Is that the final word? I wouldn't think so or hope so, because the letter is a "form letter" approving use of an "artificial device" that offers to read putts in competition and under the existing Rules is clearly not correct unless the USGA has gone completely off the rails and opened the door to playing golf in a very lifeless, spiritless way, and has backed up on its brand new agreement with the Royal and Ancient not to allow use of "artificial devices" for such purposes in the game of golf. What really appears to underlie the issuance of this letter is a bit of inattention to the threat to the game from emerging technology, a bit of fat-finger typing in application of the Rules, a bit of USGA Administrative confusion, and a somewhat indigestible bigger bit of the PGA Tour's tolerance for edge-getting practices as the tail wagging the dog of golf in the USGA's Rules.
Misapplication of the Rules as Written
First, the approval of an artificial device for putt reading during competition (and for handicapping purposes) is clearly wrong under the Rules. Rule 14-3 bans use of any "artificial device" unless previously approved by the USGA as something whose use has been "traditionally accepted" in golf. A "yardage book" is an "artificial device" as stated in Decision 14-3/5 ("such a booklet is an artificial device."). The language was put in after the USGA yielded to the Tour's practice of using "yardage books" when playing for lots of cash. Amateurs wanted to follow the pros, courses started marking sprinkler heads and offering their own yardage books, and the USGA relented. The practice wasn't really "traditionally accepted", but was "expediently tolerated for the sake of the pros" and then crept in the back door of the Rules. Even so, the Rules carefully limit the informational assistance in the "artificial device" of yardage books and similar aids to readily available, shot-making neutral information about distance relations on the course.
An "artificial device" that suggests how to play a putt by processing information about slope direction and steepness, green speed, ball distance and position, and ball speed control with elaborate and abstruse physics calculations is barred by the plain meaning of language throughout the Rules. The offered information goes far beyond the distance measurements allowed in a yardage book to suggest the number of inches above the hole to aim the putter for the break, using calculations no human can perform on the course. While it's true that the suggested read is based upon assumptions and that general physics formulae don't exactly get all the details of reality accounted for and that other products may well offer better suggestions, the problem is in allowing ANYONE other than the player (his caddie or partner included) to make ANY suggestion about how a shot or stroke should be played during a round that counts for competition or handicapping. Golf is "you're away", not "y'all are away."
Such language bars handheld GPS devices that feature more than distance, and a device that is capable of measuring like a range finder or computing matters related to how to play a shot are strictly banned, whether a golfer uses them or not. Similarly, although the Rules have "sort of" tolerated laser range finders to the extent of permitting their use IF a local committee so decides, the Rules nonetheless explicitly disallow any local committee from approving use of any laser range finder that does more than offer distance. This means that Bushnell laser range finders currently on the market offering gradient / elevation change from ball to flagstick and a computation that the distance is X yards but "plays as X plus" yards cannot be approved by any local committee, is per se illegal even if distance-only range finders are allowed, and the player using one is disqualified whether he personally takes advantage of the slope feature or not. The Rules Decision reads:
"14-3/0.5 Local Rule Permitting Use of Distance-Measuring Device
Q. May a Committee, by Local Rule, permit the use of distance-measuring devices?
A. Yes. A Committee may establish a Local Rule allowing players to use devices that measure or gauge distance only (see the Note to Rule 14-3). However, the use of a distance-measuring device that is designed to gauge or measure other conditions that might affect a player's play (e.g., gradient, wind speed, temperature, etc.) is not permitted regardless of whether such an additional function is used."
Period, end of ballgame, DQ.
I have quoted the numerous other express provisions of the Rules on my Flatstick Forum in this post barring more than shot-neutral distance information and precluding use of shot-playing assistance in the form of information about gradient, slope, elevation changes, break, grain, green speed, indications of the "line of play" or the "line of putt", target identification, club or putter aiming, and assistance to the player in handling the "elements" like wind and rain and blinding sunlight with towels and umbrellas and the like.
Contravention of Recent USGA Agreement with R&A on Artificial Devices
The USGA and the R&A have been quite energized of late to develop a unified approach to responding to emerging technologies affecting the playing of the game. The twin organizations want to be seeing eye-to-eye on these issues and to that effect issued an "R&A / USGA Joint Statement on Electronic Devices, Including Distance-Measuring Devices". A key passage is:
"The R&A and USGA first allowed the use of distance-measuring devices [i.e., laser range finders] in January 2006. prior to this, while the use of yardage books was allowed, the use of distance-measuring devices was prohibited by Rule 14-3. The change introduced in 2006 permitted the committee in charge of a competition or course to introduce a Local Rule allowing distance-measuring devices. A very important proviso of this permission is that the device must measure distance only; it must not measure other conditions such as wind speed or direction, the slope of the ground or the temperature."The stated REASON for the Rule is:
"As with the equipment Rules, the purpose of these Rules is to protect golf's best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance upon technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game."The Joint Statement then offers "A Clarification of the Rules":
"The emergence of multi-functional devices that can provide additional information to golfers (that could, for example, further help the golfer to determine how to make his next stroke or could otherwise affect his playing of the game) is a relatively new development. For the avoidance of doubt, the governing bodies do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate for the Rules of Golf to allow such devices. The following points clarify how the Rules will be applied:
1. Distance-measuring devices (i.e. devices whose primary function is to measure distance) may continue to be used only if a Local Rule is in effect;
2. When the Local Rule is in effect, distance-measuring devices must be limited to measuring distance only. The use of a distance-measuring device would constitute a breach of the Rules if:
While the Joint Statement explicitly deals with "electronic" artificial devices, the reasoning applies with equal force to ALL "artificial devices", including booklets on paper offering recommendations about the line of a putt. Rule 14-3's procedure for submission of manufacturing sample for consideration by the USGA includes submission of "artificial devices" and "equipment" or "item" "that might assist him making a stroke or in his play" -- not only "electronic" devices. Any device / booklet / electronic gadget recommending how to play a stroke or the line of a putt is prohibited -- and rightly so.
