Let’s make the game of golf more enjoyable with ball-finding technology

Let’s make the game of golf more enjoyable with ball-finding technology
David Williams and Ken Moodie
By David Williams and Ken Moodie

If there was a simple way to speed up play, simplify rulings, reduce player frustration and improve the environment of the golf course most right-thinking golfers would agree to it, wouldn’t they? But when it comes to legislating on the Rules of Golf things may not be quite as simple.

Consider the tour professional. Does he play the same game as the average golfer or one which is a world apart? Aside from his far higher level of skill, does he not have an unfair advantage over us mere mortals? Presented with courses in tip top condition, bunkers prepared to a uniform consistency with as much love and attention as the greens, and beautifully manicured turf to play from, they do have one other very big advantage; they very rarely lose a golf ball. No matter how wild they are from a tee, and seemingly no matter how thick the grass, they normally find it within the allotted five minutes, even if it means half the crowd searching with them, or sound men, caddies, playing partners and officials, as was the case when Phil Mickelson lost a ball on the eighth hole at Royal Lytham in the 2012 Open. Even, on occasion, camera footage of the ball landing in the rough has been used to help locate it – which you could argue is in breach of the rules.

Would it not be simpler to use technology to the full and allow ball-locating devices for all golfers? There is no intrinsic benefit bestowed to the game by the lost ball rule, so why should we protect it? Even with ball-finding technology there would still be occasions when a ball would need to be replayed from the same position, such as when it goes out of bounds or straight into an unplayable lie, but we would benefit from fewer time delays and a faster game would result.

How many golfers have been frustrated by the search for lost balls when the rough is high in early summer? If a group of golfers each lose a ball in the rough during a round it can add 20 minutes to the game. On some courses, it is common for someone in a four ball to lose a ball on each hole, leading to very slow rounds of five hours or more. Who would choose to return to the same course after such a game?

Members also complain about lost balls, putting pressure on clubs to mow the rough which can have a detrimental impact on the environment of the course (tall, native grasses are an important habitat for animals and plants alike). Mowing rough also adds significantly to staffing requirements and maintenance costs.

Elderly golfers, with failing eyesight, are greatly disadvantaged. Many give up the game when they can no longer see the complete flight of their ball. Ball-locating devices could greatly add to their enjoyment of the game and the number of years they are able to continue playing the sport.

When we have embraced technology in our everyday lives and it has become an accepted part of other sports why should golf abstain? From HawkEye at Wimbledon and sensors on cricket bails, to football’s recent adoption of goal-line technology, electronic advances have been harnessed to great effect. In golf we have accepted the use of distance measuring devices for most amateur play, which you could argue is more against the spirit of the game than a ball-finding device, but it has probably had some effect of speeding up the game, particularly for those golfers that would pace out distances from sprinkler heads and 150 yard markers if it was not available. What benefit to the game does the lost ball scenario bring? Especially when finding a ball in deep rough is largely down to chance and the perseverance of the golfers you happen to be playing with.

But it is perhaps the environment of the golf course which will claim the greatest benefit if our proposals were to be adopted. At present, golf courses are not always seen as environmentally friendly users of land. This is generally directly related to the amount of intensively managed turf they require in comparison to the areas of natural vegetation that can be retained or developed within the site. The use of large quantities of scarce water to irrigate the course is also a primary concern.

The amount of water required for irrigation is proportional to the quantity of managed turfgrass on the course, and the area of managed turf is directly related to the requirement that golfers should be able to find their ball, however wildly they hit it. In many Mediterranean areas, where the courses are designed to accommodate holiday golfers, fairways are generally wide to ensure that even the least proficient can find a decent lie after he has hit his drive. The managed areas of turf are not just limited to fairways and often rough is intensively maintained for the same reason.

When the European Institute of Golf Course Architects played an event at a leading course in Portugal, its American architect apologised for the number of golf balls that had been lost during the round, thereby causing problems of slow play and player frustration. He explained that this was a direct consequence of the very limited supply of water which was available for irrigation purposes which had led to the creation of narrow fairways and the retention of native vegetation in the rough areas. Ironically, although his apologies sought to address the frustrations our members had experienced while playing golf, the course has won many awards for its ecological sensitivity by successfully integrating natural vegetation areas within the layout.

If the ball-finding devices were allowed under the Rules of Golf all courses would be able to reduce the area of managed turfgrass they require and replace it with natural flora. This would benefit the environment and add to the golfing experience while reaping a saving in maintenance costs. The recovery shot from the rough would still be difficult, but at least the ball would be found quickly and the player would not incur a lost-ball penalty.

As technology improves the quality of the golf balls and detection equipment can be improved, and the costs lowered, but investment will only take place if the equipment can be used in competition. This will require a change to the rules of golf by the R&A and USGA which currently prohibits the use of such devices. At the European Institute of Golf Course Architects’ annual meeting in April a show of hands indicated that the vast majority of members present supported such a move. The move to change the rules has also been joined in the United States by the renowned golf writer Ron Whitten, who has agreed to be the American face of the campaign. Ron originally heard David Williams speak on the subject at the 2010 EIGCA World Forum and Conference held in St. Andrews, and immediately offered his support and assistance.

An approach was made to the R&A last year to request a rule change but this was rejected for the next revision which is due in 2016. However, we are hopeful that it may be adopted for the next revision of the Rules in 2020. We would welcome a broader debate and feedback from others in the industry to demonstrate that there is wider support for the proposal and we would welcome your views.  

David Williams of David Williams Golf Design and Ken Moodie of Creative Golf Design are both Past Presidents of the EIGCA

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture magazine - Issue 42.

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