The USGA is on the verge of another very dumb move

One step forward, two steps back. A week after it seemed common sense held some sway with the folks in Far Hills, the USGA is up to its old tricks.

Much like with driver size, COR and MOI in drivers, four-piece urethane ball, and anchoring, golf’s governing body has given notice it might rule on something it originally permitted. In this case: “green-reading materials.”

That’s right, the USGA got the week started off right with a morning press release indicating they are examining the use of, essentially, yardage books in light of Rule 14-3, which primarily prohibits a player from “the use of any artificial device or unusual equipment … for the purpose of gauging or measuring distance or conditions that might affect his play.”

The full USGA-R&A joint statement reads:

“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.”

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Yardage books themselves caused much uproar decades ago when the appeared on Tour, with purists arguing the detailed hole maps were a form of cheating. In recent years, green-mapping technology has taken the detail in the books to the 10th power.

Just look at some of veteran PGA Tour caddie, Mark Long’s, work.

(Photo source/Tour Sherpa)

The extreme level of detail of the books aside, more generally, the USGA is looking at drawing another arbitrary line in the sand. Here’s the only line that matters: It’s either gotta be yardage books with every imaginable detail or no yardage books and players relying solely on their judgement. Anything in-between is just silly.

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Consider the example of titanium drivers. No one would argue that the benefit of titanium-headed drivers was immediately apparent when the clubs started showing up on Tour in the late 80s. Yet the USGA didn’t legislate until the early 2000s, when they set head-size, coefficient of restitution and moment of inertia limits. The effect of the decision was to stem the tide, but allow the initial “problem” to persist. Mike Davis and company look to be heading in exactly the same direction regarding yardage books with this decision.

“It is the increased level of detail that the USGA and the R&A has seen of late, both in printed and electronic form, that has prompted the study,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status.

Commenting via e-mail, he continued, “It is fair to say all materials will be reviewed, but the original intent was not focused on basic printed yardage guides found at most golf courses, but those with an increased level of detail/sophistication.”

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Golf Digest’s Mike Stachura postulates that the USGA’s real concern is for what could happen in the future: “It seems conceivable that green charts instead of contour lines measuring the percentage of slope (see below) might someday reach a stage where all putting locations might be determined to have a certain break like two feet right or six inches left.”

Maybe so. But you’ve still got to hit the damn putt. Players are presented with a thousand times more information than they were a decades ago. The same is true in baseball. The same is true in football.

Ultimately, this is yet another area where the USGA’s decision to try to jam toothpaste back in the tube in the name of protecting the sanctity of the game is misplaced.