News & Opinion

PGA of America OKs rangefinders for its big events

Graeme McDowell uses rangefinder DMD laser at 2013 French Open
Graeme McDowell uses a rangefinder to confirm a yardage during a practice round on the European Tour.

Players at PGA Championship, Women’s PGA and Senior PGA can use distance-measuring devices, but PGA Tour remains unmoved

The PGA of America took an unusual step Tuesday, announcing that the association will allow distance-measuring devices at its three annual tournaments: PGA Championship, Women’s PGA and the Senior PGA.

It’s an unusual move because Rule 4.3a (1), which allows measuring devices to be used in competition, has been around since the USGA revised its rules effective Jan. 1, 2019, so why now?

“We’re always interested in methods that may help improve the flow of play during our championships,” Jim Richerson, the PGA’s president, said in a news release. “The use of distance-measuring devices is already common within the game and is now a part of the Rules of Golf. Players and caddies have long used them during practice rounds to gather relevant yardages.”

But will the use of distance-measuring devices, which allow a player or caddie to measure the exact yardage to the flagstick, actually speed up the game?

The PGA of America did not cite any study or review that showed such devices would hasten play, but it seems to be more of a presumption than a known fact.

“I think hopefully it speeds up the game,” PGA Tour player Will Zalatoris said Tuesday at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, site of this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “I know that that's been a big topic of conversation for a long time. Monday qualifiers have been doing it for a couple years now; we're able to have range finders. So, I don't see a downside to it. If anything, it will hopefully speed up the game, specifically of guys that hit one offline instead of walking over to the side.”

While not a ringing endorsement, Zalatoris does make a good point, that the speed of play likely will be affected positively on egregious offline shots.

DMDs have been banned on the major professional tours. At the amateur level, DMDs have been used prominently. When the R&A released its global pace-of-play survey in 2015, the prevalence of distance-measuring devices worldwide proved to be eye-opening.

More than 50 percent of 56,248 respondents surveyed in continental Europe, the United Kingdom and Australasia disclosed that they have used a device to measure distances on a golf course. 

In fact, DMDs also were used at the highest-level amateur events, but the professional tours were unwilling to make the leap.

“We feel distance is distance is distance, as long as you are not using a device to measure gradient, wind speed, temperature, what club you should hit,” Mike Davis, the USGA’s managing director at the time, said during the 2015 Players Championship. “We haven’t done it at the U.S. Open, Women’s Open, Senior Open simply because it’s not done week to week on any of the [major professional] tours. That is the issue.”

Davis said he didn’t think that players or caddies were interested in allowing DMDs.

“We would change in a Minnesota minute if the tours get comfortable with it,” Davis said. “My understanding is part of it is caddies aren’t crazy about it. I don’t think its necessarily the respective commissioners saying we don’t want them. I think it’s some of the players that don’t want it.”

Pete Bevacqua, the PGA’s former CEO, said in 2015 that if DMDs were to become prevalent on the tours, they would be permitted in all of the association’s events.

Even with the willingness of the USGA and PGA to allow the devices, the PGA Tour appears to have no interest.

“We don’t like the way it looks,” then-commissioner Tim Finchem said at the time. “We don’t see a need to do it unless we conclude it would speed up the game, and there is no indication it would. Some argue that it would slow down the game.”

The PGA Tour’s position has not changed under commissioner Jay Monahan.

“The PGA Tour conducted a four-tournament test of Distance Measuring Devices on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2017, with varying results,” the Tour said in a statement released Tuesday. “We decided at the time to continue to prohibit their use in official competitions on the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and Korn Ferry Tour for the foreseeable future. We will evaluate the impact rangefinders have on the competition at the PGA of America's championships in 2021 and will then review the matter with our player directors and the Player Advisory Council.”

Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, agreed with Finchem in 2015 that the use of DMDs does, in fact, slow play.

“I’ve played at tournaments with lasers, and it slowed play down incredibly,” said Harrington, citing his experiences at the Irish PGA. “It would make the game a little easier, yes, but it slowed it down terribly so.”

Many players like the laser rangefinder’s ease of use but still would use their yardage guides to confirm distances and determine yardages to the front, middle and back of greens, plus the exact number to the hole location.

“Once we have a yardage book, our yardage book is better,” Harrington said. “It does speed up social golf, but it slows down professional golf. Very rarely does anybody have to walk more than six or seven yards. In Europe, it’s even less.”

Bushnell, a leading manufacturer of DMDs, commissioned a study in 2013 with National University Golf Academy about the use of rangefinders and pace of play. During two rounds among NUGA golfers with handicaps of 6-18 – one round with a Bushnell laser rangefinder, the other with no DMD – pace of play improved significantly with the DMD.

“The 6-13-index players finished their round in 4 hours and 15 minutes, an improvement of nearly 30 minutes, when playing a round without a laser rangefinder,” according to the study. “The 14-18-index players saw a 17-minute improvement, finishing in 4 hours and 16 minutes.”

Though some caddies and professionals acknowledge that an approach after a wayward shot would be better served by use of a laser rangefinder, they struggle to identify any other advantage.

“We would probably still double-check it, just because you don’t know if you are hitting the grandstand or trees or whatever,” said James Edmondson, who caddies on the PGA Tour for Ryan Palmer.

Those habits, just as with adopting a faster pace of play, aren’t always easy to break.

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