Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rangefinders, GPS and Dairy Queen

            The American Junior Golf Association announced today that they will allow Rangefinders in their events in 2013.  This may seem like some bland news to most, but this is actually a giant leap forward in the golf world.  As the largest junior golf organization in the country takes this step in favor of technology this leaves only a handful of “traditionalists” left. 
Ever since the local Rule permitting distance-measuring devices was introduced in 2006, regional golf associations and college golf accepted the lasers with open arms, more or less immediately. Notably, the USGA, R & A and major professional tours remain some of the last groups not to adopt the local Rule.  The AJGA made a calculated decision after studies showed no impact on pace of play when using rangefinders, but from a Rules perspective this may bring to light a few issues that the golf associations who have already allowed distance-measuring devices would like to see addressed by the ruling bodies.
            First, it’s important to understand that allowing distance-measuring devices is not a blanket method for allowing every state-of-the-art GPS device floating around golf superstores and eBay.  There are still limitations to what you can and cannot use.
            Under the Rules, a distance-measuring device that measures any other condition that might affect your play of the hole is not permitted.  This includes the fancy Slope feature on some laser rangefinders, weather or temperature, a level or most interestingly a compass (this comes into play later).  So before you go buy the fanciest multi-feature rangefinder (or buy for your son or daughter), make sure it only measures distance or it will still be disallowed in competition.  The penalty for using an illegal distance-measuring device is disqualification, so it’s important to get this right.
            You can find decent rangefinders anywhere from $135-$500 and the good news is that distance-only devices are less expensive than the fancier illegal models. (By the way, the Leupold GX-4, which features a yellow snap-on that allows slope measurments is currently against the Rules, whether or not the yellow snap-on is attached.  The snap-on is considered the same as a button in this case.)
            Then there is the “Aha” moment when you find a $5 app on your iPhone that promises to be USGA conforming and will be everything you or your rising junior golfer need.  Here’s the catch:  the app itself may measure distance-only and conform to every part of the local Rule permitting distance-measuring devices, but the smart phone that the app is on may not conform.  The local Rule reads, “…a player may obtain distance information by using a device that measures distance only. If, during a stipulated round, a player used a distance measuring device that is designed to gauge or measure other conditions that might affect his play (e.g., gradient, windspeed, temperature, etc.), the player is in breach of Rule 14-3, for which the penalty is disqualification, regardless of whether any such additional function is actually used.”
Most smart phones come equipped with a Compass feature, a feature that has been deemed against the Rules (see Decision 14-3/4) and will earn you an instant Dairy Queen (DQ).  Because the compass app is on the phone, the entire phone is illegal as a distance-measuring device.  On some smart phones the app can be removed, but on iPhones starting with the iPhone 3GS, the app is permanent.  It doesn’t matter if the compass isn’t used, if the phone has the capability it is not permissible.  If that isn’t enough, I can’t even begin to describe the conversation about weather apps that goes on behind closed doors in Rules circles around the country. Whether or not a general weather application violates the temperature-measuring clause is strongly debated from both sides, making even more smart phones questionable or unusable.
So with the AJGA climbing on board with a local Rule that the USGA and PGA Tour are not likely to adopt any time soon and amidst the uproar of the anchoring ban that many claim is bad for the enjoyment of the game, will the USGA tackle the issue of smart phones and GPS devices?  My money is on no, so if you’re planning to compete, spring for the distance-only rangefinder, it’s worth it in the end and will ensure you have numbers rather than letters on the scoreboard.

For the Rules regarding Distance-Measuring Devices see Rule 14-3, Appendix I and Decision 14-3/0.5.

For clarification on Smart Phones see the Northern California Golf Association’s page here:

Also, see the USGA/R&A joint statement regarding distance-measuring devices:

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