Electrify Your Game: Rangefinders vs. GPS

Golf is going high tech, and you should be gong along for this ride. Remember when GPS systems on golf carts were a novelty? Now the only unique feature they offer is a menu for ordering food at the turn. You can carry more computing power in your hand and have more info at your disposal than a Tour player with a caddie (well, except for rereading putts).

But how much do you really need?

I have extensively tested both GPS-based systems like Sky Caddie and laser rangefinders, and I think most golfers are better served with the latter. That may not be true for you, however.

Here’s my logic. Most of the time you need to know distances, either to the pin, or to various hazards and lay ups. The rangefinder gives you this quickly and easily. Point it and the flag and click. Point it a bunker, a tree, rock, even the 150-yard posts will do on some courses. That’s it, quick and dirty. You buy it, put it in your bag, and you are done. You can leave it there all the time, no downloads, no charging. The newest model from Bushnell, the Tour V2 With Slope ($399), which I use, even calculates the difference your shot will play due to uphill or downhill on the approach, something most GPS devices can’t offer (NOTE: this function is not sanctioned by the USGA for competitive play, though the basic laser is). Distances are accurate to +/- 1 yard at well over 300-yards.

The GPS systems give you more info, such as a map of the hole which is a great help on blind holes you haven’t played before, but realistically, how often does that come up? Maybe once every couple of rounds? And like a yardage book, it still suffers from the square peg in road hole syndrome of fittings the map into a rectangular screen, so severe doglegs never look as severe on the map anyway, print or electronic.

But to me the hassle factor with these devices is the worst part. Most require you to constantly download the courses you are going to be playing from the computer before traveling, while I have enough trouble packing my socks. Get where you are going without the course map and the GPS is pretty much useless. And some courses are not available anyway. One other drawback is that distances are to the front, middle or back, since the GPS does not know where the pin is. You can enter this manually, but that only makes sense if you already know exactly where the pin is, and then you wouldn’t need help. The laser, on the other hand, works on any course (and for the practice obsessed, on the range too) and always gives you the actual distance to the hole.

The GPS devices do a lot more things, but things a lot of golfers will never use, like let you track how far and how on line you hit your shots then download all this info to your computer and track your stats. So basically, these appeal to techno-fans, those who don’t mind one more device they have to sync and download constantly.

One other caveat to the GPS based systems is that most require you to have some sort of  ongoing subscriptions, as in paid subscription, to continue downloading courses.

If you do want to go the GPS route, one recent alternative addresses many of my concerns. Introduced at this year’s PGA Merchandise show is GPS giant Garmin’s first golf specific model, the Approach G5 ($450), an iPhone-styled touch screen version. A fingertip lets you calculate distance to green, trouble or to clear hazards on any line from any spot on the course. It’s also waterproof, light, and comes with over 5000 course maps preloaded, with additional downloads free and no subscription fees. The drawback is that they do not have nearly as many course maps available as their subscription based competitors.

One Response to “Electrify Your Game: Rangefinders vs. GPS”

  1. Casey Alexander

    I am a big fan of the Laser Link rangefinder. I play loads of tournament golf, and I do not know one person who uses a GPS in tournament play. Its all laser or nothing.

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