- The device has the capability of gauging or measuring other conditions that might affect play (e.g. wind speed, gradient, temperature, etc.), or;
- The device has some other non-conforming feature, including, but not limited to, recommendations that might assist the player in making a stroke or in his play, such as club selection, type of shot to be played (e.g. punch shot, pitch and run, etc.), or green reading (i.e. a recommended line of putt), or other advice-related matters. ...
- The device has the capability to assist in calculating the effective distance between two points (i.e. distance after considering gradient, wind speed and/or direction, temperature or other environmental factors).
PGA Tour "Tail" Wagging the USGA "Dog"
As in the past, the advantage-seeking practices tolerated by the PGA Tour all too readily exceed the traditions and spirit of the game in the pursuit of competitive victory and monetary rewards. The dollars are just HUGE every week, and so is the understandable willingness (even eagerness or desperation) of pros to take advantage of ANYTHING not expressly banned or ruled against by the USGA. Indeed, the pros aren't really required to adhere to USGA Rules if they don't choose to do so (and players in fact run the Tour), but they are sort of stuck since they are playing "golf", aren't they?
The advent of "yardage books" in the 1960s is a case in point. Just like the use of laser range finders prior to 2006, which then violated Rule 14-3, the use of yardage books on Tour was not really permissible until the USGA dealt with the issue and yielded to the flood-tide of amateurs mimicking the pros and golf course operators dotting the holes with marked sprinkler heads and selling their own course yardage books to satisfy market demands. So now we have the Decision 14-3/5 allowing "yardage books" but only limited to "distance" information and not "other conditions affecting play."
What does this say about the Tour practice of allowing use of "caddie books" crammed with information far beyond distance, specifically intended to assist the player in making shots and strokes on the greens? Today, "caddie books" come in essentially two forms: a "caddie book" published for specific courses prepared by a select few caddies and sold to other caddies and players at the event, and "caddie books" homemade personally by the individual caddie. The two issues are 1) "Is a commercially sold "caddie book" (the first sort above) an "artificial device" for purposes of Rule 14-3?", and 2) "If so, does the inclusion of information on course conditions beyond distance render such a "caddie book" illegal as recommending how to play a stroke or otherwise affecting play?" This is a problem for the USGA of the dog getting wagged by the tail.
Caddie books are a lucrative business on Tour and the two dominant makers and sellers of caddie books are George Lucas and Mark Long. Mark Long utilizes very expensive laserometry surveying equipment and hired helpers to measure and record not only a vast number of locations and distances of course features but also topographical slope and gradient and elevation differences of the 3-D contour of the course and especially the shape of the green surface. He states proudly that between caddying for pros and selling his caddie books to about 60% of the Tour for numerous event courses, he "makes more than a Boeing 747 pilot." Here is an image of a green in one of these caddie books sold on Tour:
This green graphic includes a grid, equal elevation contour lines, fall line slope directions, and fall line slope steepness information as gradient percentage (e.g., 3.3% slope at the arrow). Emerging technologies allow even more detail and graphic precision and computing power.
For purposes of defining the game and its traditions, who cares what the Tour allows -- should the amateur golfer be allowed to use such information during play? No, not under the existing USGA Rules. So why is it legal on Tour? There is no answer to that, but if the issue were forced and the USGA had to decide whether to separate itself from Tour practices in order to preserve and protect the role of "SKILL" in golf against such assistance in an "artificial device" as allowed on Tour, one would not be too eager to bet the farm that the USGA "dog" would wag the Tour "tail" in ways that make it look like the Tour players are playing golf on "training wheels" or are effectively cheating in comparison to how amateurs are required to play, or even to make it "harder" for amateurs to play the game than it is for pros. Oh, brother, what a predicament!
It's understood that the Tour is trying to balance the traditions of the game against the commercial interests of pros, course owners and operators, and equipment and device manufacturers. And it's also understood that the health of the game depends somewhat on the ability of amateurs to acquire and perform with SKILL and to admire and hope to attain or surpass the level of SKILL apparently displayed by pros on television playing for $1 million first-prize pots of gold every week. But if the "skill" baby is thrown out with the "this game is too hard without help while I play" bath water, what's the point? Get all the help you want and can afford when practicing, but play the game by yourself.
As the bartender said in The Shining, "What can I get for you this evening, sir?" and "Your money's no good here, sir."
Lloyd the bartender enables Jack to jump off the wagon, get thoroughly sloshed, and drown out his lingering misgivings about ax-murdering his wife and child.
Probably what is needed is three sets of USGA Rules: one for pros, one for amateurs wanting to emulate the pros, and one for people just wanting to play traditional golf. Sad, but true. The current challenges posed to the integrity of the game by GPS mapping and surface imaging and handheld smart phones and iPhone Apps and cell-phone video tips and computer-calculated physics for reading putts and laser range finders suggesting clubs for uphill par threes and on-course internet information on where the cut line in a tournament stands and how a hole has been playing -- it's all too much for the USGA.
Let me make a suggestion: get ahead of this now, or lose control entirely. Here's my "guiding principle" -- nothing used by the golfer that he or his caddie didn't personally generate with personal senses and knowledge, and no buying of information or services or electronic or other devices that offer any assistance from a third party about how to play the game and then bringing that onto the course during competition. Anyone can use anything to acquire knowledge and skill, of the game and of a course and how to play it, but no golfer should be allowed to consult any "outside agency" during competition for advice or suggestion or recommendation about how to play a stroke or other assistance in his play. Period. Please.
Putting Coach and Theorist