Players and caddies during the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach (AGC photo)
Jeff Hull used to spend hours tracking down numbers that might be useful to his players in competition. Hull, the head women’s golf coach at Furman, used everything from Google Earth images to levels to his own experience and knowledge to create guides that would help players determine green slope and contour as well as landing areas for approach shots. From there, Hull and his players could create a game plan.
It was a time-consuming way for Hull to spend a practice round, but even though it was hard to quantify the exact number of strokes saved, he could see a drop in scoring when players had the right information in their hands.
“I think for us, it was a dramatic difference when we got here,” Hull said. “We’ve really started on putting. We had a lot of three-putts because kids couldn’t read greens very well.”
Having an idea of where to hit an approach shot – something past see flag, hit at flag – has been game-changing, too.
Now the information Hull provides his players is just more sophisticated. When the veteran coach heard about StrackaLine green guides, a detailed green-reading book produced by a digital golf-course scan, he signed up. Hull thinks he was one of the first coaches to do so, but now StrackaLine has a college base of more than 300 teams.
“From a playing standpoint, we talk about the green shapes and how the slopes are and where you need to position your shot,” Hull said of having more detailed books than the ones he could easily create. “I’ve used it a lot in a practice (setting), so when we practice, we look at the green charts and we talk about what does break really mean.”
As a modernized version of the Rules of Golf goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, so, too, will limits on the green-reading materials that players can use in competition – primarily, the kinds of books that StrackaLine produces. The USGA's limits on the information in those materials were prompted by the way professionals were using them. Throughout the process of vetting a new interpretation of Rule 4.3, which covers equipment, green-reading materials were sometimes framed as tools that are only necessary on Tour and only utilized by professionals.
Interestingly, when Jim Stracka, president of StrackaLine, first designed the product, he designed it with amateurs in mind. That means that when the calendar turns to 2019, amateurs should be just as aware of the changes, and the misconceptions that surround them, as professionals. Understanding the impetus behind the new interpretation goes a long way in understanding the interpretation itself.
Getting it right
As Craig Winter, a USGA Director for Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, explains, increasingly detailed versions of green-reading books raised a red flag for the USGA at the 2016 Rio Olympics. A committee formed to examine the effect of those books, with the goal always being to protect green reading as a skill essential to the game.
“Players need to be able to read their line of putt with their feet, with their eyes, and these products were taking away from that skill,” Winter said. “We needed to put some useful limitations on that to ensure that that was a skill that they could maintain going forward.”
The USGA announced a set of proposed limits on green-reading materials in August
and opened a six-week feedback period for players across all levels of the game. Winter remembers amateur feedback being light except for in one sector: college golf.
“There was significant feedback from college coaches asking us how it’s going to work: ‘I do this for my players, I don’t really understand,’” Winter said.
That feedback highlighted a concern among USGA officials about the burden some of the proposed limits might place on golf-club professionals, who are often called upon to give rulings at college tournaments.
“That committee of one,” Winter said. “He or she would be trying to figure out, based on the initial proposal, is what this coach has, what this player has, OK?”
The USGA originally proposed a minimum slope indication limit of 4 percent and a prohibition against using handwritten notes to create a copy or facsimile of a detailed green map. Those details were removed after the feedback period.
In retrospect, Winter admits, the USGA may have been “just a little bit too clever” in its initial proposal by including provisions that would have been hard to enforce across the board.
The finalized interpretation of Rule 4.3 set forth by the USGA on Oct. 15
limits the scale of putting-green images (3/8 inch to 5 yards or smaller), limits the size of the book (4 ¼ inches x 7 inches), prevents magnification of putting-green information and limits handwritten notes to those of only the player and his/her caddie.
Stracka, being an extremely interested party in the pending green-reading limits, was a valuable voice during the review period. He recalls meeting with Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s Senior Director of the Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, to better familiarize the USGA with the information he provides players.
“I live, eat and breathe this, so he was just trying to understand more about the books and how people are using them,” Stracka said of a productive meeting that ended with Stracka providing considerable detail for Pagel to take back to the team developing the interpretation.
Over the past few months, Stracka gained considerable exposure. If the golf world didn’t know about StrackaLine books before the discussions over green-reading materials began, then they should now.
“Literally every magazine, every show, everybody has been talking about it for the past few months so now all the regular golfers out there, they know more about it,” Stracka explained.
Stracka says the company’s software will allow for easy compliance with the USGA’s regulations, and all Rule 4.3-compliant books will feature a button that marks them as such. The new interpretation, of course, does not apply to books and materials used in a practice round.
“I can add arrows, make them bigger, take away arrows, lines, give it different colors,” said Stracka. “So it’s very configurable.”
To delve into Stracka’s history with the technology is to discover how versatile it can be. One of Stracka’s observations of the books – and especially when they find the hands of golfers of different skill levels – is that their use has evolved.
Initially, professional golfers wanted green guides to include loads of information, but now have scaled back in what they actually use. Amateurs often rely on StrackaLine books to understand the general shape of the green. For college golfers, who represent amateur golf’s elite, it’s about quickly becoming familiar with a course they don’t often play.
StrackaLine books have shown up in several arenas past professional golf, including at Niagara Falls Country Club in Lewiston, N.Y., site of the Porter Cup, a prestigious men’s amateur event. Oregon Country Club distributed them at its July member-guest as a tee gift.
For high-handicappers, the best opportunities to shave strokes often come around the greens. Stracka imagines his product replacing a caddie for this sub-group of golfers.
But there’s also a learning curve.
“You have your routine … and to change somebody’s routine to incorporate more information, it’s time,” Stracka said. “It’s not just an instantaneous, ‘Oh, here’s a book and I use it and all of sudden, I’m putting better.’ It takes some time to understand the information and know how to use it.”
Roy Edwards, head men’s golf coach at Colorado, introduced StrackaLine books to his players about three years ago. Before that, Edwards had spent previous seasons writing out five to seven slope numbers, with fall lines, for his players. It took a considerable amount of time on his part.
From Edwards’ perspective, having numbers available gives his players ownership of what they’re doing on the course.
“It probably helped us the most in course management, the shot into the green,” he said. “That’s probably been the most valuable part of it, more so than reading the green.”
Edwards has watched some players embrace the extra information more than others, and how to use green-reading books is often a topic of conversation in the offseason. How could players who don’t rely on the books as much use them better in the upcoming season?
“I think it’s helped good putters putt better and I think it’s helped bad putters putt better as well,” Edwards said. “I think it’s been a pretty equal benefit to every player, that’s my experience.”
The final word
As the USGA took into account the feedback received and the overall goal in mind, Winter said a challenge was in not making the traditional yardage book obsolete. It’s a tool golfers have used for decades, and one amateur golfers have come to rely on.
“We were struggling with a way – and this is part of the reason it took us some time to come up with a proposal – to really rein in what we thought was detrimental to the game of golf by eliminating that skill but also not saying to a golfer, 'You can’t look at a book from the fairway to figure out where to hit your approach shot.'”
Therein also lies a common misconception, which often applies to the club golfer.
As for the provision on handwritten notes? It may prevent a situation where one amateur shares a detailed green-reading guide with another, but the USGA’s intention was simply to level the playing field – “to avoid a situation where you would have a player with means being able to have a large group of people … creating sophisticated player notes,” according to Winter.
Indeed, there will be adjustments for players at all levels of the game, but the new interpretation represents a happy medium between having access to helpful information while still preserving a critical part of the game.
“We’re trying to protect that fundamental skill of reading the greens,” said Winter. “That would be the take-home message.”