How far is it? It's a question we ask every time we play golf. The answer, depending on how accurate the estimate, helps determine whether we'll be lining up a putt or asking the question again real quick.
So we find a sprinkler head marked with yardage and step it off. Or we eyeball the tree at 150 yards and say the ball looks to be about a first down away from that. Or we flat-out guess, pull out the seven-iron and take our chances.
There are other ways. As anyone who uses a titanium driver knows, technology is changing the face of golf. Some upscale courses have installed golf-cart based systems that measure distances using global-positioning satellites or sensors buried in the fairway.
But a Costa Mesa company is aiming for the pin. For precision it would be hard to beat the DME Rangefinder, a laser device that can determine distance with a one-yard margin of error.
The Rangefinder looks like a pair of binoculars and is used similarly.
A golfer standing next to a ball aims at the flag and pushes a button. A few seconds later--after an invisible laser bounces off a reflector on the flagstick and back to the device--the yardage appears on a digital readout.
The idea for the Rangefinder came to Tony Korba of Irvine about five years ago, when he was flying a private plane to San Francisco. Flying small planes long distances is a point-to-point process, requiring the pilot to bounce beacons off established targets. Korba got to thinking that the lines and circles on the aviation maps looked a lot like fairways and greens.
Korba took his idea to a friend, Guy Lemmon of Irvine, and with Barry Fait of Laguna Niguel and Steve Harris of Newport Beach they formed DME Golf.
After 2 1/2 years and about $1 million in development costs, the first Rangefinder was sold in July, 1995. Now 140 courses, about 125 in the United States, have DME reflectors on their flagsticks. Some courses sell the Rangefinder ($295 list price, $250 typical pro shop price), some rent it. Others, including Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, include the service with the greens fee.
Developing the product hasn't been trouble-free. First there were technical hurdles. The first prototype was too big: about the size of a toaster. "You had to have your own nuclear reactor to power the thing," Harris joked.
Then there is the United States Golf Assn. Use of the Rangefinder during a round technically violates Rule 14-3b of the Rules of Golf, which forbids a player from using "any artificial device or unusual equipment for the purpose of gauging or measuring distance or conditions which might affect his play."
However, the USGA also ruled that rounds played using such devices are "deemed to have been played in accordance with the principles of the Rules of Golf."
Reconciling those two positions might require logical contortions, but essentially the USGA wants to make sure that scores are still posted for handicap purposes by those using such devices.
But the organization certainly frowns on its use, said John Morrissett, coordinator of the Rules of Golf and amateur status.
"A player's skill and judgment should be the key and if he has a computer spitting out numbers to him, that detracts from the game," Morrissett said. "Golf wasn't meant to be played with machines."
DME Golf officials realize their product is not popular with some traditionalists. But they argue that providing instant information doesn't take away from the challenge of hitting the shot.
Use of a Rangefinder, they point out, merely gives the average player the same information professional tour players get from their caddies. Fait said they joked about calling the device a "pocket caddy" to get around the rule.
Yardage markers on sprinkler heads are certainly artificial, they note, putting the USGA in an awkward position. "They have a tough job trying to be consistent and we can certainly understand that," Fait said. "It was a Pandora's Box when they allowed yardage markers on the course."
Rancho San Joaquin and Oak Creek are the only Orange County courses with the system. Rancho San Joaquin sells the Rangefinder.
Oak Creek has one on each golf cart and also has them available for use at the driving range. Head professional Perry Hallmeyer says they seem to be popular.
"We have some unusually large greens," Hallmeyer said. "Some of the holes can be three-club greens and it can be a guessing game how far you are to the pin. When you have this in your hand, you know the distance exactly."
So you wanna be a pro? Southern California golfers who work at other jobs during the week will have a new competitive outlet during 1997--the U.S. Bogey Golf Tour.
The tour has scheduled 45 one-day events, mostly on Saturdays, and a two-day tour championship at Industry Hills. Most entry fees are $79 and the top prize will be about $500 per event. Those who want to maintain their amateur status may compete for scrip redeemable for tour merchandise or accepted at selected golf shops and courses.
Twelve events are scheduled for Orange Country courses, the first at Anaheim's Dad Miller on March 1. The tour's inaugural event is Jan. 25 at Alondra in Lawndale.
For information call (818) 967-7012 or access the Web page at http://www.BogeyGolf.com
Birch Hills, an 18-hole executive course in Brea, has opened its remodeled back nine featuring seven new holes designed by Cal Olson, the Costa Mesa-based architect who designed Coyote Hills in Fullerton.
The course now plays 3,560 yards with holes ranging from 98 to 369 yards.
Greg Conger won the Tustin Ranch Golf Club championship for the second consecutive year last month. Conger shot 76-76--152 and won by three strokes.
The Orange County Golf Notebook runs monthly. Readers are encouraged to make suggestions. Call (714) 966-5904, fax 966-5663 or e-mail Martin.Beck@latimes.com