"I'll just get a Strokesaver...."
by Colm Gill
From its HQ in Paisley, Scotland, the Strokesaver company produces distance guides for some 600 courses in 21 countries including Austria, China, Dubai, Italy, France, Germany, USA, Luxembourg, S.Africa and Sweden. In fact, golfers can expect to find Strokesaver guides in the pro-shops of all the best courses from Australia to Zimbabwe. It is important to emphasise the word 'best' as one of the principal reasons Strokesaver has gained - and maintained - its premiere position, has been the policy of situating itself at the quality end of the market.
The impressive client database at the Strokesaver Head Office includes all the top Championship courses in the United Kingdom and Ireland, plus the Augusta National and all recent US Ryder Cup venues. The brand enjoys official recognition from many Golf Federations as well as the PGAs of various countries. Each year, the Royal & Ancient Club at St.Andrews, as organisers of the golfing world's most important tournament - The Open Championship, places its trust in Strokesaver to produce a definitive distance guide, not only for the principal course on the Open rota, but also all the Final-Qualifying courses.
Given such global penetration and presence, one would be forgiven for believing that Strokesavers have been around for as long as the R&A. In fact, Strokesaver has established itself in a relatively short period of time. With the advent of televised tournaments in the late '70s, the public became aware of the tournament player's habit of referring to tiny diagrams of golf holes on nothing more than a piece of card. The power of TV resulted in the practice spreading to club players, particularly when visiting unfamiliar courses. Generally, the guides then available were scrappily produced and unsatisfactory due to the many inaccuracies they contained. Something more professional was required to fill a growing hole in the golf market - and it was David Duckering who provided it.
Duckering was a scratch golfer who had previously represented Scotland at University level. Being involved in the whisky industry, the keen golfer had cause to travel the world and, just occasionally, make time for some business during a round of golf. Duckering explains, "One day I played at Pebble Beach where it cost more than $50, I know it costs a lot more nowadays, but, at that time, $50 was more than I'd ever paid for a round of golf in my life. Being a true Scot, it hurt me to pay for something and not get full value for my money. I hadn't a clue about clubbing nor what shots to hit where, so it struck me that a distance guide would be an extremely useful accompaniment to the round."
Upon returning to Scotland, Duckering made use of the golfing contacts established during his university days to propose that he provide the R&A with an official distance booklet for Muirfield, which was to host the Open that year. "I thought we'd have a crack at Muirfield in 1980 just to see if it could pay off. My inexperience meant we spent far too much money on helicopters for the aerial shots and, in the end, we lost about 4,000 pounds on that first venture. However, it turned out to be money well spent."
The R&A left the distance charts in the locker rooms at Muirfield at the start of Open week and almost every competitor referred to them during the practice rounds. Top stars such as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson used the information for every hole on the course. In fact, Watson used the guide to assist his victory and was seen by millions of TV spectators with a Strokesaver guide in his hand during the closing holes of the championship. The exposure was manna from heaven for the fledgling company. Acceptance by the players led to a repeat contract with the R&A and Strokesaver was eventually named as the Official Course Guide to The Open. Another timely publicity boost came when Nick Price very visibly used his guide to assist his success at Turnberry in 1994.
The passage of two decades has seen Strokesaver build a reputation based on solid credentials. The production process of high-resolution aerial photography, professional ground surveying equipment being coupled with a full understanding of course design has resulted in a guide that is unequalled anywhere in the world today.
Although many firms produce alternative guides, these, generally, tend to contain the same inaccuracies as those first seen in the early 70s. To a certain extent, this is understandable as courses are forever evolving. As a course matures, trees grow, tees are changed or extended, and bunkers taken out of play or added to increase difficulty. A change in greenkeeping staff can alter the dimensions of a putting surface drastically through the simple act of mowing greens in a different way. With the passage of time, the original green is lost and all previous measurements have become obsolete. Duckering says, "It's amazing the discrepancies to be found on some cards. One hole we measure at Portmarnock, a few years ago now, was 16m out - and that was a par 3!"
Strokesaver attempts to combat any modifications through the use of a distance plate system. The method was first introduced at Royal St.George's Open in 1993 and involves different coloured plates being placed at key landing points on the fairway so that players have defined reference points. Unlike the ubiquitous100m, 150m and 200m stakes, the plates are positioned in relation to the length of the hole and, thus, vary from hole to hole.
Another advantage of the plate system is that the club creates a permanent record of the original course layout (it is surprising how many renowned clubs don't actually possess this information). At commercial sites, the plates help speed up play by providing exact information where it is required.
A further benefit for clubs that opt for an original Strokesaver, rather than a less accurate alternative, is commercial. Clubs can easily recuperate the start up costs of a first print run through the sales income a Strokesaver will generate. Many corporate venues, as a matter of course, include the price of a guide into the cost of a company/society visit and are very happy with the profits. It has consistently been proven that, a prominently displayed Strokesaver guide can provide a disproportionate amount of a shop's operational profits as the guide is an attractively priced souvenir of a visit to a key venue.
Sales of the Valderrama Strokesaver shot up before the 1997 Ryder Cup and have been maintained as visitors invariably seek out a commemorative gift for family and friends. A similar phenomenon occurs at St.Andrews where 'Old Course' guides sell by the dozen. But, it is not just at the famous clubs where golfers look to buy a Strokesaver as a souvenir. Mijas, Torrequebrada, La Manga and Vilamoura, to name but a few, all enjoy an exceptional level of sales to holidaying golfers. It is not unusual for many visitors to buy an extra copy: one for use on the day, and another to be kept in pristine condition as part of a valued collection of 'courses I have played'. Indeed, such is the fad for collecting original Strokesaver guides that the Paisley office offers a subscription service for new guides published, incredibly there are over 1,000 Japanese names on the list !
So, next time you play a new course, say the magic words "I'll just get a Strokesaver..." not only will you cut shots off your card, but you will acquire a positive memento of an enjoyable day's golf.