Young: Golf Science Drowning Out Art

Green contour books are playing golf 'artists' out of the game, writes Bruce Young. (Photo: Getty Images )
Call me old fashioned if you like but there is a trend emerging in the modern professional game that disturbs me and it is the growing use of aids to assist players in their playing of the game.

More especially, I am referring to the proliferation of material to assist golfers in the reading of greens which, to a large extent, is eliminating what makes some of the great putters as good as they are, namely the innate sense or ability to read greens correctly on gut instinct and experience alone.

The detailed books of green contours, which are now being widely used, are not only taking the art of reading greens and feel out of the game but contributing to slowing the game down by the time taken in absorbing the information.   

A great example was today on the 72nd hole of the PGA Tour's Northern Trust event in New York when both Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth spent considerable time reading their contour books to ensure they had all the information needed to execute demanding putts.

That was the last hole of a 72-hole event before a playoff became necessary and so nobody else in the field was inconvenienced but expand that out across the field and the time taken would have a significant impact.  

The use of yardage books became part of the professional game in the 1960s, more especially due to Jack Nicklaus whose high-profile place in the game at the time saw the concept of playing the game by numbers as a means of getting an edge on the field.

Nicklaus had been inspired to use yardages in the early 1960s by Deane Beman, who would later become commissioner of the PGA Tour but who was a good player himself and with Nicklaus’ prolonged success, more and more players saw the benefit and took to the concept.

“Jack used to laugh at me,” said Beman when asked about the influence he had on Nicklaus in walking off courses around that time.  

“He said, 'you oughta try it',” added Nicklaus referring to when he first took it up. “Every single round I played that first week I played under par – at Pebble Beach."

Yardage books were considered revolutionary and somewhat from left field at the time when only select players themselves or their caddies were producing them.

Before long, entrepreneurial caddies and others saw an opportunity to mass produce the books and make them available for purchase at tournaments.

Pin positions were later given out on the first tees at tournaments which was a positive move as it was common information available to all and it eliminated the idea of countless caddies touring the course each morning charting the newly cut pin positions on each green.

I have no problem with that or the idea of yardage books.

But as someone who has caddied through an era when many of the changes were made, I have a real problem with the volume of information now available in the form of contour books and the experimental use of laser devices.

I have an issue with the recent four event trial by the Web.Com Tour of laser devices to assess distances during play, the results of which have yet to be collated. The trial is fair and reasonable in that it will provide the opportunity to assess the benefit or otherwise but the concept bothers me. 

One commentator was heard to say it would speed up play if a player was to hit it on an adjacent fairway but, in this writer’s opinion, if a player is one or two fairways wide with a tee shot or a wild approach, they don't deserve having access to an instant and accurate measurement.

What would be an interesting test in this era would be to see how many young amateurs in the formative stages of their games were capable of eyeballing distances from fairways. Yardages have become so much part of the game that the art of feeling distances or eyeballing them is all but gone.

In essence, the art of feel is slowly but surely being eroded from the game and a reliance on numbers for shot-making is creeping in. It is becoming a numbers game far more so than ever before and perhaps that is some of the reason the game is not experiencing some of the popularity it should.

The game is slowly but surely morphing from an art to a science and, in the process, many of the great shot-makers and feel players are being taken out of the game or not allowed to showcase their skills and natural advantages.

The various controlling bodies of the game may yet have their say. In a recent joint statement released by the R&A and the USGA, it read:

“The R&A and the USGA believe that a player’s ability to read greens is an essential part of the skill of putting. Rule 14-3 limits the use of equipment and devices that might assist a player in their play, based on the principle that golf is a challenging game in which success should depend on the judgment, skills and abilities of the player.

“We are concerned about the rapid development of increasingly detailed materials that players are using to help with reading greens during a round. We are reviewing the use of these materials to assess whether any actions need to be taken to protect this important part of the game. We expect to address this matter further in the coming months.”

This is an issue that will garner considerable debate before the controlling bodies make their decision.

It is true that a shot needs to be executed irrespective of how much information a player has beforehand but the increase in artificial aids reduces the gap between the artist and the more mechanical player which surely is not good for the game.  

Change can be good but not always.


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