What's Wrong with Distance Apps?

Summary
To my mind, there is nothing wrong with distance apps. They are wrongfully outlawed under the rules of golf.

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/golf

There is apparently an effort underway to "modernize" the rules of golf (USGA Modernization Project). How serious they are about the effort remains to be seen. But high on my list of modernization opportunities is the current ban on devices that take into account elevation and weather-report wind speed to suggest a "plays as" distance. (You can use any device that gives you distance, but you can't use one that takes elevation changes or wind speed into account.)

Back in the old days (about a decade ago, now), devices like that were exceedingly expensive. It made a degree of sense to outlaw them, so as not to give some players an unfair advantage.

But these days, apps that provide information of that kind are free. Those apps run on cell phones, and everyone has a cell phone, these days. Outlawing such features, then, is the very opposite of "modern". It's a great way to get young people to stay away in droves--as they have been doing for some time, now.

As for the purported advantages of those apps, it's worth knowing that you have to take their advice with a grain of salt. The GPS isn't that accurate, and the wind may or may not be blowing where you are. So you have to adjust.

Apps like SwingBySwing will also suggest which club to use, based on distances you've recorded--but that recommendation doesn't factor in how you're swinging that day, or how tired you're feeling. And unless you've recorded every shot, your averages probably reflect best-case results. And they don't take into account your lie, or other factors that affect club selection. So it's not like they're giving you a massive advantage.

But perhaps the most important reason for allowing those devices is that professionals have access to highly detailed course maps and even maps of the greens.Their maps reflect elevation changes, and with their experience, they can assess wind speed and direction with great accuracy, compared to the rest of us. And they have a caddy who can give them moment-to-moment advice on distances and club selection that takes into account variables a phone app never could.

For golfers who have never so much as laid eyes on a caddy, except on the other side of the ropes, an app like that is like having a little caddy in your pocket. It's a comfort, even if you have to ignore its recommendations half the time.

So an app of that kind lets us play faster because, instead of consulting a detailed map, doing a bunch of calculations, throwing up some grass to check the wind, and talking with our caddy, we just look at an app, pick a club, and go! That's important for us, because we're playing in foursomes, rather than pairs. And since an average professional round last approximately the same time 5 hours as our public-course rounds, you maybe get an idea of just how slowly they're really playing.

And it's not like an app with advanced features makes a huge difference in our scoring, either. The person with the better swing is still going to win, time after time. Apps with such features may help to keep a player from choosing the wrong club, but the player still has to swing it well. If they can't, the difference is between triple bogey and quadruple bogey--maybe. In other words, it may improve their score a bit, but not enough to affect the outcome of a tournament.

I can see playing by the strictest set of rules for the U.S. Open, for example, or when there is a ton of prize money at stake. Or as one member of club suggested, maybe players with a single-digit handicap should be held to a stricter standard. I think it's an idea that makes sense.I for one, would love to be playing so well that such minor advantages as a cell phone app make a difference.

I just don't think it makes sense to penalize the vast majority of struggling golfers over an insignificant advantage--an advantage so small that the best it can achieve is to make them play somewhat less horribly! It certainly isn't enough of an advantage to determine an outcome. Money spent on clubs and instruction will make a heck of a bigger difference than anything a little app can do, regardless of the features it provides.

Finally, a decent app makes the round more fun, and lets you play a reasonably intelligent game without having to spend 5 minutes thinking about each shot, the way the pros do. So take off the restrictions, I say!

Note:
Granted, the ability to factor wind speed and elevation into your calculations makes a difference,
and it is skill worth acquiring. But an app of that kind teaches you those skills, by making you
aware of the impact of those factors. So the best way to learn those rules is to use an app during
"friendly rounds".

But then according to the rules, you can't report that score for handicap purposes. If, as I claim,
those apps make a negligible difference, then you could become much better over time, without
ever reporting a score. In other words, you wind up sandbagging, because your official handicap,
recorded in tournament play, underestimates your actual skill.

But the rules give you no choice! If you want to have more fun when you play, you use the app.
But when you do, you can't report the score, so you're forced into sandbagging.

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