By Matt Rhodes
When it comes to precision golf, few names stand out more than Johnny Miller. During his heyday in the early- and mid-1970s, Miller cemented his place in golf’s pantheon with some of the most preposterously accurate displays of ball-striking ever witnessed. See, e.g., Miller’s much-ballyhooed final round 63 in the notoriously difficult 1973 U.S. Open, his 1974 season with eight victories (including one week when he hit the pin no less than 10 times), and shooting a combined 49 under par for his first two tournaments of 1975. When Miller was on, he was untouchable, and no flagstick was safe.
While Miller was preternaturally talented, one key to his success actually had nothing to do with swinging a golf club. Specifically, before he even touched a club, Miller knew exactly how far he intended to hit the ball. Such was Miller’s confidence that he once instructed his caddie to give target yardages in half-yard increments; as Miller said, “if [the distance] is 162 and a half...I can hit it 162 and a half.” Now, reasonable people may question whether Miller truly possessed this level of distance control. After all, this is the same chap who once claimed - to an incredulous Jack Nicklaus, no less - that he had trained his eyes to take a “photograph” of the exact moment of impact so as to monitor his clubface conditions. Regardless of whether we can take Miller at his word, the anecdote still offers a valuable lesson even to us mere mortals. Whatever our handicaps, we are unlikely to get the most out of our games if we don’t know our numbers.
"There is no excuse for the rangefinder-equipped golfer to not know the exact target distance before striking an approach shot, and that alone could save multiple strokes over the course of a round."
The snag: as much as we might want to be like Miller, he had a caddie to do all of the tedious distance calculations. That isn’t in the cards for most of us. We may never be able to swing it or strike it like Johnny, but with a modern rangefinder in hand, we can at least have the same information that helped him knock down flagsticks and dazzle galleries week after week. And if we use that information strategically, a rangefinder can help us practice more effectively, play more intelligently, and ultimately have more fun as golfers. Perhaps the most obvious on-course rangefinder use is for ascertaining the distance to the flagstick on approach shots. It goes without saying, but: do this. There is no excuse for the rangefinder-equipped golfer to not know the exact target distance before striking an approach shot, and that alone could save multiple strokes over the course of a round. Don’t limit your rangefinder use to approach shots, though. Contemplating the hero shot over a water hazard? Use your rangefinder to determine exactly how far you’ll need to carry it to keep your ball dry. Need to lay up on a long par 5? Use your rangefinder to help set up your bread-and-butter wedge distance. Trying to sneak one around a dogleg? Use your rangefinder to ensure you pick a club that will get it past the bend without going through the fairway on the other side. The list goes on, but the point is: your rangefinder is a versatile tool. Not only can it be put to use on more shots than you might think, but for a given shot, it can provide multiple data points to inform your strategy and club selection. Use it.
"The key is integrating the rangefinder into your practice routine to better understand your own abilities, patterns and tendencies, and then pairing that knowledge with your rangefinder’s on-course functionality."
Thoughtful readers may find themselves thinking that while this is all well and good, knowing these numbers is only useful if one can actually control their distances á la Johnny. Despair not, fellow golfer! Even on my best day, there is maybe one club I could hope to wield with half-yard distance control (the putter), but I am nonetheless convinced that the on-course rangefinder uses described above are still valuable for all golfers. The key is integrating the rangefinder into your practice routine to better understand your own abilities, patterns and tendencies, and then pairing that knowledge with your rangefinder’s on-course functionality. I’ll discuss this further in a follow-up post. In the meantime, get out and play!