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Laser rangefinders used in golf operate by shining a beam where it is pointed and calculating the time it takes to reflect the beam to a built-in sensor. While this may sound complex, rangefinders can be very accurate and relatively affordable for an average user. Most rangefinders come in a monocular style which offers a slight magnification to help zone in on an object. There are also binoculars with built-in rangefinders; these allow visibility at a greater distance and higher accuracy.
Rangefinders can help a recreational golfer’s game, but can they be used on a professional level? Yes, PGA players can use rangefinders in games—but with limitations.
The Pro Golfers’ Association (PGA) has traditionally banned rangefinders and other measuring devices used to determine distance in golf games. However, in 2021 the PGA Championship saw the first use of distance-measuring devices or DMDs. The championship went from May 20–23, 2021, at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina.
The rule change did not mean that players would have the ability to use anything they want. Per PGA rules, rangefinders can only give yardage and direction. Players cannot use devices that provide other details such as slope or wind speed.
The change is not completely unexpected or unprecedented as there has been speculation for years as to whether rangefinders would one day be allowed. The United States Golf Association (USGA) started allowing the use of rangefinders back in 2006. However, the use in games can vary based on rules set at a local level, and the USGA still restricts rangefinder use at certain competitions.
It was previously thought that allowing rangefinders would take away some of the skills previously on display at competitions. In addition, many felt that it would change the dynamic between players and their caddies. Whether this is true or not is more ambiguous and is left up to spectators. However, allowing measuring devices significantly change what a player focuses on during a match. Previously, rangefinders were able to be used during practice which would allow golfers to get some idea of how far they may be playing.
The PGA has come under scrutiny in recent years for being somewhat archaic in its rules regarding the use of rangefinders. Spectators and players alike have been encouraging the change. While it may appear unusual that viewers want to allow something that takes away some of the skill of the game, it is thought that allowing them will speed up the game. It is true that allowing measuring devices speed up the game, but there is also some level of intrigue in watching a player and caddy carefully craft their next shot. The dilemma that the PGA is faced with is not necessarily that games take too long; it is more about pacing where the action comes to an abrupt halt after every shot. The problem of pacing is not unique to golf, as spectators have grown increasingly impatient with other sports, including NASCAR and the NFL. Making the change to allow rangefinders will hopefully make the sport attractive to the next generation of players.
Rangefinders can provide a substantial advantage in golf because they provide an exact distance to the hole, and many have a built-in compass. Therefore, it takes the guesswork out of shot distances. This is the reason why the PGA had banned the use of rangefinders in pro games—rangefinders might be giving too many advantages to the players.
Not only do rangefinders help the pros, but they can also help those learning the sport. That is because rangefinders can be an invaluable learning tool. When just getting started, players are likely focusing on their form and proper club use. By using a rangefinder, they can better understand what club to use by knowing how many yards are left. By doing so, they will slowly build confidence in judging long distances, something that the pros do not necessarily need a rangefinder to do.
The use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is also now allowed in PGA tournaments. Although rangefinders may get most of the attention, GPS units also provide significant advantages to players. These devices can show an overhead view of a course, so a player knows their precise location even on the most complex holes.
A less simple yet much cheaper option is a rangefinder scope. These pocket-sized devices use a single monocular with hash marks to help estimate the distance to the green. Instead of relying on technology to calculate the precise distance to a given point, these rely on lining up the printed lines with the flag.
The problems with these are numerous, but some may find it “fairer” because of the limitations. Firstly, it requires being able to see the flag, which is problematic for obvious reasons. Even being close to the green does not mean there will be a clear line of sight if the ball is not in the perfect position. In addition, if the flag is not perfectly in the hole, it will distort the readings. These scopes are also unable to account for deviations in the terrain and could therefore give inaccurate readings.
Golfers used to keep track of the yardage to the green from various points on the course in a yardage book. It is common to see golfers and their caddies pull out what appears to be a small notebook, but this is actually a carefully assembled assortment of numbers ranging from distances to elevation at various points along the course. These books even have detailed information on the green, including yardage and contours. All this information can now be ascertained by rangefinders and GPS devices.
Previously, players and caddies tracked the distance of a given course and approximately how far they already played. These details allowed them to roughly calculate how much distance is left from their playing position. Of course, this is also quite time-consuming as players methodically calculate the angle and distance of every shot.
Despite the PGA allowing limited use of rangefinders, golfers have mixed reviews on using them. Some golfers embrace the combination of technology and human skill, while others feel that rangefinders will interrupt game play or push players to rely overly on technology. Despite the varying opinions, the use of technology is becoming more common on the professional sporting level.
Featured Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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