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Green-reading changes for 2022 a step back for the game?


Putting has become too easy. Since the advent of green-reading books, 1-putt percentage has skyrocketed, 3-putts have virtually been eliminated, and players and their caddies have no homework around the greens. There is no judgement, skill, technique or feel involved anymore. Players simply plot green numbers into an equation and the ball always goes in the hole. Remember Al Czervik’s putter? The one made by his friend, Albert Einstein (“Nice man, nice man. Made a fortune in physics”) with the sights and lasers? Using a green-reading book is kind of like that …

Except none of that is true.

But green-reading books are going away for tournament use on the PGA Tour on January 1, so let’s examine what’s going to happen, how it came about, how it will be enforced, and what’s allowed and not allowed.

Deep breath …

This decision to ban green-reading material from the PGA Tour is completely player driven. It is going to be a Local Rule, as allowed by the USGA and R&A. From everyone I’ve talked to, the reasoning is, they (not sure who “they” are) feel that green-reading books have taken away from the skill of reading a green by sight and feel. That should be a skill necessary to be a successful putter. It doesn’t have anything to do with pace of play. It has to do with the optics of players and caddies staring in their books like it’s a high-school geometry final they just can’t get through.

Do they make putting easier? Sometimes. More difficult? Sometimes. There is a skill to using a greens book correctly. It is a different skill than using your eyes and the feel in your feet to read a putt, but it is a skill. When I caddied, I saw as many putts made by using a greens book correctly as were missed by using one incorrectly. I won’t go down a rabbit hole of statistics to support this, but here are two basic stats that represent the comparison. From 1996-2007, in the decade-plus before greens books, 3-putt avoidance on the PGA Tour averaged 3.14%. That means that on all attempted putts on Tour for the twelve years before greens books, pros 3-putted 3.14% of the time. From 2008-21, that number was 3.10%. From ’96-07, 1-putt conversion was 37.43%, while it was 38.1% from ’08-21.

Infinitesimal improvements and differences that cannot be exclusively correlated to greens books. An improved knowledge base, Aimpoint, better coaching with drills and devices, better agronomy (read: smoother greens) have all contributed. Plus, in the last three years, players have been allowed to tap down spike marks, something that’s never been OK in the game’s history. For a statistical comparison, in 1996, Tour average for driving distance was 265.9 yards. Last year? 296.2. Hmm. If players have the power to, in effect, bifurcate the rules, which is what is happening, can they enact other Local Rules? Can they as a Tour decide the ball is going too far and the driver heads are too forgiving? Doubtful, because there’s a lot of money coming from those equipment companies … not a lot coming from Mark Long, maker of the greens books.

The PGA Tour is poised to reduce the amount of information available to players and caddies, relating to green-reading materials.

There was a time when judging distances by sight, feel and experience was a huge part of the game. Players had to remember, “OK, I hit 7-iron from near this tree yesterday with an east wind. Now I’m near that tree again, the pin is up, but the wind is out of the west ... 9-iron.” Then, Deane Beman, long before he became Tour commissioner, started pacing off courses during practice rounds, noting how far it was from A to B, and from B to C. A young guy named Nicklaus tried it, and, as Beman tells it, “After that, I don’t think Jack ever played a round without having the ability to really, really know the length of any shot he was facing.” Nicklaus and Beman did their own work, their own course mapping and measuring.

Later, as the practice gained acceptance, mass-produced books measured by others became the norm on the PGA Tour. Today, the books used weekly provide an unbelievable amount of correct information to players and caddies, information gathered using technology and by an outside source. So naturally, the pushback started, and it was decided that judging distance by feel and experience was a necessary skill for players to have, and the yardage books were banned … But they weren’t. And golf became better for it. Yardage books were an advancement of the game.

Let’s talk about the rule itself, what’s allowed and not allowed, and how it will be enforced.

Tour players and caddies will be given a Tour-approved yardage book at every site before the tournament starts. It will contain all the usual information from tee to green. That will not change. When it comes to the greens, however, information will be cut to a minimum. Shape and depth of a green, as well as small lines and arrows that will identify any slopes (large tiers, false fronts, etc.) that measure 4.5% or more will be there. Other than that, it will be blank. Players and caddies can do homework, roll balls, watch others putt, watch the telecast and make notes in their book to help reading putts. A player can look at his caddie’s notes as well, but nothing else. How that information is collected, however, is very specific and limited. You can have a coach tell you, “this putt on 12 breaks hard left.” BUT you cannot write that information down. It must be remembered. A caddie can sit with one of the locals at Augusta National (many guys do), but they cannot write any of that information down. It must be remembered. You cannot write, “Carl Jackson says Rae’s Creek doesn’t pull this putt” or write down an arrow showing that break because you didn’t gain that information yourself through experience. Remember it, but don’t write it in your yardage book.

Anything you want to write down must be written in the committee-approved book. So, for example, Phil Mickelson’s detailed short-game notebooks will not be allowed during tournament play. The information can be used and written down, but only if they are written in the approved book. No levels or measuring devices can be used during a practice round or when a caddie is walking the course. Lasers can be used anywhere to measure distance or slope percentage through the green, but nothing on the green. Launch monitors can be used to measure clubhead speed, ball speed, trajectory, or spin from the fairway or the rough. But NO technology will be allowed on the greens. I’m not sure I understand the distinction. If a caddie is willing to go do this labor-intensive work for his player, he should be allowed to separate himself from his peers by doing that.

