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Local duo campaign for game-changing addition

RENOWNED golf course architects David Williams and Ken Moodie have joined forces to campaign for a game-changing rule alteration that would allow the use of ball finding devices.

Williams is a past president of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and is this year’s captain at Conwy Golf Club. Moodie, also a former president of EIGCA is based in Chester. Here are there ground-breaking thoughts…

How to Improve the Game of Golf

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 the Game 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 the far higher level of skill he or she possesses do they have an unfair advantage over us mere mortals? In some regards they certainly do. Apart from the fact that they are presented with a golf course in tip top condition, with 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. 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 and 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 (not necessarily their own) 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, particularly the links where the rough is a key component of the course, it is common for someone in a society fourball to lose a ball on each hole and this leads to very slow rounds of five hours or more, which may put the society off returning to the course in the future.

Members may also be complaining about the frequent loss of golf balls and may move to another club if the issue is not addressed. This then puts pressure on the golf club to mow the rough, which can have a detrimental impact on the environment of the course. Mowing the rough also adds significantly to staffing requirements and maintenance costs.

Elderly golfers, with failing eyesight, are also greatly disadvantaged at present as many give up the game when they (and their equally elderly playing partners) 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 Hawk-eye 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. Why not eliminate it from the game and allow golfers to enjoy playing the sport of golf rather than that of foraging!

The Environment

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 the most 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. In more arid countries, the use of large quantities of scarce water resources to irrigate the course is often a primary concern.

The amount of water required for irrigation is proportional to the quantity of managed turf grass which exists on the course, and the area of managed turf grass 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 large numbers of holiday golfers, the fairways are generally wide to ensure that even the least proficient golfer can find a decent lie after he has hit his drive. The managed areas of turf grass are not just limited to the fairways and often the rough is intensively maintained for the same reason.

When the European Institute of Golf 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 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 turf grass 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.

The Technology

There are already a number of electronic devices on the market, such as the Prazza Golf Ball Finder, with some costing as little as £150 to buy, that can effectively be used to find golf balls which have been specially manufactured to contain a micro-chip. The balls can be located using a hand-held device with a range of up to 100m, which is normally more than sufficient for most golfers. Golf balls that conform to the current regulations can be manufactured but the use of the locating device is currently banned.

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 Architect’s 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 USA 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.

Please address comments to: ken@creativegolfdesign.com and david@williamsgolf.co.uk

Editor’s note: Williams and Moodie intend to send out questionnaires to all club secretaries and managers within the UK and Europe on the subject, as well as all owners of proprietary owned courses.

A separate questionnaire will be forwarded to course managers, head greenkeepers and golf course architects throughout Europe.