I spent Sunday afternoon with members of the high school golf team I coach playing a practice round and preparing for the South State golf championship to be held a week from Monday. A lot of things have changed in the 20+ years since I’ve played high school golf. In addition to the obvious changes in technology and the way junior golfers these days know how to use these advances to their benefit, there’s a new piece of equipment that I see more and more at each tournament we play.
Not to date myself, but when I was in high school, the big advance in technology for golf clubs was the Taylor Made Burner Plus metal wood. It looks like a hybrid compared to today’s monster 460 cc drivers, but compared to the persimmon that we were playing at the time it might as well have been the space shuttle. Then came lightweight carry bags to replace the old leather bags we used to lug around and for those who could afford it, there was the balata-covered Titleist Professional ball and the then-new Maxfli HT.
But for today’s junior golfers, the hot new piece of equipment is neither a club nor a ball. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the act of actually hitting the ball or playing a shot. Today every aspiring young junior golfer seems to have a laser rangefinder in his or her bag.
At first, I thought it was humorous to see four golfers walking down the fairway, approaching their balls, and dropping their stand bags to the ground to reach in and pull out the rangefinders. They would then spend a good 10 to 15 seconds bracing their elbows to their chest and holding the rangefinder in front of their face like a birdwatcher spotting some rare yellow-breasted-duck-billed-triple-toed Siamese warbler in order to shoot the yardage to the flag. It was almost like it had become a part of the pre-shot routine. They never gave a thought to a sprinkler head or yardage marker. They didn’t need to–it was all in the palm of their hands.
You would literally see nearly every top junior golfer at some of these events standing there next to their bag like they were spotting for a Navy SEAL sniper–getting the yardage to the target and adjusting for wind. Unfortunately, most of these kids aren’t remotely as accurate as our nation’s finest and this target doesn’t even move or duck for cover.
After watching one of my players routinely fly the green with his approach shots for three holes in a row, I walked up to his bag while he was putting and removed the rangefinder. When he asked me why I was taking it, I told him that I didn’t think he knew how to use it. Turns out I was right.
A little questioning revealed that he wasn’t looking for a yardage marker or a sprinkler head, getting his yardage, and then using the rangefinder to zero in on the target. He was depending solely on the rangefinder and instead of shooting the flag, he was shooting the trees behind the green.
When I was playing high school golf, my goal was just to get the ball in the middle of the green. If I happened to miss it a little bit and it got closer to the pin, I just acted like that’s what I was trying to do. But like so many amateurs who insist on a pin sheet for a normal round of golf with their friends, some of these juniors think they can dial it in like Rory or Phil.
Don’t get me wrong, I want people to hit it is close to the pin as they can. It makes the game more enjoyable and speeds up play. I just don’t think most amateurs are as proficient in their shotmaking skills as they think they are just because they have a rangefinder. They still have to hit the shot and for most people who play the game, walking a yardage from a sprinkler head to their ball to get the distance to the center of the green is just as helpful/accurate as spending the time to use the rangefinder and hopefully picking up the right target.
To test my theory during Sunday’s practice round, I would routinely guess yardages by what I call “ocular engineering” (eyeballing it) and/or using a sprinkler head and my own two legs and then ask my players what yardage they found with the rangefinders. I was always within five yards but that didn’t seem to matter to them and their technology.
This is a sample of but one of many exchanges:
“164 yards,” I said.
“Nope,” was one reply. “161.”
Finally I explained to them that the difference of 3 yards was barely more than the height of the flag stick and if nine feet made that much difference in the way they were going to play the shot from 161 yards out, then they didn’t need to be playing high school golf. It was time to pack away the books and head off to Q school.
Of course I doubt if any of these kids will pack away the rangefinders. And I don’t mind that they use them when the rules permit. I just want them to realize it is a tool to supplement their talent and it shouldn’t become a crutch. They need to use it to verify a yardage and not become dependent on it. And of course if the battery runs out during a round, it’s always nice to know how big a stride in your step equals one yard.