Jim Stracka is the president and CEO of StrackaLine, which makes green contour maps for golf courses, superintendents and players. More than 700 courses have had their greens mapped by StrackaLine, and according to the company more than 300 NCAA Division I college programs use StrackaLine maps. He answers five questions about the new USGA ruling on green-reading materials.
Is this very much the result you hoped for?
Stracka: I’m pleased because they didn’t create a rule that was difficult to enforce. It’s changed from a black cloud that started about a year and a half ago and then it turned into a storm cloud about six-eight weeks ago, and then they talked about it and they got input from golfers at every level of the game from an enforcement level, and I think that was probably the biggest challenge in having golfers questioning other golfers what’s in their books. I think going through all that to say if it’s a book that fits in your pocket, you’re fine so it really doesn’t matter that much what you have on there, that’s ultimately a better result. From that standpoint, it’s not going to create that angst in the game of legal or not legal. It’s a really simple way to enforce it from the standpoint of it’s a book it fits in your pocket, you’re fine.
What were your conversations like when you met with the USGA?
Stracka: When I met with Thomas [Pagel, USGA senior director of governance], I came away from the meeting with the feeling that they were sincerely trying to understand the technology. I think I did my best to educate them on everything I knew, how players use it, what the issues are, where the industry is going. They took that information and they talked to college coaches and pros and state and regional golf associations, they talked to everybody and got everybody’s opinion on it. They came up with a rule and put some guard rails around this. When we chatted about it, he wanted to know from me what golfers are doing. I said it’s been all over the map but what has happened in the past year or so is that some golfers like an outlier like Bryson DeChambeau will want as much information as possible. On the other end of the scale, some golfers like Graeme McDowell want just minimal information. But most golfers like Phil Mickelson are somewhere in the middle. Most golfers are not even using all the information we have available. He took that to heart, and basically they ended up with if it’s on a piece of paper in a pocket-sized book, you can do whatever you want with it because you can’t cram a thousand numbers into a pocket-sized book.
How does giving this information to a golfer not lessen the skill of reading a green, and how much will your books have to change given the new grid guidelines?
Stracka: The way most pros use the book is they look at the book as they approach the green to get a general indication what the putt is going to do (uphill, downhill, left or right at the hole) and then they go read the putt. I’m sure they’ve looked at putting statistics and seen they haven’t changed much in the last 20 years. Even if you have an exact read, you still have to hit the putt. As far as the skill of reading the green, it’s still there. I don’t see anybody being able to take information in a book that’s saying this ball is going to break 1 1/2 inches and then go hit the putt. You still have to be able to hit the putt 1 1/2 inches. There’s too many other factors going on on the green with grain and moisture and speed of greens, there is no such thing as exact putting, so the art of green reading is alive and well. You have enough information go give you general indication of what’s going to happen, but at the end of the day, you still have to read the putt and you still have to make the stroke. They really didn’t limit the information so all the slopes and percents and arrows and all that kind of stuff, everything remains pretty much as is. They just eliminated the big books, the 8 1/2 x 11 green map printouts that were out there. We have to change the technology to make sure our grids are in compliance. What happens right now is at a course with really big greens like say Bandon Dunes, when we print a green, the grid size is actually dependent on the size of a green. At Bandon Dunes our green sizes are much smaller. At Pebble Beach, because the actual greens are small, our grid size would be a little bit bigger. We just have to tweak the software to make sure that we don’t go over that scale. What we try to do is we try to put as much information as possible in that 4 1/4 inches, but it’s dependent on the green size. When we have a small green, we can make it a little bit bigger. Now we’ll just have to in some cases scale it back, but in most cases we’re perfectly within the guidelines.
Is there any concern that this technology will grow to become more of a problem for the rules?
Stracka: I had that discussion with Thomas because he was asking me what’s possible and I said everything’s possible because GPS is getting better and augmented reality is coming along, all that’s coming. But from the rules of golf, I said don’t worry about it. If a golfer wants to go out and play golf with goggles on and have it read your putts for you, hey great, but obviously that would never be allowed in a tournament. I told him from a technology standpoint, everything is coming, everything is possible, don’t worry about it. That’s actually a good thing. But by them coming out and addressing it, they’ve truly educated the golfing world about this information, what’s available. As a result, we’re going to submit our books to the USGA and R&A for approval so that way golfers can know for sure that this book is in compliance with the rule, and as a result everybody is going to feel a whole lot more comfortable about it now because there had been this black cloud hanging over us. But now that it’s been decided and we have a definitive rule, we’ll be in compliance with the rule and we’ll provide a book that golfers can use and use with confidence that they’re not going to get disqualified.
Is there a segment of golf that wins more because of this decision?
Stracka: Let’s say 10 years from now and green reading books are as common as distance measuring devices I still don’t expect to see any dramatic improvement in putting statistics. For the regular golfer, yes. But for the professional golfer, no. Essentially the regular golfer has been playing sort of blind [by not having a caddie]. If you can show regular golfers a little bit of information about a green, and they end up three-putting a couple times less a round and maybe make one more putt, that’s a huge impact on their games. The professional golfers already have this information. For them it’s really just about the speed of the green and how well their putting strokes are working that day. The regular golfers are going to enjoy this information because it’s going to give them that visual perspective, that caddie’s experience. And there’s a learning curve to using this technology, it’s not an instantaneous kind of thing, but I think over time the regular golfer will learn to benefit from the information of a few arrows on a green and have a better putting experience because of it.