So many times, Chesson Hadley has stood in the 18th fairway at TPC Wakefield Plantation, contemplating his final shot of the day. Still, Thursday was new. For the first time in a competitive round, he looked at the green through a laser range-finder.
Typically prohibited during tournaments, the Rex Hospital Open is one of four Web.com Tour events this summer where the use of range-finders is allowed as part of a PGA Tour trial project to improve pace of play and assess their impact on the game. So caddie Josh Svendsen handed Hadley the range-finder on 18, as he had on every shot all day, even if it didn’t feel quite right.
“I know I’m allowed to use one this week, but I checked again on the first tee just to make sure,” said Hadley, the Raleigh native.
At every other level of golf below the professional tours, range-finders have become ubiquitous, for recreational golfers and even USGA amateur events since 2014. (The competitors in Wednesday’s U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title match even yelled laser-shot distances across the fairway from opposite sides of the rough to see who should play first.)
But the tours are always a little hesitant to blindly embrace technology, enforcing strict technical standards for balls and clubs, and the use of any kind of measuring device has always been prohibited during tournament rounds, if not practice rounds. Even this trial is only for measuring straight-line distance, not slope or elevation.
So while everyone else on a golf course can get an instant distance from their range-finder before they even hop out of the cart, professionals and their caddies still do things the old way during tournament rounds, stepping off distances from sprinkler heads, looking them up in yardage books, adding up the numbers. Just not this week.
“People always asks us what we’re doing out there,” Svendsen said. “Half the time, we’re doing math.”
In that sense, the range-finder debate is like many in golf that put technology up against tradition.
There’s something ceremonial about the conversation between caddie and golfer that leads to a consensus yardage and appropriate club selection. And a range-finder isn’t much use while the pin is out, so players still have to wait for the group ahead to clear the green to get a number.
“It basically gives me something to do so I don’t sit there twiddling my thumbs, which I’m very good at,” said 2005 Pinehurst hero Jason Gore.
At the same time, if the use of a range-finder can save a few minutes here and there – especially when players are way off line and not near any established landmarks in the yardage book – anything that can potentially shave time off a round has to be considered.
“It makes it quicker,” said Austin Alvarez, who caddies for Derek Ernst. “I wouldn’t say it makes it easier.”
While the potential time savings are unknown, a range-finder can definitely keep players and their caddies from making a big mistake, from getting the math wrong or misreading the book.
On a Sunday, when the pressure is on and the fog of competition is thick, they have been known to add when they should subtract, or look at the wrong green on the pin sheet, or make any number of silly mental mistakes. Being able to pull out a range-finder and double-check a distance would remove that human element from the equation.
“That can happen where you do that, especially when you’re under the gun trying to win,” said Marvin King, who caddies for Rhein Gibson.
That may be the hidden cost of adopting the technology to save a little time, and that’s the decision the PGA Tour will eventually have to make.
As for Hadley, the range-finder told him he was 101 yards away from the 18th pin. He handed it back to Svendsen, dropped a wedge within 5 feet and sunk the birdie putt to take the clubhouse lead at 7-under par. Svendsen, for his part, fears no obsolescence, no matter what the rule ends up being.
“I’m not going to worry about losing my job on something like that until they make you put the carts or something,” Svendsen said. “As long as I got to carry the bag, I’m all right.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock