Jim Stracka makes green-reading books. Here’s his case against a ban
Phil Mickelson looks at his green-reading book during the first round of the 2020 U.S. Open.
Behind the books sit a father-son duo who’ve just had their business upended.
On Wednesday, Golfweek reported that the PGA Tour was moving toward banning green-reading materials, which have been a growing source of controversy in recent years. The books, which provide laser renderings of greens and give information on direction and severity of slopes, have become an ever-present tool in the modern tour pro’s arsenal. The vast majority of players competing in this week’s U.S. Open will consult some type of green-reading aid as they navigate Torrey Pines’ putting surfaces.
It was at Torrey Pines that Jim Stracka first heard the news of a likely ban. Alongside his son, Chase, the duo co-founded StrackaLine, one of two major producers of green-reading books (the other is Tour Sherpa). Tour pros have had access to the books since 2008, and in addition to selling them to players and their caddies, StrackaLine also provides the materials for more than 400 college programs, American Junior Golf Association events, high school teams and thousands of golf courses around the country. (Editor’s Note: StrackaLine has a business relationship with Discovery Golf, the parent company of Golf Digest.)
Jim Stracka first became aware of the Player Advisory Council’s vote to ban his product—which, according to the Golfweek story, came by an “overwhelming margin”—in a Tuesday conversation with Patrick Reed’s caddie, Kessler Karain. He was not pleased, as you might expect. Nor did he understand the decision, for the Strackas believed they were past worrying about any potential ban.
“We went through this with the USGA and the R&A back in 2018,” Jim Stracka says. “We went through the same equipment review as any other Callaway golf ball. And our books were blessed by the USGA and the R&A as being legal. We print that on the covers. They put us through a formal review process, and at the end of it and doing the research, it evolved into a pretty minor restriction.”
That restriction was a limit on the scale of the books themselves—five yards of green would correspond to a maximum of 3/8s of an inch, no larger. The idea was to keep the books themselves a manageable size; the result are tiny, intricate renderings that beg for a magnifying glass.
With that hurdle behind them, the Strackas grew their business to where it is today. They supply “a couple hundred” PGA Tour pros with renderings before every round of every tournament—except the Masters, which does not permit green-reading materials—and update them corresponding to each day’s pin position. While Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson might be most closely associated with the books, nearly every top player uses them on a weekly basis.
And, still, there has been growing momentum for their ban. Most players, it seems, feel like Rory McIlroy, who chairs the PAC.
“I use a greens book, and I’d like to get rid of them,” McIlroy said on Wednesday at Torrey Pines. “I think everyone is in the same boat, most guys on tour are in the same boat, that if it’s going to be available to us and it helps us, people are going to use it. But I think for the greater good of the game, I’d like to see them be outlawed and for them not to be used anymore.”
For the greater good of the game. To summarize, the pro-ban argument typically rests on two reasons. First: Green-reading is a skill inherent to golf, and these materials diminish that skill. Second: Because players consult them before every putt, they slow down play.
Stracka takes issue with both rationales.
“People don’t read greens—they hit putts based on memory. We all know how much easier it is to hit a putt when your competitor just hit one on the same line. Green-reading is more memory. They move so much earth around today that you can’t rely on the visuals. Your mind will play tricks on you. If you’re good enough and use Aimpoint [the green-reading technique] to read them with your feet, great. But when they say it’s a necessary skill, I say that’s baloney. Green-reading is more memory. We all know how well we read greens when we play a course on a regular basis. You remember a point, and that’s what you rely on.”
When asked to explain how someone playing a course for the first time has any idea where a putt is breaking, Stracka suggested there are alternative less-than-artful methods such as paying attention to the placement of drains—the water has to drain around the greens—mounds, and bunkers.
“Most greens are just not that deceiving. It’s a series of bowls. The water has to drain off, and that’s basically where your fault lines are. You could look at that … it’s almost impossible to look at a green and understand how it’s tilting just by quote unquote reading it. Reading greens is more memory than it is a skill. The book gives you that memory.”
As far as pace-of-play, Stracka cited a quote from Mickelson—who tweeted “Well that sucks” on Wednesday evening in response to news of the vote.
“He said, ‘if you think this slows you down, you’re an idiot. You’re not using it correctly,’” Stracka said. “Phil uses the book as he approaches the green, he understands where the ball is going to go, then he goes up and hits his putt. If you use the book correctly, it speeds up play. We have a college case study that proves that. College players are notoriously the slowest players. With the books, they were about 15 minutes faster than without the books. It’s a tool. If you wait to use it ‘til the last minute—slow players are slow, fast players are fast. They use that as an excuse a lot of times, but it’s not accurate.”
Stracka also expressed concern that the banning of the books on the PGA Tour would confuse the hordes of amateur golfers who use them. The ban, it would seem, would only apply to the PGA Tour, and the books would not be made illegal in the Rules of Golf. It’s also not yet clear what, exactly, the ban would cover, or how it would be implemented.
“They’ve tried to avoid bifurcation forever,” Stracka said. “What they’re doing is, they are bifurcating the Rules of Golf. They are creating a new set of rules for them and one for everybody else. And that’s just bad for the game.
“It opens up a can of worms. I spend a lot of time with the USGA’s Thomas Pagel going through the issue of what do you allow and what do you not allow? The players are still going to buy the books. They’re still going to use the books in one form or another. What does banning the books mean? You could make notes on a piece of paper, based off a greens book and take it out there with you.”
Why, then, would the players vote as they did?
“My only guess it there were a couple influential players who basically convinced the other players on the committee to say yeah, let’s get rid of these books. Why, I have no idea because most of them use the books! It’s mind-boggling.”