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Every year, there are scientific improvements to the game of golf. Heavy steel shafts have been replaced by graphite and other light-composite materials. Real wooden woods have gone the way of stick shift cars and rotary telephones. Golf balls go farther and they can stick on a green like a dart if you hit them right.
But the latest, biggest innovation to the world of golf is the range finder or GPS system. A few years ago, they were rare. Today, many serious golfers have them. Some courses even provide GPS systems on their carts.
My husband, Gene, thinks they should be illegal.
“We should play pure golf where we eye-ball the distance and select the right club,” he says. “There are already enough yardage indicators on the courses: 150-yard markers, sprinkler heads and plaques in the fairway every 25 yards. If I could hit the exact yardage of the GPS, I wouldn’t be sitting here proofreading my wife’s golf column—I would be playing on the (Champions) Tour.”
“If I have a back-pin placement, I add 8 yards,” he explained. “If I have a front-pin placement, I subtract 8 yards.”
This is the man who travels with a 2008 Rand-McNally book of maps in his car because he believes GPS systems are for sissies. Real men get lost and stay lost and finally fight their way out of the maze with pure testosterone and determination. Of course, asking for directions is something that cannot happen on the quest to get from point A to point B. Asking for directions is being a sissy.
I can understand Gene’s point of view, and there are others who feel the same way.
However, if I’m playing in a tournament and everyone else is using a navigational system but me, I am at a definite disadvantage. It’s like playing the ball down when everyone else is playing “lift, clean and place.”
The use of measuring devices (GPS systems and range finders) were approved by the United States Golf Association (USGA) in 2005 and appeared in the revised official 2006 Rules of Golf. The only caveat was that devices could only show distance, not anything else that could affect play, like wind or elevation. Rule 14-3/0.5 allows a committee to permit the use of golf GPS and golf range finders by local rule. Today, the use of measuring devices is almost universally accepted in amateur play.
There are two basic types of measuring devices for golf courses: range finders and GPS systems.
Range finders have an interesting history. Some were initially developed for cameras. They allowed the photographer to measure the distance to the subject and take photographs in sharp focus. The camera lens shows two images of the subject, and when the wheel is turned and the two images fuse into one, that’s the distance from point A to point B.
The military developed range finders because of their obvious advantages in firing weapons. Today, hunters and outdoorsmen use them widely.
Most golf range finders use lasers. The device bounces a laser beam off an object (the flagstick) and measures the elapsed time until the beam returns. The distance calculated is very accurate.
GPS systems are often used in golf and they are able to provide much more information than a simple range finder. They are precisely tuned to signals sent by Global Positioning Satellites high above the earth and can measure distances extremely accurately.
Last week, Gene surprised me by offering to buy me a distance finder as a Christmas/birthday present. The only rub was I had to be the one to pick it out.
Excellent news! On Friday, I drove down to Martin’s Golf and Tennis Superstore in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., to check out what was available.
I spoke with Jimmy Kroutch, a lifelong golfer who was extremely knowledgeable about all the different distance finders they sell.
“There are many different systems,” he explained, “and you need to find the one that works best for you. Some golfers like the range finders like the ones made by Bushnell. They are not connected to GPS systems so there’s no downloading courses or annual fees for that privilege. You simply look through the lens and aim at a target and it will give a reading.
“Professional players often use these when they scout out a course prior to the tournament and make their own yardage books. Range finders are great, have no annual fees and are easy to use.”
According to Jimmy, GPS systems are a bit more complicated to use, but provide the golfer with more information than simple distance to the flag.
“A GPS distance finder can give you a whole lot of information. When you play a course that has been downloaded into the device, it will tell you the distance to the front, middle and back of green, show you the shape of the green, and the hazards on the course. Furthermore, it can tell you how far you need to hit the ball to clear a pond, how far to hit it if you want to lay up. It can even keep score for that round and provide a history of rounds played.
“Some GPS systems show an overview of each hole. Some screens are in black and white, others are in colors. Options, graphics and print sizes vary and pricing follows.”
A range finder that uses laser technology can be bought from around $200-$500. The advantages are many: no annual fees, simple to operate, no need to download courses. You just point it at a target to find the distance.
According to Jimmy, there are a few disadvantages that need to be considered.
“The golfer looks through the range finder like a spyglass or a set of binoculars,” he explained. “He needs to hold the device steady while he sights the target, and that can be difficult for some people, especially seniors. In addition, the golfer needs to have an awareness of the target. Lining up with a tree behind the flagstick is easy to do and that will throw off the yardage considerably.”
GPS distance finders can cost from around $200 to well over $500, depending on the bells and whistles it’s got. Golfers need to consider several points when deciding which one to purchase. Is there a hookup fee? Is there an annual fee? How many courses are stored in it?
If your distance finder has a capacity of 20 courses and you mainly play golf in the same area on the same courses, no big deal. But if you play golf at many courses in many different states each year, you might want to consider a GPS system that has several thousand courses already programmed into it. Of course, that system will cost you more.
“Consider ease of operation,” Jimmy advised. “Some people like to program stuff from their computer into their golf distance finder, some like to travel with their laptops so they can constantly update their golf GPS. It’s an individual choice.”
In researching this article, I discovered you can get a golf GPS system programmed into your cell phone if you have a sophisticated one, like an iPhone or BlackBerry.
That’s good news for some people, but it wouldn’t work for me.
I don’t even text yet.
GOLF GAB GROANER
On Saturday afternoon, a young man was following a group of elderly men playing at a snail’s pace. As the hours wore on, and he was not invited to play through, the young man became annoyed.
Finally, he yelled up to the seniors, “Would you mind speeding it up just a bit?”
One old geezer turned around and yelled back, “I’ll have you know that I was playing golf before you were born!”
“That’s great,” replied the younger golfer, “but I’d really like to finish this round before I die.”
ELSA BONSTEIN is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.