Golfers tend to be collectors - some might call us hoarders - by nature. Hats, tees, pencils, scorecards, plastic divot tools...if a course puts its imprint on it, golfers are likely to bring it home.
I'm big on hats and scorecards, but my favorite common piece of golf course paraphernalia is the yardage book. My father traveled fairly extensively for work while I was a kid, and when his trips involved golf, he would bring back yardage books from the courses he had played. When I was finished asking him how he'd played certain holes, I pored over them in my room for hours. There's no question that my fascination with the shapes and layouts of golf holes stems from those formative study sessions, and prompted me to draw golf holes of my own on computer paper.
Today, two shoebox-sized plastic bins groan under the pressure of the alphabetized yardage books stuffed inside. Whenever I travel to courses, I make sure to pick up a yardage book in the pro shop before setting out.
That is, if that particular course still sells them. As rangefinders, hand-held GPS units and golf cart yardage screens have become more and more prevalent in the last several years, I have noticed several middle- and high-end courses have done away with yardage books altogether. A few times, a shopkeeper has almost laughed when I ask for what to him must seem an obsolete piece of old-time golf gear.
I will admit that I can see the point. Golfers shoot flags and other course landmarks with their laser rangefinders. Handheld GPS devices, from IZZO's sub-$150 yardage-only Swami Voice Club to full-color models from Garmin and SkyCaddie that top $350, continue to proliferate. Various apps can turn your smartphone into a library of 30,000 yardage books. Same goes for your smartwatch, by Apple or other companies. The analog yardage book has never had so much digital competition, and it's not getting any easier. If golf's governing bodies were to allow digital yardage books in elite professional tournaments, that could be all she wrote.
Companies that make golf course yardage books acknowledge that demand for their products has waned, so they have gotten creative. "We're looking to do 500 events this year," said Mike Howell, founder and president of Best Approach Publications, which has been making yardage books for a quarter-century for about 2,000 courses worldwide. Custom yardage books for specific events like charity outings and member-guests have been popular with scores of their clients. In addition to hole diagrams, these pieces include tournament information, tee times and other pages that tie the book to a specific occasion. While the coronavirus pandemic has put a hold on all sorts of golf events, this seems to be a way for yardage books to stay relevant once play resumes with fewer restrictions.
Best Approach has adapted to provide plenty of digital solutions to its clients as well. Their CourseFlight product generates digital hole flyovers using the data and graphics that would they would have turned into yardage books anyway. Likewise, their hole graphics are easily ported into custom course yardage apps, which save clients on printing costs while still containing similar information as a physical yardage book provides.
Does this mean it's only a matter of time before paper yardage books fall by the wayside entirely? Former professional golfer Tom Eubank doesn't believe so. Eubank's company, Golf Sign and Design, makes yardage books for several hundred courses, in addition to products from tee markers to engineering-grade metal signs for golf holes and street names.
"They never should have been called yardage books. They should have been called marketing books," Eubank said. "Do you know how many people at resort courses will buy these after the round? It’s a souvenir to take home. The marketing department uses these more than the pro shop nowadays.”
Many higher-end public and resort courses used to give every golfer a yardage book with their green fee, providing an instant, physical memento with far more detail than a simple scorecard. Lately, when they've been available, I've paid more than $20 for yardage books at some courses. That's quite a premium to charge golfers for the right to reminisce over a round. But as detailed as some of the professional-style yardage books have become, this can be a worthwhile expenditure, especially since it can save you a couple key shots in that money match with your buddies.
Personally, I will always favor a yardage book over its digital counterparts because a golf course's wide open spaces exhort me to look at something other than a screen for a few hours. The opportunity to plot out the best way from tee to cup makes me feel more invested in the round, and the process of translating the data on a hole map into an actionable shot helps me focus on that shot. Best of all, a physical yardage book can't interrupt me by serving up the latest silly social meme while I'm trying to figure the right layup yardage from the trees.