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By David Owen Illustrations by Henry Campbell
September 09, 2007

For a long time, I refused to own a cell phone. I hated those guys who tie up golf courses by talking at full volume to a secretary or a stockbroker when it's their turn to hit, and I hated the thought of losing my ability to tell people, Sorry, for the next four hours I'm going to be absolutely impossible to reach. One of the great things about playing golf is that it takes up virtually your entire brain and prevents you from thinking about the stuff that keeps you awake at night. A ringing cell phone breaks that spell -- and not just for the phone's owner, but for everyone within earshot.

Well, I still hate all that, but I do own a cell phone now, and I've discovered that it has a golf-related redeeming feature: When you use a cell phone to tell your wife that you might be just a teensy bit late for dinner with her parents, the caller ID on the kitchen phone displays your cell number, not the name of the golf course you're calling from. In exchange for surrendering one of the last remaining vestiges of your privacy, you gain the time you need to create and rehearse a more convincing explanation. Isn't that all we can ask of technology? To incrementally improve our quality of life?

E-mail and the World Wide Web have made even deeper encroachments into personal privacy, but they, too, offer compensations to golfers. In the old days, arranging a game with friends could involve an hour or more of high-risk telephone use, during which all the participants were nakedly vulnerable to discovery by their wife, kids or boss. Now, thanks to the Internet, you can handle it all quickly, silently and privately -- and you get in trouble only for the rounds you actually play, not for the rounds you were unsuccessful in setting up. The only guys in my circle who are problematic are Nick, whose wife, Mary Anne, handles the e-mail for both of them, and Gene, who doesn't have a computer. But, luckily, Mary Anne likes having Nick out of the house, and Gene always gets the word eventually -- usually via telephone from Nick.

Last year, I played a round with a guy who had just bought a fancy laser range finder. It didn't really seem all that useful to him: As is the case with most of us, his main distance problem was not his uncertainty about his yardage but his uncertainty about whether he was going to top his next shot or hit two inches behind it. Nevertheless, as soon as I got home that afternoon I went online and ordered one for myself. My range finder, I'm convinced, enables me to play faster on courses I'm unfamiliar with, because it quickly answers questions that I would have to ask if I didn't own it: How far is the back of that green? How long is the carry over that pond? Are those guys out of range yet?

Zapping a distant flag with a range finder is less disruptive to the flow of a golf round than aimlessly pacing a fairway, looking for a sprinkler head. I also think that my range finder has helped me with shots inside a hundred yards, by giving me objective reference points for my so-called "feel." Plus, carrying a laser-based measuring device in my golf bag is probably as close as I'm ever going to come to fulfilling a cherished childhood ambition: owning a ray gun.

The greatest golf-technology innovation of the past decade is one that even anti-technology Neanderthals ought to love: the rise of the hybrid club. Hybrids, far from ruining golf, might actually save it, by making the game easier for people who don't play it very well. (Old golf joke: How do you teach your wife to play golf? With a bucket of balls, a downhill lie and a 1-iron.) Hybrids are so much easier to use than long irons that even pros can see their advantages, and their popularity with non-pros proves that golf-equipment manufacturers can persuade us to buy new clubs without also forcing us to lengthen our golf courses. What's not to like about that?


Do you think hand-held distance finders should be legal in competition?

Yes 52% / No 48%

Contributing Editor David Owen's column appears monthly in Golf Digest. He is the author, most recently, of Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, just out in paperback.