Let’s talk notes. Green-reading books are not going away. They will still be produced for use during practice rounds. The information will still be there, and this is where it gets sticky. Notes in your book will be judged using the honor system. A player or caddie cannot copy information from a greens book into the new yardage book. Any penalty for a suspicious notation will be eliminated by a player or caddie saying, “No, I hit that during the practice round.”

This is where I really feel for the rules officials. They do a phenomenal job week to week, setting up courses, providing rulings, making the tournament flow smoothly. With this, I’m afraid, they are in a no-win situation. It’s inevitable that some players and caddies will have suspicious notes they may have copied from an old greens book or from information gathered previously using a level. Say a player grows suspicious of a playing competitor during a round. Said competitor is constantly checking his book like it was a greens book. The accusatory player can ask for a caddie’s or player’s book to be inspected by a rules official. It can appear extremely circumspect, but if the accused player says he gathered it legally, that’s it. If certain players are suspected of using illegal notes or information, and they aren’t penalized for it, others will say, “This is BS. We aren’t on an even playing field, and if that guy’s gonna do it, I am, too.”

Would it be right? Probably not. But would it be fair for one player to have the information and deny gathering it illegally and another player to have nothing? It’s a grey area. Many caddies and players have trained in the Aimpoint method of green reading, where you get a feel for slope percentage of your intended line with your feet, assign it a value, and play the break or speed accordingly. If my player wanted me to make something approximating a greens book for him, I would work hard at Aimpoint Express, where I could identify slopes within decimal points of percentages. I’ve seen my Aimpoint instructor, Peter Brown, approximate slopes using only his feet and be able to say, “It’s 2.7 here, 2.2 here, 1.9 here.” Then on Tuesdays, I’d go out with my approved book and take measurements every yard or so, at least around known hole locations. It would take time and be labor-intensive, but if it saved a stroke or two a week, it would be worth it. It wouldn’t be as exacting as a Mark Long book, but it could be similar, with slope percentages and arrows written every few feet on the green. It would look suspicious, like the information was gathered illegally. But it would be legal. If you didn’t know Aimpoint, you could walk around the green, dropping balls from knee height and noting the direction and distance they traveled. You then have a slope and strength of slope without using technology.

It’s been said that players want green reading to be a skill based on vision, feel and experience. If so, why are caddies allowed to help at all? I’ve seen some caddies that are incredibly skilled at reading greens. So much so that there are days when his player wouldn’t even bother looking, they’d just wait for instructions from their caddie. “Start it here and give it some pace.” So, really, it’s not a skill a player must have. He can pay someone to read greens for him. If a caddie goes down or is fired during the week, a player can still use his notes and his new caddie’s notes. If you get a player who hates the new rule and wants to throw a wrench into the works, can he hire an Aimpoint instructor as his caddie on Monday and Tuesday, fire him Tuesday night, and still be allowed to use all his notes? An extra $2000 a week to someone is a drop in the bucket when one putt can be worth millions.

Now, let’s say someone is deemed to have gathered information illegally, by copying from an old book or writing down something he heard but didn’t experience. Can you envision a player saying, “Yep, you got me. I was trying to pull one over on the field.” I can’t, but here is the penalty structure: First offense: 2 shots. Second offense: Disqualification. That seems straightforward. Unless, of course, a player says, “Yes, I used illegal information on the second green, but I didn’t use it the rest of the round.” Again, I feel for the rules officials.

Greens books are an advancement in the game, like forgiving drivers and balls that go forever, don’t curve and spin around the greens; like launch monitors, like distance/slope measuring devices. Why is the line drawn here? Why go backwards here? Say it’s agreeable and everyone shares the same feeling about their elimination. Why not announce the ban and give it a year like they did with the anchored putter? Players had a year to work on a new method they felt confident with when the rule was enacted. There is an entire generation on Tour that has never played a tournament without a greens book. Why not give everyone a year to adapt instead of a couple months?

Now, let’s talk Bryson. I don’t know anyone who has the potential to be more adversely affected by this new rule than Bryson DeChambeau. His entire green-reading system, one he’s spent years perfecting, is based around slope percentages and greens speeds. I would argue he’s worked harder than anyone developing his system. He is being told to scrap something he’s put an extraordinary amount of time and work into and learn an entirely new routine in a couple months. No matter your opinion on Bryson, it’s unfair. He is meticulous during his preparation, using a launch monitor during practice rounds to gauge spin rates from the fairway, from the first cut and from the rough. He will write down things like, “Nine-iron landing 4 yards on the green, releases 3 yards. Landing 8 yards on the green, releases 5 yards.” In effect, he is measuring the slope of the landing area, in this case the green. But this method is legal because the technology used was from the fairway. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do this, as my high-school physics teacher, Mr. Frisbee (real name), could attest. But I suspect Bryson could determine or approximate that information. He would do this 100% within the rules, as I know him to be a player who would never purposefully be in breach.

The USGA announced in August it is making available color-coded and arrowed greens books for thousands of courses around the world, through their handicapping system. Their GHIN app will feature green-reading material that looks much like the ones used on Tour. All perfectly legal, everywhere in golf except The PGA Tour. It’s forward-thinking and I commend them for making the effort. As far as the PGA Tour? I think players making more putts would be great for the product, not bad. Most of the huge roars from the gallery come from putts that go in, not for putts that are misread. Nothing statistically supports the theory that greens books make putting easier for PGA Tour players. If we get a calm, warm day at exquisite St. Andrews next year for The Open Championship, and one of the great drivers of the ball is on a roll, there is the potential for seven or eight eagle putts. If someone happens to fire a 59 at the venerable Home of Golf, it ain’t gonna be because of some arrows in a book.