The rise and fall of the game’s foremost yardage book maker
Words by Michael Croley
Yardage book excerpts courtesy of George Lucas
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Before golfers started to look like swarthy sea captains peering through a spyglass while hunting for danger afar, their success depended on the printed page. Players of a certain age will remember checking in at the pro shop, dropping a few bucks for a treasure map of a different sort and relying on that yardage book throughout their round. But time marches on, and with it has come the advent and proliferation of range finders, SkyCaddie and all of today’s myriad satellite-based gadgets. The humble yardage book is now mostly a collectible item, its actual utility gone the way of the pager and DVD.
During those halcyon yardage-book days of the 1970s and ’80s, the work of one man stood out: “Gorjus” George Lucas. That’s not a typo—Gorjus with a j. He was always a little bit different. Among others, Lucas caddied for Ray Floyd and Arnold Palmer before leaving the loop in 1976 to create what would become perhaps the most sought-after tool on the PGA Tour. One of golf’s great characters at the time, Lucas is now out of the game. And while the overwhelming majority of fans who flip on the weekend telecast have no idea who he is, they should know that those shot-tracer lines tracking 370-yard drives to the inch have their origins in what was known for years on Tour as “The Book.”
For all the poor choices that would later push him out of the yardage-book market, Lucas’ original business instinct was sound. In the mid-1970s, there was no service on Tour that provided consistently accurate yardages week to week. Caddies were largely on their own at each event, pacing distances by foot, using passed-down estimates from previous years and even asking members for advice. Lucas, whose personal yardage books were already gaining a reputation, sensed an opportunity.
“I always had an enthusiasm. These are the best golfers in the world. The best caddies in the world. And they will tell you they are, without hesitation,” Lucas says with a laugh. “I felt their enthusiasm. They needed the best in the world. They needed to be happy, and [the book] had to be perfect.”
At that time, Lucas’ yardage books were as close as anyone got. He began traveling from tournament to tournament via a camper that housed himself, his dog and a small-scale publishing shop, along with large-scale lasers and prisms most often used in land surveying.
“It would take me 12 to 14 hours to measure a course out,” he says of a process that often included maneuvering around people actually playing the course, who had more than a few odd looks for this man with flaxen hair, unwieldy tools and a dog by his side. Augusta National, Inverness, Shoal Creek and Valhalla are just a few of the grounds where Lucas pulled into the parking lot a week ahead of the Tour’s traveling circus and went about his (at the time) cutting-edge work.
Discursive and hard to keep on point in conversation then and now, Lucas was a focused and committed yardologist, as he became known. Rick Lipsey, profiling him in 1996 for Sports Illustrated, explained Lucas’ work best: “At new layouts he maps every hole from scratch. At old ones he measures new sprinklers, bunkers and landmarks, and rechecks old ones. On each hole Lucas places prisms at the back of the tee and front of the green. Then he stands on each sprinkler and landmark and fires the laser at the prisms. A laser beam bounces off the prism and back to the machine, providing a precise distance reading.”
In his heyday as a caddie, Lucas was a known commodity. A character supreme with a faucet for a mouth, he was a good quote for golf scribes, and his look, the hair and the tan stood out even in one of golf’s most flamboyant eras. While his obsessive attention to the process—constantly checking and rechecking distances, rarely reusing books from year to year—was key, his former life as a caddie was the secret sauce that helped him become the preferred yardage-book maker on Tour, even as other competitors began to spring up. Lucas was ideally positioned due to his knowledge of what the loopers needed for their bosses, and they trusted his knowledge and the detail of his books, which also possessed a sense of humor. Mounds were called “Dolly Partons,” he drew fish in water hazards and birds in the deep woods, and he even mapped out the places nobody should be and indicated them as “JICYRFU”—Just in Case You Really Fuck Up.
The impact of the books floored Lucas, causing him to feel the weight of responsibility and how much players relied on him. Lon Hinkle, who won three times on Tour in the 1970s, once told him, “I can’t take the club back without your book in my back pocket.”
Lucas said Andy Martinez, who caddied for Johnny Miller and later with Tom Lehman, told him he did more to lower scores than any ball improvement or jacked weighting on the heel or toe of any club. “I was told Miller always had two of my books,” Lucas says, “and that later he learned how to blow them up with a Xerox machine and put them on corkboards.”
Lucas became so well known for his books that he came full circle with Sports Illustrated, which asked him to be part of its golf coverage, describing in great detail how certain holes had changed year to year.
