A Q&A With Thomas Pagel of the USGA on Green Reading Materials
Thomas Pagel is the USGA’s Senior Managing Director of Governance, a title he assumed in 2018 after overseeing the Rules of Golf and Rules of Amateur Status teams for seven years. In his current role, he adds oversight of both the Rules of Equipment Standards and the Rules of Handicapping, serving as the USGA’s primary global governance leader. Pagel is a member of the USGA executive team and reports directly to the CEO.
Pagel’s golf career began in 2002, when he was selected as a P.J. Boatwright Intern to support his home state’s Colorado Golf Association. He was hired as a full-time staff member by the CGA following his internship and served in a variety of leadership positions until the end of 2007, when he joined the Utah Golf Association as its Executive Director.
Among his many responsibilities at the USGA, Pagel has led the Rules Modernization initiative, a multi-year global effort with The R&A to make the playing Rules of Golf easier to understand and apply for all golfers. He also assumes oversight of the implementation of the World Handicap System, to be introduced globally in 2020.
Pagel received his undergraduate from Colorado State University and a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Utah. He and his wife Courtney reside in Bernardsville, New Jersey with their two children.
1. Thomas, recently the USGA and The R&A announced that following a period of feedback and consultation, proposed regulations regarding the use of green-reading materials will be finalized. Take us through what served as the catalyst for the proposal.
The USGA and The R&A released a statement in May 2017 indicating a desire to better understand detailed green maps, how they were being used by players, and, most importantly, what impact they have on the skill of reading a line of putt. We took the better part of a year to thoughtfully review how these materials were being used, which included observation during play and feedback from players, coaches, officials and others. We ultimately concluded that extremely detailed green maps – those that currently show hundreds of digitally measured and imprinted contours, beyond what any person could see with their naked eye, eliminate much of the skill and judgment that is necessary to read a line of putt, especially for subtle breaks near the hole. Sharing the proposal with the golf community was the final step in the review. We are now actively receiving feedback on the proposed regulations from interested parties, including college coaches and players.
The proposed regulation allows for green-reading materials to continue to be created and used, while adding limitations to minimize the amount of detail – specifically by implementing a slope indication limit of 4%. This means that, in most instances, the area immediately around the hole will be free of detailed arrows and slope readings. The proposal also includes a component to limit the size of any green map. This is based off a scale that essentially limits the size of any green map to the size that you would find in a traditional yardage book.
It’s important to note that the proposal does not impact traditional yardage books, hole location sheets, or other materials that contain general information on the putting green, such as arrows indicating general slope or lines showing the top of a ridge. It also does not impact the ability for a player to use handwritten notes that also show general information.
2. While most amateur golfers have probably never used a green reading book, for elite amateur players, college golfers and tour professionals these have become quite common. In the discussions that lead up to the proposal, what types of information were used to support the premise that these materials were changing the game and minimizing and individuals’ skills in reading greens?
Surprisingly, many players have privately asked us to review their usage. As the organization responsible for governing the entire game, we take our role seriously in promoting the skill of players as the primary indicator of success. Through the last year, we focused on the increasing level of detail that is now included on many of these maps and how that detail was being used by players. In many instances players have become almost reliant on the information. We recognize that there has always been some level of general information about the slope and movement of putting greens available in yardage books, which has been helpful for every golfer in practicing and improving their skill. However, the sophistication of the technology now makes it possible for millions of data points to be mapped with tremendous accuracy. As these data points are transferred to green maps, players are now able to essentially determine a recommended line to the hole. As we better understand the technology, how players are using the maps and what the evolution of these materials might mean for the future, the USGA and The R&A concluded that it was important and in the best interest of the game to regulate the use of these materials. Ultimately, we hope all golfers will continue to develop their ability to study and read each green on the course, knowing this particular skill can define, and has clearly identified, the best players in golf.
3. We have received many questions from our members asking how a player will know if his or her yardage book (including notes and hand drawn reminders) will meet the specifications of the proposed new limits. Will rules officials now need to inspect a player’s yardage book on the 1st tee? Will any pre-printed greens book be certified as approved for a course or an event?
We know golfers will need help with this, and we’re here to help. A key component to the proposal is a submission process whereby the USGA and The R&A will work with the developers of these materials to confirm that their products conform to the Rules of Golf. The submission process does not contemplate every book from every course or every event being submitted or reviewed; rather the methodology and the output produced by a developer will be acknowledged as conforming and therefore future books for future events will also be considered to conform. So, assuming that a developer has gone through the submission process, there should not be a scenario where a player, coach, or official on the first tee feels the need to scrutinize every book. When the final regulations are in place, golfers can ask the developer of their materials at any time if their materials comply with the Rules of Golf.
4. The question has been raised by some that the use of these types of printed materials is simply elite players doing their homework and being more prepared. After all, the player still has to physically hit the shot or putt. How would you address this logic?
This is a great question because it gets to the heart of some of the confusion we’d like to clarify. Players doing their “homework” has been part of the game forever and we want to ensure that this homework and sweat equity not only continues to be allowed, but is encouraged. It is how we all advance our skills as players. However, we see a difference between a player or team doing this work on their own to learn a course through observation or practice, and using digitally gathered and rendered information provided through a pre-produced resource. The level of detail provided through the books is far greater and more accurate than any information that could be gathered through traditional means. An important point of clarification is that these materials can continue to be used during practice rounds while the player is learning the course, but once a stipulated round has started (either for a tournament or for handicap posting) any detailed green map would need to conform to the proposed regulation.
To the question about physically hitting the ball, there is longstanding precedent to suggest that it is not the only skill required of the player in playing the game. There are numerous other skills and judgments used by the player to develop and execute a strategy – for example judging the direction or speed of the wind, club selection, etc. The particular Rule that the proposed regulation would fall under is focused on maintaining these skills and judgments. Simply, without this Rule the game would be at risk of becoming robotic and the skill of developing a strategy would potentially be lost.
5. The Rules of Golf allow for a tournament committee to make a local rule allowing players to use a distance-measuring device. It is well known that the Professional Tours do not allow the use of these devices. Help us understand why the green-reading materials and measuring devices should not be treated in the same way with the option for a local rule.
The option of a Local Rule was considered during the development of the proposed regulation. Our view is that the books produced today are different from a distance-measuring device (DMD). DMD’s can only give the player straight-line distance from point A to point B; all of the other variables that come with hitting a full shot in the air from point A to point B, such as elevation, wind, etc. are left to the player’s judgement as he or she develops their strategy for the shot. The green books are offering more than just distance, and eliminate many of the judgments required of a player to then develop a strategy for the stroke they are about to make on the putting green. It was this difference that led us to the position that the proposed regulation should be required for all stipulated rounds.
6. Finally, what is the purpose of the feedback and consultation period and how do our members get involved if they have a view on the topic that they would like to share?
William Soulé is a senior pursuing degrees in journalism and sports management at the University of Oklahoma. He started working for the Golf Coaches Association of America in January of 2017 as a John Reis Intern. He also works for OU Nightly and Soonerthon at the university. He is a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. He expects to graduate in the Spring of 2020.