News & Opinion

StrackaLine puts golfers in uncharted land

One in a weekly series of stories about golf gear to run each Wednesday.

At the intersection of technology and tradition, interests often collide. Nowhere are the battle lines any clearer than in golf. Technology innovators want to make a difficult game easier, while those defending the inherent challenge of the game want to slow down what some would call progress.

Green reading is golf’s latest tug-of-war between innovators and the establishment. The sophistication of the printed matter with which to read greens is unprecedented. But the rulemaking bodies felt it necessary to rein in the technology. To the credit of each, a working compromise was reached.

The USGA and R&A thought the art of green reading would disappear with material that made clear break and slope almost down to the inch. And there was talk of outlawing the green-reading books. Instead, beginning Jan. 1, the use of such books still will be allowed, but with the size of the green image much smaller. Under the new rules, 5 yards will be represented by three-eighths of an inch, or a scale of 1:480 (details).

Where some of the green-reading sheets were blown up to 8½ x 11 inches, the new books can be no larger than 4¼ x 7 inches, and the image of the green itself can be as small as 2 x 2 inches. But the governing bodies will allow handwritten notes on the pages of the green books.

“… We worked through the process of identifying a clear interpretation that protects the essential skill of reading a green, while still allowing for information that helps golfers enjoy the game,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance.

That’s the tradition side. On the innovation side is Jim Stracka, owner and creator of StrackaLine (www.strackaline.com), green-mapping technology that’s used by more than 50 PGA Tour players and 300-plus men’s and women’s college golf teams.

However, Stracka doesn’t mean for his handiwork to be used only by elite players. He wants all golfers to have it available, and it has been successful enough thus far to become a viable business.

Mark Long, the longtime caddie for Fred Funk, has been charting and selling yardage books to PGA Tour players for years. Long also sells a green-reading book and is a competitor to StrackaLine. For the consumer, Putt Breaks, an app developed by GolfLogix, can help golfers read putts digitally on a smartphone (“Putt Breaks helps solve green-reading riddle,” July 4).

The birth of StrackaLine started with a germination of an idea. Stracka is a member at The Bridges Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and was playing one day with fellow member Scotty Cameron, the famed putter designer. Cameron gave Stracka a prototype putter.

“My thought was, This is a great putter,” Stracka said, “but if you don’t know where to hit it, what good is it?

Stracka had developed an add-on for some CAD software that would show how water drained off parking lots and other areas. He took that software and retrofitted it to be able to laser scan a golf green. About 2 million data points are collected, and the results are entered into a database, which maps out every square foot of the green. The finished product looks like a topographic map, complete with arrows that point downhill and color codes that reveal the amount of slope in each part of the green.

“It’s valuable information,” Stracka said. Since then, StrackaLine built its own proprietary software.

The fledgling company made The Bridges its first project about 10 years ago, and club members still use some of the original books that StrackaLine produced.

Today, Stracka has produced data and green-reading books for about 1,000 courses across the U.S. He charges $1,500 to do the mapping – which takes an entire day – and sells 100 books to the club or course for re-selling to members and players. That’s the business model.

“I always knew that this was something needed in the game of golf,” Stracka said. “It took a while to figure out how to make money off it. There are no overnight successes. Most people don’t realize that there was five, 10, 15 years of hard work before the ‘overnight success.’

“The confirmation that we’ve received from college teams and PGA professionals and regular golfers, they love the data and it helps them immensely. It took the golf establishment about five years to realize that this is good stuff.”

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StrackaLine’s map of the 18th green on the Seaside Course at Sea Island on St. Simons Island, Ga., site of the PGA Tour’s recent RSM Classic, shows a heat map of slope percentage. The number in the top left corner indicates yardage of green depth.

COURTESY OF STRACKALINE
StrackaLine’s map of the 18th green on the Seaside Course at Sea Island on St. Simons Island, Ga., site of the PGA Tour’s recent RSM Classic, shows a heat map of slope percentage. The number in the top left corner indicates yardage of green depth.

The green-reading books became so popular on the PGA Tour that the USGA and R&A took particular notice. On July 31, the rulemaking bodies proposed limits on the size of the books and what information they could contain.

“All we are doing is providing an extension of the yardage book,” Stracka said. “How on earth would you make a rule revolving around what’s written on a piece of paper? I view that as a black cloud hanging over us for a couple of years.

“At the end of the day, the black cloud turned into a rainbow. The USGA and R&A did a great job educating people as to what a green-reading book was.”

At the end of the day, Stracka knows that his is not an exact science. “I believe green reading is more memory than anything else,” he said. “When you have a caddie who really knows the golf course, they read every putt for you. They’re not reading the greens; they remember how the ball is going to break.

“If you get a good caddie who knows the golf course, that’s money in the bank.”

But if you don’t have a caddie – a good green reader or otherwise – the next best thing is a green-reading book.

“It’s still good information,” Stracka said.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf