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Golfer looks through range finder.
Phil Mickleson uses a rangefinder at the PGA Championship golf tournament. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

How far away are professional golfers from accepting rangefinders in competition?

In May 2021, at age 50, Phil Mickelson became the oldest golfer to win a major professional tournament. He also made history as the first golfer to win a major professional tournament using a rangefinder to estimate shot distance.

The 2021 PGA Championship was the first major tournament on the PGA tour to allow the use of rangefinders during competition and their use was controversial.

Rangefinders let you measure the distance from your golf ball to the pin or other target area on the golf course. The aim was to increase the pace of play but it was met with mixed emotions from players, caddies and commentators.

The distance information from a range finder is important for club selection and deciding the appropriate shot type. But some professional golfers were hesitant about the use of rangefinders in competition prior to the tournament because most of this work is typically done by the player’s caddie.

Off of the golf course, there has been a lot of work done to understand how humans and technology can work together. This work has mostly been in areas like aviation, transportation and defence and security.

The technology is intended to improve human performance and should not be relied upon to the point that human skills and confidence decrease. This concept also applies to sport and golf.

Our research team studies human-automation interaction in contexts ranging from maritime warfare to sport. Our previous research with recreational golfers showed that psychological factors played an important role in technology use.

Why would a golfer use technology?

Like many relationships, trust plays an important role in a person’s relationship with technology.

Trust starts to develop based on people’s beliefs about the tech, people are more likely to use technology if they trust it. For example, a golfer may see a friend using their rangefinder and develop a belief that the technology will be useful.

Trust also develops through experience with technology. Our research has shown that when we gave rangefinders to golfers who had not used them before, their trust in the technology increased after only one round of golf. Professional golfers, while typically unable to use rangefinders in competition, still use the devices during practice and non-competitive rounds.

We have found that in people who use rangefinders regularly, the trust in technology is stable, even when they can’t use the devices, so it is likely pros feel the same.

A person’s self confidence in performing a skill by themselves also affects whether they use technology. If someone is confident in their ability, they may be less likely to use technology. So, it comes down to a balance of trust in the technology versus self confidence in completing the task alone.

External factors, such as the difficulty of the task or situation, can also play a role. Even though professional golfers probably have more confidence than your co-worker hitting the links, most golfers — or their caddies — at the PGA Championship chose to use a rangefinder. This typically happened when golfers found themselves off the fairway or confirming their own distance estimation.

Professional golfer Webb Simpson spoke about the use of rangefinders after the tournament:

“I was definitely against it coming in, but we have seen how there’s a lot of situations where it helps… I was in the right rough on 10 yesterday, so you know, it’s a funky angle to that back left pin and my rangefinder got about six yards different than what we had come up with”.

Webb Simpson speaks about using rangefinders during the PGA Championship golf tournament.

So if players and caddies who typically determine distances to targets without technology began to use the rangefinders consistently during this tournament, what does that indicate about their confidence in themselves or in their caddie?

Using rangefinders in training compared to competition

While professional golfers still cannot use rangefinders in most competitions, they do use them during practice. For best performance during competition, training should closely relate so the athletes get the best transfer from training.

One worry is that people will over-rely on technology during training and not be able to perform in competition without it. If a golfer determines yardage using technology during training, then it changes the needs to estimate distances in competition by relying on yardage books and walking off distances. The fact that the player is not having to retrieve information to execute a precision shot in competition using the same cognitive processing as they did in training may hinder performance.

Although the current generation of professional golfers seems to have adapted to not using technology in competition, we may see future improvements in performance as the competitive context becomes more similar to the training context.

Technology will continue to change the way sports are played. When the golf rangefinder was first introduced in 1995, Mickelson had been playing professionally for three years. Since then, he had successfully estimated shot distances without rangefinders for years on the PGA tour. However, he and his caddie frequently used the device during the 2021 PGA Championship.

The use of rangefinders at this year’s PGA Championship offers a glimpse into the future of professional golf. The implications on not only the pace of play, but also performance, will be fascinating to follow at future events as golfers and caddies weigh the benefits and drawbacks of rangefinder use in competition.

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