. The advance of technology is relentless.

So, drop me off at my house, Genie. I’ve got a money game with Ralph and Earl tomorrow, and I want to refresh my memory on those back-nine greens. Yeah, I’ve got homework. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle