In Depth: Distance and Doubt

AUSSIE Golfer Michael Green makes the case for golf without rangefinders, GPS units and yardage books.

WHILE not normally a sport known for rapid change, the evolution of technology used for getting a distance to the green has seen the governing bodies of golf struggle to keep up.

No more than 30 years ago, a simple stake or small bush at 150 metres would often be all you had to get a gauge on the a distance to the green. Many golf courses added a stake at 100 and 200 metres to help out, while others stuck small plates into the middle of fairways - which was helpful for those who could find it in the first place.

The transition to sprinkler head markers is now ubiquitous and seemed an obvious addition to the golf course, but the more recent introduction of smart phones and inexpensive lasers has meant we can get a distance to the flagstick quicker and easier than ever before.

The club golfer can now get yardages that only the professional golfer (with a caddie and a yardage book) could previously access thanks to smartphone apps, dedicated GPS units and laser rangefinders. And it’s rare that any of us play a shot without knowing the distance to the hole, or at least the green.

You could almost hear the rusty wheels of the R&A and USGA turning as they scrambled to craft rules to cover the range of technology that has crept on to the course in the last 10 years.

Let’s forget, for the moment, the argument that most golfers don’t really need to know the distance any more accurate than to the nearest 10 metres and think about what this has done to golf.

The advent of distance measuring technology has eliminated an element of doubt prior to making a golf swing. Never mind the fact many golfers can’t hit to exact yardages anyway, the distance to the bunker, green and flagstick can now be measured to within a metre if need be - something unimaginable to those who played the game more than a generation ago.

Combined with modern club technology, the thought process over the golf shot must be a vastly different one to the days of Old Tom Morris. 

One of Australia’s greatest golfers, Peter Thomson, despises yardage books, distance markers and GPS devices and only begrudgingly adds them to any course he designs. The five-time Open Championship winner prefers golfers learn the (now lost) art of determining distance with your eyes.

So imagine playing golf in the era where the only instrument you had to judge the distance of your next shot was your eyes.

Imagine playing golf with no distance markers, no GPS smart phone apps and no laser rangefinders. Imagine you’ve just hit the golf ball straight down the middle of the fairway and you stand over your next shot with no real idea of how far you’ve got left to the flagstick.

If you’ve ever played from the wrong fairway, it’s probably not that dissimilar.

That bunker is quite possibly in play and the green looks about 100 metres away, but it’s hard to be sure; it could be 90 metres or it could be 90 yards.

How would you play the shot? Aggressively or more conservatively? Would golf be a vastly different game with no way to measure distances?

Eliminating some doubt from the golfer seems to run counter to what makes the game so great. To conquer the nerves, and to hit good golf shots, even in the face of doubt. 

About the author:

Michael Green

Michael Green founded AussieGolfer.com.au - Australia's #1 golf blog - in 2007, is a member of The Australian Golf Writers Association and has covered some of Australia's biggest golf tournaments, including the Australian Open, the Presidents Cup and World Cup of Golf.

Michael began playing golf as a 10-year-old in Adelaide where his father introduced him to the game.

He has managed to maintain a single-figure handicap while studying, living and working abroad and keeping a close eye on his three children.

Michael has a PhD in Physics and when not writing about golf, he continues to work in medical research in Sydney.

Photos: Joey Ratcliffe

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