The Skinny on Rangefinders and GPS
If you’re in the market, here’s what you need to know.
By Justin Onslow
Unless you’re a Tour professional with a caddie in tow, it’s hard to argue against the use of distance-measuring technologies like hand-held GPS units and rangefinders. After all, most of us average amateur golfers are just concerned with hitting our best shots in the right directions and at the right distances.
Even for the most skilled golfers, though, there’s no shame in utilizing the best technologies in golf to improve play and card the lowest score you can muster. Golf has always been a game predicated on technological advancements – from putters to drivers, three- and four-piece golf balls to the ultra-lightweight shoes on our feet – and no technology has improved more in recent years than distance-measuring aids in the form of GPS and laser rangefinders.
Joe Hallett, who won the 2018 Horton Smith National Award for the PGA of America’s top educator and is the Director of Instruction at Vanderbilt Legends Club in Franklin, Tennessee, has a lot of experience using both GPS units and rangefinders to coach his players. He understands the value of both.
Why a Rangefinder?
Laser rangefinders are beautifully simplistic. To get an accurate measurement of distance, a rangefinder will bounce a laser off whatever you point it at, then calculate the time it takes for the laser to bounce back. That time calculation gives the rangefinder an extremely accurate distance from the user to the object.
Point. Shoot. Done.
Rangefinders have their drawbacks, but there’s no denying how effective they can be at taking precise measurements a golfer really needs to hit his or her best shot. Some rangefinder units even take into account “praxtical” distance to an object factoring in elevation changes.
“The one I see in every kid’s bag right now is a Bushnell, and they do have some that have an adjustment for height or altitude,” says Hallett. “If you’re hitting uphill, effectively you’re hitting the ball 150 yards instead of 144, for instance. The average person, if they’re going to play where it’s not very flat, they should have that feature.”
Rangefinders also come in handy on the range for dialing in club distances.
“A rangefinder is going to cost you a lot less money than buying a launch monitor, and you can learn your yardages on the range and then use that same piece of equipment out on the golf course,” he adds. “Learning your yardage outside depending on the area of the country you live in or on a hot, humid day compared to a cold day – those are all things that are vital for average golfers.”
Easy to use, versatile and accurate, a rangefinder can go a long way toward improving your golf game in short order, and ranging from $150 to $600, there’s one with the right features and price point for every player.
Why a GPS Unit?
GPS units (whether handheld, an app on your phone or a watch on your wrist) use satellite data to provide golfers with accurate measurements from anywhere on any course. They’re usually accurate to within a yard or two, and many have the added benefit of displaying hole layouts on the display screen so golfers know exactly where they can hit their next shot.
“You can look at those maps (on the GPS unit) and see what the smartest zone is you can hit,” Hallett says. “You’re looking for the widest area, for instance.”
A rangefinder may give you an accurate measurement to a bunker along the right side of the fairway, but it doesn’t give a player a detailed overview of the hole to know if that’s the best area to hit to in the first place.
In addition, rangefinders have limitations when it comes to what they can take a distance reading of. If there are trees in the way or you’re hitting a blind shot over a ridge, there’s nothing to take a measurement of.
Hallett, who reps SkyGolf GPS equipment, has seen practical examples of when a GPS unit is far and away a better choice.
“There was a college tournament a couple years ago that SkyGolf provided units for, and the girl that ended up winning said if she didn’t have that, she wouldn’t have won this tournament,” he says. “She bailed her drive way out on the 18th hole and it was in the other fairway, but she could get an exact yardage because she knew where the pin was. You try to shoot that through the woods with a laser rangefinder, you’ve got no chance.
“If you’re on a heavily tree-lined course, you may look more toward a GPS than a rangefinder.”
Every good GPS unit is fairly precise, but Hallett says SkyGolf technology differentiates itself in a unique way.
“The one thing I know sets SkyGolf apart is that they physically send a person to the golf course with a geographical satellite unit, and that person walks the golf course and marks it,” he explains. “When you see a golf course marked up, someone has been there and taken every mark.”
Given the more complex nature of GPS units – which vary in size and features far more than do rangefinders – selecting the right one is a little more complicated, but the market is also a little bigger. Options can range from free phone apps to $100 (or $700) watches and handheld units $500 and under.
Why Use Either One?
“I think the area most people agree on is it GPS and rangefinders shouldn’t be allowed in tournament play,” says Hallett.
That said, even tournament caddies will sometimes use rangefinders during practice to verify distance in yardage books. There’s certainly a time and a place for them in the tournament world.
For everyone else, the time and place is always and everywhere – for one simple reason.
“The first why that any player should be using them is it speeds up play,” Hallett adds. “There’s just no question that those speed up play. Nobody likes to play slow. They like to play and keep moving.”
Instead of hunting for yardage markers or waffling between multiples clubs based on estimations, players can easily reference a GPS unit or point and shoot with a rangefinder, select a club and let it rip. It’s a matter of efficiency, but it’s also about playing better and carding better scores.
With advancements in GPS and rangefinder technology, both are easier to use and more affordable than ever. And both can make anyone a better golfer.
So, why use either one? The better question is “why not?”