News & Opinion

There's another reason why PGA OKs rangefinders

Rangefinder distance-measuring device DMD
The use of rangefinders proliferates in golf.

Bottom line on PGA of America's move to allow distance-measuring devices in championships isn’t entirely about pace of play

First, let’s be totally honest: This isn’t entirely about pace of play.

We’re talking about the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, which according to its website “is made up of nearly 29,000 PGA Professionals who are ready to help you further your love for the game of golf.” They are some of the finest people you might ever meet and, no doubt, predominately are in the business of golf, because they love the game. 

But on the grass-roots level, more than any other sport, the game is a business. That’s not a condemnation, just the truth.

So, when we discuss rangefinders and a recent decision by the PGA to allow them to be employed in its championships, let’s keep things in proper perspective. It’s not entirely about pace of play. Because if it is, red flags are being thrown all over the field. 

After all, as we like to say in these pandemically-punctuated times, follow the science. More specifically, follow the scientists. Talk to professional caddies and professional golfers and you’re going to get – at best – a split decision. Some might profess that rangefinders speed up the game. Just as many, if not many more, will say they slow things down. 

To be clear, we’re not talking distance-measuring devices in the hands of weekend duffers here; that’s a different lab altogether. But there is no conclusive evidence to show that rangefinders speed things up for the average pay-for-play participant. 

That said, like clubs, balls, gloves, towels, shirts, bags, shoes, hats, wind shirts, rain pants, head covers, lessons and swing aids, DMDs are product. The PGA holds terrific championships every year; it also has a stake in the PGA Merchandise Show, the Disney World of golf commerce, the Super Bowl of equipment and apparel. 

The PGA Show and PGA membership shops are chock full of things to help further your love of golf. And you might bet dollars to divots that you’ll find a DMD – with a retail price of the mid-$100 range to $500-plus – or two among them. No shame in it; tons of people buy them. One study projects the U.S. market for rangefinders to be worth $186.5 million by 2025. A lot of people bought long putters, too. And back in 2013, when the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A issued their ban on the anchored stroke, which took effect in 2016, the PGA was adamantly opposed to the change. 

This isn’t to assert that the association is completely disingenuous; it’s to assert some pragmatism. PGA members are in the business of golf. If something is bad for business, by golly, it’s probably bad for golf, and vice versa. 

So, will the use of DMDs at professional championships – specifically, the PGA Championship, Women’s PGA and Senior PGA – improve pace of play? It’s questionable. Will it hurt business to see top-ranked professionals on television peering through rangefinders? Heck no. So, let’s be totally upfront about what’s at work here. 

And while we’re being honest, let’s also acknowledge that it’s hard to imagine the opinions and conclusions expressed in this space could hold any less weight with those embracing DMDs. For the general public, the horse left the barn a while back. For professionals, the PGA just foamed the runway. It seems to be only a matter of time before the others touch down.

That said, what has happened to sports, and what has happened to this game? Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” 

The game was founded on these things, self-examining things, genuine things, uncompromising things, things without shortcuts, things organic and sincere. The game is not meant to be wholly defined by the skill of hitting a little white ball. It is supposed to tap into more, i.e., sensation and perception, risk and reward. Testing those determinations is supposed to be part of the challenge, part of the satisfaction.

The best of golf’s architects have gone to great lengths to incorporate those considerations and influence those facilities, to favor those who use them well, to expose those who don’t. Local knowledge and tactile experience used to be advantageous. But influence and knowledge now can be found in the front pocket of your golf bag; check the batteries before you tee off. Favor is now for sale in the pro shop, right next to the yardage books. 

Today, if golf were a state driver’s-license test, you’d be allowed to use an autonomous car. No worries on parallel parking. Today, in the name of pace, for the sake of business, sports are all too willing to punt tradition and compromise values. 

Endlessly complicatedmaddeningfrustrates the intellect? How about Golf for Dummies? 

Boots on the ground and investigative research are what make good caddies invaluable to a championship contender. Webb Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori, suggests DMDs are the other end of the spectrum. “I think it rewards caddies who haven’t done their homework,” he told Golf Digest.

How can a sport that rules against giving or asking for advice, that prohibits a caddie or partner from standing behind a player to help direct a putt, allow books that provide precise measurements and devices that give exact distances? This isn’t what the satisfying soul of golf is about. This is shortcuts and cheat sheets. This is the Cliffs Notes version, the crossword puzzle with the answers at the bottom. 

And let’s be honest: This isn’t entirely about pace of play. 

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