Have Rangefinders Ruined the Game?

USGA Managing Director Mike Davis says he doesn't think players and caddies are interested in using rangefinders in competition.
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis says players and caddies aren’t interested in using rangefinders in competition.

One of my favorite things about Rules of Golf is instructor Ed Ekis. He’s a PGA Professional, and he’s been there, done that, if you know what I mean. Ed has been around awhile. He likes to joke that he once played golf with Old Tom Morris, but he’s also had conversations with Ben Hogan. The Ben Hogan.

Ed brings an interesting perspective in that he grew up maintaining his dad’s golf course, mowing fairways and greens and placing pins. He’s designed golf courses, and he’s also managed them. His brother played on the Tour, and back in the day, Ed was good enough to play too, if he wanted. If anyone knows where golf is headed based on where it’s been, it’s Ed. The guy never looks like he’s in a hurry to do anything or get anywhere, and he has a very pleasant demeanor.

There are days, like today, when Ed gets going on a topic, and the class transforms into something truly special. These thought-provoking conversations we’re having are very important. When we graduate from the Golf Academy, we’re stewards of a sport and an industry. We know about the state of the game and some of the problems it’s facing: pace of play, an aging clientele, less free time, and more distractions. Millennials aren’t spending eight or nine hours at the country club anymore. Society is just more caffeinated.

In May, the R&A revealed more than 50 percent of 56,000 survey respondents used devices to measure distances on a golf course.
In May, the R&A revealed more than 50-percent of 56,000 surveyed used devices to measure distances on a golf course.

One of Ed’s biggest concerns for our golfing generation is electronics – specifically rangefinders or distance measuring devices (DMDs). Ed is against them for one reason: they eliminate the player’s discovery of the nuances of the golf course. His argument is that golf is one of, if not the only sport, in which we care about the architect or the course designer. We seek-out courses designed by an A.W. Tillinghast or Alister MacKenzie, masters of illusion and camouflage, because golf is a sport that’s unconfined. It’s not confined to the 94 feet of a basketball court or the 100 yards of a football field. You tee up your ball, you hit your ball, you find your ball, and you hit your ball again. it could be in the fairway, or it could be in the rough… or worse.

Architects build obstacles into the course to make it difficult. They can play tricks with our eyes and our depth perception simply by planting trees or placing bunkers in one spot and not another. If you know the exact yardage to the edge of that bunker, to clear that grove of trees, or to reach the front of the green, haven’t you sort of ruined the magic of not knowing that until you know it? It may take a few rounds to learn that it’s closer to 185 yards and not 150, but isn’t that the fun of the pursuit? Think back to when you were a kid. Do you remember knowing how to beat a video game or solve a puzzle before your friends did? Until they figured it out, you knew something they didn’t! But you knew, and that was part of the fun.

But what about the pace of play, you ask? Don’t rangefinders make for faster rounds? I say no. Admittedly, I don’t have any raw data to back that up, but I do have plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests rounds aren’t any faster with rangefinders than they were when there were yardage markers in the fairways – and those seem to be disappearing now too! It’s as if golf courses unanimously decided everyone needs a rangefinder and stopped putting yardages on sprinklerheads or along fairways. Throw rangefinders on top of the scrapheap with golf carts, colored pin flags, and yardage markers. All of those things were supposed to speed up the pace of play, and they didn’t.

Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington says players like rangefinder but would still use their yardage guides to confirm distances and determine yardages.
Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington says players like rangefinders but would still use their yardage guides to confirm distances and determine yardages.

But that’s not the point. What’s lost is the feel and the nuance of the game. It’s the fact that your eyes play tricks on you based on the course layout. With rangefinders, the fear of the unknown is virtually eliminated. Ed is afraid there will come a time when golf becomes nothing more than a technical pursuit. It’s harder to play the game to a number and not by feel. Let’s face it, you’re not good enough to hit the ball to an exact yardage, and neither am I, but rangefinders are like training wheels. They’re a dangerous crutch. They’re like watching a magician perform a magic trick. When you know how they do it, it’s fun at first, but not as exciting in the long run. And when you know the secret, golf is like anything else you conquer. Once you do, it’s on to the next video game or the next puzzle. How long are you going to want to execute golf shots before you start looking for the next ____?

Ed says there are three things we can all do for the good of the game: play the course as we find it, play the ball as it lies, and be a gentleman/gentlewoman. Perhaps we should add another item to that list – no rangefinders.

For two really good articles about rangefinders and how they affect pace of play, click here and here.


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