This story was updated on July 31 with the R&A and USGA announcing their plans to limit the use of green-reading materials beginning in 2019, "reaffirming the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgment, skill and ability." For more details on the announcement, please click here.
Let's be honest: Most golfers aren't very good at reading greens. Sure, many know they're supposed to imagine where the water runs off, and the big breaks are easy enough to see, but the subtle ones as well as double and triple breaks are often a guessing game. And then there's the issue of whether a putt is uphill, downhill or level. That's not always obvious.
Some recreational golfers are even familiar with the technique of AimPoint. For most of us, though, our understanding of AimPoint begins and ends with watching tour players hold up one, two or three fingers in front of their faces while they squint and look at the hole.
Then, of course, there's plumb-bobbing. Most golfers don't really understand that either. And as short-game guru and former NASA engineer Dave Pelz explains, "You can plumb-bob any putt as straight." And he's right, you can. (He proved it to me.)
An easier way to get good reads on the greens is to be armed with information. A caddie who knows the course can sure help. Or just as good, and maybe even more effective, is to use a greens guide, one that's prepared by a professional company like StrackaLine, or even one that a golfer draws in advance. In either case, having that greens guide can provide a distinct advantage over other players who are just winging it on their own.
StrackaLine's chart of the 18th green at Sea Island (Ga.).
But how much information is too much information? At what point, if any, does having drawings that depict every slope and the severity of those slopes create an unfair advantage? After all, don't all players have the same opportunity to purchase, obtain or create their own guides? And you still have to make a good stroke.
These are the questions that the United States Golf Association and Royal & Ancient have been mulling over for at least a year, and now they've announced that beginning on Jan. 1, the USGA and R&A indeed will restrict the amount of information allowed in green reading material. On July 31, in a joint announcement, the two associations essentially revealed that there will be limitations on how much information greens guides can have in them. Primarily, they will not be allowed to indicated slopes of less than 4 percent or 2.9 degrees, which are pretty obvious to the naked eye anyway. In other words, golfers will have to be able to read the more subtle breaks themselves, which are usually the ones that are found around the hole locations.
What players will still be allowed to do, though, is take notes like they usually do in practice rounds and use them later. Again, for more details, checked out Nick Menta's story on GolfChannel.com. As customers in cases like this, the proposal will be subject to a six-week period of "feedback and consultation with interested parties," with a final draft coming on Oct. 15.
A lot will change, on the tour and on your home course
Essentially, the reasoning behind this change is that the ruling bodies believe being able to read greens on your own by processing the information at hand, whether that's visually or by feel, is part of the skills that separate the best players from the other players in the field.
That's all well and good, says Jim Stracka, who founded StrackaLine back in 2007 with his son, Chase. But Stracka, before this latest announcement by the associations, said golf is difficult enough already. Plus, the pros already have a distinct advantage over most amateurs. They have caddies.
"When a golfer employs a caddie, the caddie usually reads the putts," Stracka said. "That is not fair."
"Let tournament directors make a 'local rule' to limit printed material if they want to," says Stracka.
In other words, there's really no need to change the rules for everyone, especially the amateur players. Plus, he said, the greens guide is really just an extension of the yardage guides, which have been around forever and aren't subject to any new rulings.
Another point Stracka makes is that most green reading is really by memory anyway, either from playing the course beforehand or studying film of tournaments played on those courses. Most likely when you go to a course like Pebble Beach, it's not the caddie's green reading ability more than it is his or her knowledge of those greens, built up over working there for hundreds of rounds.
There's already a rule in place that (16-1a) that doesn't allow a player to walk the intended line of the putt to get a feel for the break or create a trough to the hole. Nope, you've got to figure out another way to read that line, and one of the ways currently is by using a prepared greens map of some sort.
Of course, you can also do a little research on your own and create your own notes. Players have been doing that for decades. During practice rounds, you can use a leveling device to precisely map out greens and putts. There are apps you can download on your phone that you can use or you can buy an electronic device like the BreakMaster Digital Green Reader ($109 on Amazon.com) or the Sure Putt Golf Putting Aid ($30), which is just a level designed for golf course greens. None of these types of devices are legal for play, of course.
StrackaLine provides valuable resource
Really, though, the most accurate greens guides are created by companies like StrackaLine (or GolfLogix, which has an extensive online database). It's been a growing business. To date, the company, which also creates yardage guides, has charted more than 700 golf courses, which includes some of North America's most prominent layouts, including TPC Sawgrass, Bethpage and the site of the 2018 PGA Championship, Bellerive Country Club, just to name a few.
What StrackaLine does is a little more sophisticated than what a golfer does when he or she charts a course's greens. The company uses a sophisticated scanning process to precisely map out greens. It charges a course $1,500 to scan its greens, and that includes 100 greens guides for resale. The scanning process takes five hours to complete and is unobtrusive to the golfer experience.
Laser equipment used to scan a green by StrackaLine.
These greens guides are used by players on the PGA, LPGA, Symetra and Web.com tours, in addition to their use by more than 300 Division I college teams and amateurs at every level. Golfers can purchase the guides for as little as $97 for a specific course's greens or get a combo yardage and greens guide or subscribe to the company's app for for $179 a year. The app has all sorts of customizable features that allow the user to move the pins.
The greens maps feature arrows that show slopes as to allow players to view contour and fall lines, in addition to slope percentage, anywhere on the green. It's basically a contour map with more detail and information.
Stracka, of course, has been monitoring the USGA and R&A's actions closely. He also points out that greens guides help speed up play, which makes sense if you think about it. An accurate greens guide might eliminate some of the plumb-bobbing and walking around greens (at least from amatuers and recreational players) that seem to slow up play.
Stracka makes some other points as well. While pros have a team behind them that can get them all sorts of information one way or another, amateurs don't have that luxury.
We would like to know what you think. Should greens guides be legal for competition? Should they be limited? Let us know in the comment section below.