At one tournament, Lucas approached one of his former colleagues and asked, “If there was one book left and there were 10 of you that didn’t have one, how much would you pay?” His friend told him $150. Lucas sold him two books for $75.
“The caddies were like dealing with junkies,” Lucas says. “On Monday, they would ask, ‘George, is it in there?’”—meaning the books. One pro came to him after finding the books had already sold out in the pro shop and asked if there were more. “I said, ‘Yeah, they sold out, but I’m getting them more now.’ And he said, ‘George. George, don’t fuck with me.’ It was like he turned into this wild animal. His whole demeanor changed. I don’t care if it’s a 350-yard drive or 35-inch putt, the last thing that goes through a pro’s mind is, ‘How far in this direction?’”
Despite the overwhelming demand, Lucas never figured out the financial side of his venture. In 1976 he started by charging $3 per book. When he sold the business in the late 2000s, his price had risen only to $15. And that was for the majors. Lucas says even in those wildly successful early years he barely broke even.
“You think Uber and Lyft is the best deal in the world right now? That was the best deal,” he says. “I mean, three bucks, and it was accurate.”
Finally, the financial strain along with the grind of going week to week got to him.
“I woke up one morning and I just didn’t have it anymore,” Lucas says. “I just said, ‘This is not fun.’ It was an awful feeling.”
A week later, he found himself at Valhalla, before Bob May became the answer to a great golf trivia question, mapping the 1999 PGA Championship. He was committed to his commitments even if his desire had waned. Out on the course, he took a break in the shade, watched Tiger Woods and Steve Williams ride past in a cart, then heard his phone ring. It was a man named Jim Stracka, and he wanted to buy the business. “He made his money in tech,” Lucas says. “I heard he sold his business for millions. I mean, that’s a lot of money.” A rare bit of understatement from a man who changed the spelling of his nickname so it would fit on his vanity license plate. “He told me, ‘I’m gonna do business with you one way or another,’” Lucas said. “I got calls once a year about the business.”
Four months later, visiting his father at Christmas, Lucas told him he was making so little money that “‘if somebody paid me what I’m making to do this, I would laugh at them.’ But it was my baby. I started that. I worked my ass off, and I had a good reputation.” For better and for worse, his reputation and his skill always meant more to Lucas than the financial end of the business. “Guys would tell tournament directors, ‘Don’t get anybody but George to do your book,’” Lucas says with a forlorn but still fierce pride. “‘Nobody else.’”
Even near the end, as better technology became more available, Lucas remained analog, personally printing, cutting and stapling more than 350 books for each tournament where he mapped a course. In 2008, he agreed to sell for an undisclosed sum.
Lucas remains a character, a storyteller. As time passes, some details remain wonderfully clear while others get hazy, with stories folding into each other. He can breezily shift from the time he was on the range at the New Hampshire Open, still trying to make it as a player himself, when someone came running from the clubhouse and told him Palmer was on the phone (weeks later Lucas was on the King’s loop) to the time his dog, Squeaky, took Woods’ headcover, Frank, for a spin in his mouth as Williams chased after him. “Tiger looked pissed,” Lucas recalls.
But when it comes to the end, when he packed up his life after selling the business—putting all the paper, the maps, the staplers, the measuring equipment, everything into boxes and walking into FedEx and signing the shipping bill—he turns serious. “My whole life was right there on a trailer,” he says. “I got an $80 bottle of champagne and I popped the cork and I celebrated.” Asked why he kept going through all the loneliness and small pay, Lucas is blunt: “Let’s call a spade a spade: I’m certifiably crazy.” But many consider him a genius. His maps sparked an insatiable desire for on-course data, and for many years fed it. Yardage books begat range finders, which begat SkyCaddie, which helped pave the way for ShotLink. It’s not a far leap to go from caddies begging Lucas for a book to players sprinting over to a Trackman screen. Lucas was a golfer and a caddie. He knew there was power in numbers.
Those heady, nomadic days chasing the sun are now over. Today Lucas lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, driving Uber to help pay the bills. But this is no hard-luck story. His ride is a Hummer and he loves the churn of meeting new people. “Just a few weeks ago, I picked up a guy at a golf course, and when he got in, he said, ‘You’ve got a very familiar face.’” It was Gary Player. Lucas said to the Black Knight, “Yardage books?” Without hesitation, Player shouted, “Gorjus George!”