At the Masters, low-tech data still rules in unlocking Augusta’s secrets

The compilation by hand of complex yardage books has become an industry in golf

The caddie William Lanier was standing behind Augusta National’s 13th hole on Monday, scribbling in a notebook roughly the size of a kingsize candy bar, when he overheard a patron ask her husband, “What’s inside those books?”

Lanier walked over to the couple and flashed an open page of his standard-issue Masters yardage book, which contained notes about the hole that he would use to advise his player, Wesley Bryan, during the tournament. The pair were less than impressed. “What good does a book do?” the woman asked.

It is a great question, one that golf’s governing bodies have been hotly debating since the emergence in the past decade of books crammed with dizzyingly intricate high-tech data for each hole on a course. The information, gathered by advanced GPS and land-surveying equipment, is so comprehensive that some people consider the books mass-produced cheat sheets.

"I see these guys bringing out a book when they get on the green to look where to putt. I find this really hard to believe," the three-time Masters champion Gary Player said, adding: "You put me on any course in the world, I can read the putt as well as if I played there 10 times. I'm a professional golfer. It's something I have to be able to do."

The Augusta National book is like the course itself, designed to reward those with the most creativity, imagination and discipline

Golf officials worry that the easy availability of so much detail has contributed to slow play and nullified the advantages of those who are more proficient at reading greens and who put more effort into learning courses.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that at the Masters, home of the manually operated scoreboard and $1.50 pimento cheese sandwiches, the hole-by-hole yardage book provided by the hosts is primitive compared with what is available at other tournaments.

Away from Augusta, competitors typically use two books, one with tee-to-green details for each hole and the other, which often has a price tag, focused solely on the greens. The Masters provides a single one, at no cost, that covers both elements, offering rudimentary information. It is left to the caddies and the players to do their own legwork and fill in the blanks. In that respect, the Augusta National book is like the course itself, designed to reward those with the most creativity, imagination and discipline.

"I like it that way," said Michael Greller, who caddies for Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion. "It rewards people who put the work in."

Because of all the time and effort required to fill in the details, Greller said, he lives in dread of losing his Masters book. It would be like losing a computer file that was not saved on your hard drive. It’d be less stressful to lose my passport, absolutely,” he said.

The value of the books was driven home recently when Jeff Ghim, who is caddying here for his 21-year-old son, Doug, lost the yardage book he had painstakingly padded with notes over three months of research.

The book fell from a pocket of his long-sleeved overalls on Monday. His heart dropped, he said.

“Fifteen years my son’s dreamed of playing here,” Jeff Ghim said, “and I lose the directions.”

How could he replicate three months’ worth of notes in two days?

Thankfully, he got the book back. Someone turned it into the caddie headquarters the next day, and Ghim, with book in pocket, guided his son, a Masters rookie, to low-amateur honours.

Yardage books have been around since at least the 1950s, when the future PGA commissioner Deane Beman, then a junior golfer, sketched crude models for his own use. In the 1970s, the books proliferated as professional players and caddies, in search of a legal edge, turned to the course field guides compiled by pioneers like Mark Long, who has followed the high-tech path. He supplies his greens books to caddies for $150 apiece.

Carl Jackson is widely considered a priceless alternative. Known as the greens whisperer of Augusta National, Jackson worked 54 Masters, including 39 as the bag man for the two-time champion Ben Crenshaw. When Greller was about to caddie in his first Masters, in 2014, he sought out Jackson to try to absorb some of his knowledge about Augusta's bedeviling breaks and slopes.

Every tournament week since, Greller has checked in several times with Jackson, who first caddied at the Masters as a 14-year-old in 1961. The two do not go over notes because Jackson stores all his knowledge on the pages of his mind. Since Crenshaw regards Spieth as a protege of sorts, Greller is never shy about using Jackson as a resource.

"Carl probably wants to throw his phone any time he gets a phone call from Michael, he's probably talked to him so many times," said Justin Thomas, Spieth's competitor and close friend.

Greller said the best advice he had received from Jackson had nothing to with a fall line or a pin placement. It was simply: “There will be multiple times you’ll be confused. Then you trust your instincts.”

To remind himself, Greller writes a note on some pages amid all the technical jargon: “TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.”

“I haven’t seen it,” said Spieth, who, like most golfers, keeps books of his own.

John Wood, a veteran caddie who works for Matt Kuchar, spent Monday morning walking the course by himself, stopping often to take notes. By the time he was through, the pages of his yardage book resembled geometry assignments. He described the outing as a chance to "recheck stuff I've seen over the years".

Jack Nicklaus, who counts six Masters titles among his 18 Major victories, wonders why any touring pro would not want to be the master of his own game.

“To me, the game of golf is learning how to play the game and be responsible for everything you do,” he said. “That’s the fun of it. It’s fun to learn how to putt greens and how to play clubs.

“Now everything is given to the guys. That said, if it were all given to me back when I started in 1962 on the tour, I probably would have done exactly the same thing.”

Lanier was playing on golf’s minor league circuits when he started a side business making yardage books for his competitors. The side business outlasted his playing career. He uses every resource at his disposal, including Google Earth, to make his hand drawings as detailed as possible. Lanier can sketch Augusta National as if it were the back of his hand because it is practically his backyard: He grew up a couple of miles away and now lives close enough to walk to the course.

His drawings, while highly respected among golfers, are often lost on outsiders. Lanier recalled a visit he once paid to a Staples store in Florida to make copies of a book. A woman was using the copier next to him. Peering at his drawings, she asked, “Sir, excuse me, are you a medical illustrator?”

Lanier told her that, no, the illustrations she had mistaken for amoebas were greens and bunkers. – New York Times service