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Handhelds link the gallery to the greens

Rob Labritz, a professional golfer struggling to make the PGA Tour, was finishing his second round at the Buick Classic in June. He was 12 over par when he came to the 18th green at the Westchester Country Club and lined up a slick 25-foot downhill putt for birdie. His putt trickled past the hole and off the green. He wound up taking three more putts for a double-bogey 7 and a final-round 81.

It was a moment any golfer would want to forget. But as it happens, every detail was being recorded for public perusal by Richard Edelman, a tournament volunteer standing off to the side pecking away at a wireless Palm handheld after each putt.

The goal was not embarrassment. The details were being recorded as part of the PGA Tour's new ultra-thorough scoring system, ShotLink. It is just one of many ways in which handheld devices are creeping into golf, a game long known for its wariness of technology.

Palm recently formed a partnership with the PGA Tour to integrate its handheld technology into Tour events in the hope of winning over tour players, weekend duffers and even those who set the rules of golf. Palm wants professional golfers to be allowed to consult wireless handheld computers in competition, a use that is now forbidden.

The scoring system, developed with IBM, relays detailed information about tournaments in progress _ each shot, the lie, the player's stance and the shot distance down to the inch _ to computer terminals at the golf course, television crews and Palm users anywhere. (ShotLink's global positioning technology measured Labritz's disastrous first putt, for example, at 696 inches; his last was 6.)

As part of its sponsorship, Palm is furnishing about 500 professional players and staff with Palm VIIx units and unlimited wireless service. Palm hopes that, like balls, clubs and clothes, the Palms will catch on with the fans.

Keith Bruce, a sports marketing consultant working for Palm, said that the company was seeking to "enhance the fan experience": basically, to allow people to gain a sense of interacting with the event rather than just sitting back and watching.

Palm is not alone. Compaq has developed a program for its handheld units that allows fans to browse various still cameras focused on the golf action during tournaments. Karrier Communications is marketing Intelligolf score-keeping software that allows amateurs to use their handheld devices as score cards.

One handheld device, the Handspring Visor, offers a Tiger Woods brand golf game. In January, SkyGolf GPS came out with a $400 distance finder that uses Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology to give exact yardages. It can be used with a Palm or a Visor, which runs the Palm operating system.

Of some 17,000 courses in the United States, about 800 have GPS distance finders on golf carts.

Using handhelds for yardage measurement has caused some debate. It is a major advantage to golfers who know how far they hit each club (and little help to those who do not). But the spread of such devices has raised concern among golf's governing groups: A U.S. Golf Association rule states that players "shall not use any artificial device or equipment."

The golf association, which governs professional play throughout the country, says it is "actively reviewing the use of electronic devices including Palms." For now, it says, using them remains a rule violation.

Conceivably, wireless Palm access could benefit a golfer by allowing him to contact outside parties to, say, ask about the break or speed of a putt or which club to hit or to solicit advice from a coach.

But Palm's primary aim is to convince golf fans that wireless units will help them better follow golf action at a tournament. The company has set up booths at tournaments where it exhibits and lends units and offers discounts to golf fans.

The wireless Palm VIIx costs about $200. Monthly charges for service depend upon how much information is downloaded, ranging from $10 to $45, which provides unlimited access. Right now, Internet access is limited, with only scaled-down versions available for many pages and sometimes a long wait for a response.

Although television coverage makes for relatively seamless viewing, watching a golf tournament in person is a challenge. It is hard for a fan to follow more than one group at a time. He learns to interpret the roar of galleries on other holes, sometimes wishing he were back in front of his television.

Inside the ShotLink truck, officials track the scorers and route the results to the right places. Anyone who thinks of golf as a slow game should see the data pouring in, as if this were the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

"Do we really think David Duval made an 8 there?" one official asked during a pretournament pro-am event.

They perused his shot series and it turned out that, yes, he had.

Two laser guns are used to measure shots to the inch _ from drives to putts _ and whether they land in the fairway, the fringe, the water or the "primary" or "intermediate" rough.

"The second the golfer hits his shot, we have the data," said Steve Evans, vice president for information services for the PGA Tour.

For their part, the professional golfers seem to use the Palms to keep in touch with their caddies, get information on late-breaking tee times or check Friday night flights after missing the cut.

J.P. Hayes, a Tour player, said he used his handheld device on the practice tee to check on his stocks and on sports scores. Having access to his statistics on ShotLink after the tournament is no real help to him, he said. But he conceded that it would give his brothers a chance to follow his rounds, since "only 5 percent of us actually make it onto TV during the tournaments."

Craig Parry, a Tour professional from Australia, said others on the Tour used wireless Palms when things were going poorly on the practice tee, sending a message to a coach back home for a swing diagnosis.

But most important, he said, he enjoys using the handheld for entertainment on those 20-hour plane flights to Australia.