NORTON — If players at last month’s PGA Championship did what most golfers do and relied on a sprinkler head for yardage, they might have learned the hard way that the plate on the 18th fairway indicating 195 yards to the green’s front edge was wrong. The correct distance was 188 yards.
The tournament’s official yardage book, given to players and caddies when they checked in at Whistling Straits, detected the sprinkler-head error, which isn’t all that uncommon. The accurate number was in the book, one reason why, with yardage books created specifically for PGA Tour events becoming more detailed, players and caddies are using them for every single shot, putts included.
The difference between 188 yards and 195 might not seem like a lot to the average golfer, but for the world’s best, who know precisely how far they hit every club in the bag, it could prove costly.
“Seven yards can be a huge difference, especially if there’s a pin that’s only five paces on, because you could be short or in the trap,” said four-time tour winner Patrick Reed. “I’ll always confirm my yardages from the book. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t use theirs.”
That wasn’t always the case. Jack Nicklaus has said that he was the only player writing yardages down when he joined the tour in 1961; prior to that, players simply eyeballed a shot and figured out which club to pull based on look and feel. With the success Nicklaus was having, more and more professional golfers began creating their own yardage books — some cruder than others — but an official yardage book for a PGA Tour event wasn’t made until 1976.
Mike “Fluff” Cowan was just starting out as a tour caddie then.
“The first books were adequate,” said Cowan, who has worked for Peter Jacobsen, Tiger Woods, and, since 1999, Jim Furyk. “A couple of sprinkler heads, sketchy yardages to bunkers and to carry bunkers, to hazards and what have you.
“There was a lot more work that had to be done to have the information you truly needed.
“I’m not saying they weren’t helpful, because they gave you something to start with, but today’s book, and I hate to say it, but it’s eliminated the guys that do the extra work, because you can literally take today’s book and just go.
“It’s way more detailed, has way more information.”
For nearly 40 years, PGA Tour yardage books primarily have been the work of two men: George Lucas, the last amateur to win the New Hampshire Open (1980) and a former caddie for Arnold Palmer; and Mark Long, whose book will be used for this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston.
Long, who served as a tour caddie for 25 years and won 13 tournaments with players such as Fred Funk (his college coach at Maryland) and Nolan Henke, saw years ago the potential benefits of providing players with more information because of technological advancements.
Using lasers and GPS equipment that can record precise distances to less than one inch, Long spends hours walking a golf course and enters all kinds of yardage, elevation, and descriptive data, making special note of exactly what golfers and caddies want: How many yards to clear that bunker? What’s the expected fairway run-out? Where’s the preferred line for a tee shot on a certain hole?
It’s tedious work. Long estimates it’ll take him 70 hours to produce a proper yardage book for a tour event at a new course. For tournaments such as the Deutsche Bank Championship that are always played at the same venue, he’ll make a site visit shortly before the event starts to make note of and incorporate any changes to the course.
In TPC Boston’s case, Long walked the course for more than five hours on Aug. 22. A new tournament tee box on the par-3 16th hole has been built, which didn’t amount to a very time-consuming update. It took Long much longer a few years ago, when the 18th green was completely rebuilt.
Getting exact distances is certainly sought by every player and/or caddie for each full shot, but the information that today’s books provide on and around the greens has been the most important improvement. Long produces a detailed grid for each green, with dozens of numbers, lines, and arrows showing degrees of slope and break tendencies.
The book won’t hit the shot for players, but it does serve as a directional guide for getting to the hole, wherever it’s located.
“It tells you where you want to hit your shot to have the easiest putt,” said Kenny Harms, who caddies for Kevin Na. “That’s where we utilize it the most.”
If you see a player hit an approach shot onto the green but land the ball far away from the hole, only to have it catch a slope and finish much closer, that’s due in part to the yardage book informing the player that the ball likely would react that way.
Said Reed: “You literally can see where the slopes are on every green. Rather than trying to play to certain spots, we’re able to already know where the slopes are to feed into.”
Players also can be seen studying their yardage books before lining up or getting over a putt; in Reed’s case, he likes to read a putt from both sides with his eyes, then check the book for confirmation of what he saw. For others, that’s not necessary.
“Come on, we’re professional golfers,” said Na, who will be one of the 99 players in this week’s Deutsche Bank field. “You don’t need a green book to tell you a putt is going left to right, or right to left.
“It’ll help you if it’s a double breaker, maybe, but not a 10-footer that’s a ball outside right edge.”
Some players and caddies keep the same yardage book from a course, because they’ve made notes over the years that serve as helpful reminders. Maybe it’s relevant wind direction, or the club used for a certain hole location. Caddies often write down distance carry and release yardage.
Then there’s some who don’t make many notes at all.
“I’ve got a weird mind,” said Kevin Streelman. “I can’t memorize things too well, I’m not great with names, but I remember golf holes. I remember pin locations, the way putts break, where you can hit it, where you can’t hit it.
“But if I’m playing a certain hole on Sunday, and the wind might be similar to what it was on Tuesday, I might ask my caddie, ‘What club did I hit again there? A 5-iron? What did it carry?’ The book gives you some solid data.”
That’s what Long is trying to do.
“I guess I’m supplying them with something that can help them do their job well,” said Long. “That’s how I look at it. I hope I’m making their lives a lot easier.
“I did what those guys are doing for a long time, walked in their shoes. It was really nice to have this in my hands, because it made my whole job a lot easier to have this. I hope that’s the way the guys look at it.”