George Peper: We’re Out of Touch

I love my GPS watch. It gives me yardages quickly and precisely, allows me to play shots efficiently and with greater confidence. But a part of me wishes it had never been invented. Why? It’s taken some of the feel out of my game.

Just as the advent of calculators relieved school kids of the need to learn their times tables (and see the magic of numbers and math), just as navigation systems have helped us find our way but lose our sense of direction, so have high-tech devices dumbed us down as golfers.

Harry Vardon never used a range finder, yet from all reports he played some stunningly accurate irons. So did Hogan, Nelson, and Snead. So did Trevino, Miller, and Ballesteros. None of them had electronically generated yardages—just preternatural feel. Name a player on the current PGA Tour who displays that. (Okay, I’ll give you Bubba, and maybe Phil on a good day.) The rest of them—even the best of them—are all but automatons, mechanically playing shots prescribed to them by their caddies. The current poster boy is physics major Bryson DeChambeau, whose Bible, The Golfing Machine, is a Euclidian textbook that defines the golf swing as three zones, 12 segments, and 24 components. 

We amateurs are an even sorrier lot. Hi-tech equipment has minimized our mis-hits.  Computerized custom-fitting has armed us with clubs that fit us perfectly. Launch monitors, video analysis, and game-tracking systems have helped us fine-tune our swings and manage our games. But just as we’ve become beneficiaries of all this digital-age assistance, we’ve become its victims. We’ve lost touch. We’ve lost a large measure of whatever each of us possessed of the sixth sense of golf.  

What’s the sixth sense? An amalgamation of things—experience and discernment, perception and proprioception, hand-eye coordination and gut instinct. It makes use of the other senses and then goes beyond them, permeating every aspect of the game.  

It’s walking to the tee of a hole for the first time, reading the architect’s mind, and knowing exactly where you want to hit your ball. It’s standing in the fairway, looking at the green complex, and sensing where you’ll need to land your ball in order for it to bound and roll out (or spin back) to the hole. It’s more than knowing yardage, it’s dialing-in, selecting your clubs according to the wind on your cheek, the stiffness in your joints, the moisture in the air, even the time of day. It’s having the moxie to play a seemingly outlandish shot—say, a 4-iron from 50 yards—because  your lie, the pitch and texture of the green, and the hole location tell you that’s the right shot. It’s looking at a lie in three inches of rough and knowing it’s not a flyer, it’s a floater. It’s looking at a lie in fluffy fringe and knowing how much you have to open the clubface or tweak your angle of attack or the speed of your swing. It’s reading a bunker—or a green—with your feet. 

These skills are partly innate but mostly developable—and if for any reason you stop developing them, believe me, you lose them. Twenty years ago, the strongest part of my game was chipping and pitching. Then I moved to St. Andrews and for seven years I played most of my golf on the Old Course where the average green size is 37,000 square feet. Rarely faced with the need to hit a lofted pitch or 30-foot chip, I lost my short game, and I’m still trying to get it back! Indeed, the only part of my game that improved during my sojourn to St. Andrews was the ability to two-putt from 100 feet, an absolutely useless skill anywhere else in the world.

In the same way, technological advancements—led by yardage-measurement devices—have relieved us all of the need to think, feel, and read a golf course, to use and enhance one of the greatest assets a golfer can have: intuition. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m neither a complete Luddite nor a complete fool. As I write this, my Garmin Approach S2 is charging. But before I next use it, I’m going to practice my chipping.

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