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Smartphones and competitive golf
By Chris Hibler
In a tournament this past weekend I inadvertently opened a can of worms. I asked the tournament director if I was allowed to use my iPhone as a distance measuring device. The answer I received was an unequivocal “yes,” but he added, “just as long as you only use it for distance.”
My cart partner overheard out discussion and promptly lost his marbles! He began spouting about it being against the rules:
“The tournament director does not have the power to overrule the USGA,” he said.
I decided to play it conservatively, sticking to my trusty rangefinder instead of my iPhone. As soon as the round ended, I jumped onto my iPad to see what I could find out about this murky and misunderstood rule. You know what I found out? It is a murky rule and I have misunderstood it all year long.
Here are the facts: Prior to 2006, all distance-measuring devices (aka DMD’s) were illegal during competitive rounds. In 2006, the USGA and R&A made a ruling saying that golfers could use a DMD under Local Rules during competitive rounds as long as the devices were either dedicated devices (i.e., laser ranger finders or GPS units) or golfers could use smartphones as long as they only used the devices for the DMD and not for weather or any other “illegal” data. Thus, we as golfers, were on the “honor system” — as it should be.
But, this year, the USGA and R&A came out and essentially reversed their argument saying that smartphones could be used as DMD as long as they didn’t have the capability anywhere on the device of measuring wind velocity or accessing weather data. This rendered all smartphones illegal as, in the case of iPhones, the phones contain an embedded weather app that cannot be deleted. Also, all smartphones are web-accessible, meaning you could access any website that has weather info from virtually any smartphone on the market.
This is not new news to most of you as the smartphone ban has been widely discussed since the GPS apps that many golfers have bought have been rendered useless for tournament play by the USGA this year. That could give you an unfair advantage by possibly glancing at your built-in weather app to tell you the speed and direction of the prevailing wind (which could vary widely from where the golfer is on the course, but I digress).
Back at my tournament, since I decided that I would not stir up controversy by using my iPhone, I was faced with a day with no access to my device at all — radio silence. It was just me, my clubs, my laser rangefinder and the hope that a TV was on at the turn to check NFL scores. Yes, many of you are applauding this as you would rather have me focus my attention on my round as opposed to sneaking glances at my “DirecTV Sunday Ticket” app – it keeps the round moving you say. I get that. But for me, the issue isn’t about checking football scores, using the latest golf GPS app, calling home, or even checking the wind speed; the issue here is about trust and integrity — and maybe even greed.
By banning the use of smartphones and related devices, the USGA is essentially saying that if a typical golfer uses these devices they are going to cheat. I’ve got news for you USGA, if I am going to cheat, I am going to REALLY cheat. What are the ways to REALLY cheat? Here they are in no particular order:
- “Find” my lost ball in the deep woods by dropping a matching ball down my pant leg.
- Improve my lie in the greenside rough to make it easier to chip the ball
- Count my whiff in the long grass as “a practice swing.”
- Mark my ball closer to the hole to shorten my putt.
Do I do these things? No. Have I seen (or suspected others) from doing these? You bet. I know one thing, nowhere on that list do you see where I think that a device will give me a wind speed reading that will actually help me to lower my score. I also didn’t make any note on that list about how a compass reading would assist me in any way.
I will go so far as to say that at even the highest level of golf, there would be little advantage gained with the knowledge that a smartphone could tell them about wind direction or wind speed that they couldn’t better themselves by dropping grass clippings in midair moments before their shot.
My point is this: golf is a game of integrity. The job for us as golfers is to play the course fair and square. We call penalties on ourselves when the ball moves inadvertently. We mark the ball where it came to rest on the green. We don’t try to cheat our competitors or ourselves. If you do, you don’t belong in this game.
I personally believe two things about golf integrity, which I call “Golf Karma”
- The guilt of “getting away” with a cheat weighs heavily on the golfer’s mind resulting in errant shots as the round progresses.
- We get rewarded later in the round for calling a penalty on ourselves (that no one else knew about let alone suspected) based on real self-confidence borne from integrity.
I would like it if the USGA would actually trust us. But, I have a sinking suspicion that the answer lies somewhere in the dirty underbelly of golf merchandising: the groups that benefit most from this inane ruling are the companies that specialize in the “legal” yardage devices. By quashing the low-priced app competition, the USGA has essentially ruled in favor of the handful of companies that create dedicated GPS units and laser rangefinders.
The other point is that common sense tells us that essentially banning smartphones in 2012 and beyond is just not practical in this day and age. Yes, I can recall the old and simpler days where I would leave my phone in the car, take my four hours out on the links and just tune out of life. But, we are simply not wired this way anymore. Our devices have become an extension of ourselves. For golf, it’s simply not practical to ban my possession of a smartphone on the course. I track my stats for later analysis. I keep my scorecards on my phone to see how my game is progressing. Yes, there’s is some wishy-washy part of the rule that states that you can have your phone in your pocket or something along those lines if it’s not in use.
But, I don’t like your chances with a hardline tournament director trying to argue, “I wasn’t using it, it was just in my pocket, kind of off with no weather app and stuff.”
At the end of the day, I would just like the USGA to trust and allow me as a golfer to do a few simple things in 2013:
- Not cheat with my smartphone while using it during a competitive round.
- Not slow play by device distraction.
- Actually speed up play by knowing my yardage quickly without wandering around looking for sprinklers or yardage markers.
- Save money in a tough economy by using affordable GPS apps on smartphones
- Use mobile devices versus feeling obligated to purchase expensive “legal” yardage devices.
One final thought and a note to the USGA: what exactly am I supposed to do with my handy and convenient “Rules of Golf” app that you offer through the App store anyway? I just want to be sure I know what to say when my competitor “finds” his ball in the woods a minute before I find it.