News & Opinion

Golf's new rules could turn pros into cons

A note from the future:

Golf is an individual sport. We all know that. But my victory at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this weekend was truly a team effort. (I saw three writers wince when I dropped that cliché in the news conference, but too bad; it’s the truth.)

I know nobody expected me, little-known Cody Joe Blue of Branson, Mo., to win America’s National Open. I surprised even myself with the best golf of my life. Still, this was a win for all of Team Blue.

One key, believe it or not, was the USGA rules change for 2019 regarding the use of green-reading materials. Luckily, my sugar-daddy sponsor agreed to expand my support team to meet the challenge, since I’d dropped out of junior college in west Texas to turn pro and basically had zero bankroll. The move paid off.

Let’s start with my cartographer, Rene Dupuis. He does more than just check our computer-generated maps of putting greens for accuracy. Rene is also my chief compliance officer or, as I call him, my bouncer. The new rule limits green-reading maps to a scale of 1/480th. I have no way of knowing if my daily playing competitors are using legal maps, but no rules officials check our books before each round, so Rene is body-checker. He asks to see competitors’ books before each round (on the putting green or, if necessary, on the first tee) and uses his map-measuring skills to make sure that they conform.

Rene became an important deterrent for me after he caught two players at Valspar and Bay Hill using maps that were 1/400th scale. I ratted them out to officials and Golf Channel. It’s like a cop alerting you to a speed trap around the next bend. Once you know it’s there, you won’t speed. Are players in the rest of the field using legal maps? I have no idea. I just know they aren’t in my group, and that gives me peace of mind. Also, Rene is 6 feet, 5 inches and a former Texas Tech defensive end.

My stationer is Vanessa Vollmer, whom we hired away from Hallmark to take on the new USGA rule about the size of map materials. Any paper must be no larger than 4¼ inches by 7 inches – about the size of a business envelope.

Vanessa carries a very precise laser measurement tool and a 4¼-by-7 frame. It is her job to check other players’ mapbooks and make sure they are completely unfolded before measuring (something officials might not notice if they did the checking themselves) and not too big. Vanessa found two players in my Thursday pairing at Riviera who had oversized map pages that they said, when confronted, were “accidentally” left in the yardage book. Uh-huh. Word of Vanessa’s presence has meant that it hasn’t happened again. So far.

I can’t say enough about Randy Blackwell, my handwriting expert. I stole him from a suburban L.A. law firm, not because my sponsor could match his salary – not even close – but because he’d rather hang out at swank PGA Tour stops than appellate courts. It’s a better class of people, Randy says … in theory. His punchline always makes me laugh.

The USGA rule states that a player can refer to his own notes about a green, as long as it’s written in his own hand or his caddie’s. That means current caddie, according to Randy’s understanding of the law. Well, some Tour players change caddies as often as they change sweaters. Randy makes sure the handwriting matches.

The first week out at Palm Springs, Randy discovered that one member of my first-round pairing had notes from the previous year’s greens written by Ball Cap, his caddie at the time. Except he canned Ball Cap at John Deere and now he had Stoner Roy on the bag. So, the player couldn’t legally use those notes. My opponent said he “forgot” about that technicality. Sure he did. That opponent also “forgot” to give me a 3 at 17 that day and tried to slip me a 4 on the scorecard instead, probably in retribution. That didn’t fly, either. Did I feel bad when he shot 76 that day? No, I did not.

Jaybird Howell is my chief topographer – topo man, for short. Jaybird uses the top computer-generated greens maps such as StrackaLine and Putt Breaks, which have detailed arrows indicating the slopes of each green, and prints up large topographic maps for me to study each night before the next round.

The new USGA rule says you can’t use the actual maps during a round, or facsimiles. So that’s why I have to do homework every night. I thought I quit junior college to avoid that, but here I am.

Jaybird’s partner in crime is Pete “The Professor” Larkey. The professor has two jobs. One is to use historical pin-position data to plot where PGA Tour officials – or the USGA or R&A folks – are most likely to slot the pins. If I’ve got a late tee time, The Professor hustles up a pin sheet so we can analyze specific breaks. His other job is to gather data in practice rounds using Golf Scope, an iPhone app that uses the phone’s camera to read the green’s slope. It’s not always right, but I like getting a precise reading – say, uphill, 27 feet, 4 inches, aim 1 foot, 2 inches left – to combine that with Jaybird’s arrow maps.

The Prof shoots his iPhone from eight compass points around the 6-8 pin positions which he figures might be used that week. Trust me: It’s a difference-maker. There’s nothing better than knowing – knowing – you’ve got the right read.

Don’t tell me smart guys like Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau and others aren’t doing the same thing. The technology is there; you’d be foolish not to take advantage of it, even if the USGA is trying to keep us from using it. It kinda sounds like Prohibition, when alcohol was banned but everyone still found ways to keep drinking.

I guarantee Cody Joe Blue won the U.S. Open because he – me – had the putting week of his life and because he made sure his opponents played within the rules.

I want to thank the USGA for those new green-reading rules. I also like how the USGA put enforcement of those rules squarely on players such as myself, just like it did with the anchored-putting ban. I police my own area hard because from what I’ve seen, it’s a myth that all pro golfers have integrity. I believe the new rules give me an edge, thanks to my expert supporting cast.

This is what it takes to win a U.S. Open under golf’s new rules. It takes a village. This Bud’s for you, Team Blue!

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