In the GPS vs. Rangefinder debate, there is a universal truth; If you want to play better golf, two things must be down pat: the towards and the how-fars.

I’d bet good money one of the first questions Young Tom Morris asked his old man was “how far?” You can see the towards as in “hit it towards that tree” or “towards the left side of the green.” The how-fars – as in “how far to carry that bunker?” or “how far to the stick?” – are trickier.

How do you figure how far?

Back in the Cro-Magnon days, like the ’90s, figuring your how-fars wasn’t terribly scientific. You’d whack it as far as you could off the tee and then find the stake, bush or whatever served as the 150 marker. Then you’d march yardage off to your ball, do a little math, and hope you were close to right.

If you were a Rockefeller, the course you played had yardage numbers on the sprinklers, which helped. Sadly, most of us weren’t Rockefellers.


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The How-Far Revolution

Both laser rangefinders and GPS technology have changed the game for us everyday Joes and Janes. Those of us who play for fun, low stakes, and pure enjoyment probably aren’t fussing with yardage books. And we certainly aren’t striding around like a doofus walking off yardages if we don’t have to. Pine for the old days if you must but time, dear reader, marches on.

With or without us.

We’re 20 years into this techno-revolution. Many of us have chosen sides: we’re either laser luggers or GPS gazers. The true diehards are golf’s Crips and Bloods and should not be invited to the same scramble.

A man holding a GPS, trying to compare it to a rangefinder

The rest of us, however, remain open-minded. Just because you use a laser rangefinder now doesn’t mean it’s the best solution for you and vice versa. There are pros and cons to each and which one is best for you depends on how you process information and where you play your golf.

It’s not the purpose of this piece to dissect different models and analyze features side by side. We do that in our laser rangefinder and GPS Buyer’s Guides. Instead, we intend to examine each category’s technology and help you prepare a mental checklist. From there, you can choose the direction that’s best for you.

The Case for Rangefinders

Point. Click. Done.

It’s literally that easy to get a distance with a rangefinder, with a few caveats. Most people use rangefinders almost exclusively for approach shots – provided, of course – they can see the pin. Lasers share technology with rifle scopes and in both cases, you can’t shoot what you can’t see. For a blind uphill shot, you have to move to higher ground to get a visual on your target but now that laser accuracy becomes more of an approximation. You can also try shooting the distance to a fairway bunker or the trees at the end of a dogleg. Just make sure you lock onto the right thing. Most of the time, it works just fine.

Rangefinders and GPS's

And then there’s slope.

I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said the slope function is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy. Or maybe he was talking about beer, but the sentiment is the same.

For those of us who don’t play tournament golf, slope is a nearly indispensable feature. It tells how much longer an uphill shot or how much shorter a downhill shot will play. The slope feature does that math for you in about a nanosecond, which is way better than doing mental geometry or – more likely – taking a wild-assed guess.

You’ll pay extra for slope, but it’s something you generally don’t get with GPS. Most often, all GPS will do is pinpoint your position and calculate the distance between you and a predetermined position, usually front-center-back of the green. The notable exception is  Arccos’ A.I. powered GPS rangefinder which is a feature on its subscription-based platform.  The Arccos Caddie Rangefinder adjusts in real-time for slope, wind, temperature, humidity, and altitude.

Uphill or downhill? Most GPS faithful will have to do without.

Looking through a rangefinder rather than a GPS

For courses you know and play regularly, a rangefinder gets the job done – provided you have a good memory. You may encounter the occasional blind shot but if you know the course well enough, you can certainly make do. As long as you can see it, you’ll be able to shoot the exact distance to any pin. Local knowledge will tell you if it’s wise to go for it or to simply aim for the middle.

When it comes to GPS vs. Rangefinder, simplicity and push-button accuracy favor the rangefinder.

The Case for GPS

Before Waze or Google Maps, do you remember what it was like asking for directions? Some people would draw you a map and others would write turn-by-turn instructions. Some people are visual; others are linear. And I’d bet most of Greg Norman’s money that the turn-by-turn guys use GPS watches and the map drawers use GPS handhelds or an app.

The folks that would rattle off directions and hope you remember? They’re using rangefinders.

GPS, of course, is broken into two categories. There’s the basic front-middle-back watch and there’s the full-hole imagery handheld device or smartphone app. You can get full-hole imagery with certain watches with varying degrees of features, which we’ll discuss later.

A Watch Golf GPS

Again, if it’s a course you know well and play often, a sub-$200 GPS watch giving front-middle-back distances will do just fine. It won’t be much help on a hilly course but local knowledge is always your friend. If that’s all the info you want or need, you won’t be fettered with extra detail. But if you’re the type of golfer who craves more information or who travels frequently, hole-imagery GPS provides tangible benefits.

There are GPS watches that provide varying degrees of hole imagery. Sky Caddie’s new LX5 watch, for example, gives you a look at the entire hole from tee to green. It also allows you to move a cursor on the screen to find the exact distance to anything: bunkers, trees, water or other hazards. You’ll get front-middle-back distances but you can move the cursor to the approximate pin location for more accuracy.

In the battle of GPS vs. Rangefinder, one could argue GPS’ biggest advantage is that it allow you to see more of the course.

Handheld GPS units take that functionality to a bigger screen. For the traveling golfer playing new courses, hole-imagery GPS can be a round saver. Carts with GPS screens used to be ubiquitous at resorts and destination courses but many are dumping them due to costs. On a buddy trip to Bandon or Streamsong, at least one guy in your foursome better have a GPS, just in case your caddie doesn’t have his A-game.

A rangefinder and 2 GPS's

Smartphone apps are an acceptable low-priced option. Free versions are generally limited to a handful of courses and you may not have the most up-to-date GPS imagery or overall functionality. There’s also the battery-drain factor. To make it through a round (if you don’t bring a backup battery or have a working USB port in your cart), you’ll need to set screen brightness at maybe 50 percent. On a sunny day, that might not cut it.

And you have your phone with you, which may or may not be a good thing.

Full-featured handheld units like the Sky Caddie SX500 and its kid brother, the SX400 for examples, give you full-hole imagery, moveable cursors, and complete course mapping. Sky Caddie walks and electronically maps damned near every course and has the most up-to-date and accurate imagery in the category. It’s a touch screen so you can move the cursor to your ideal landing spots, which is helpful on par 5s. The unit instantly calculates the distance to your next landing spot as well as what you have left to the green.

Slope? As we said earlier, you’re on your own.

4 GPS's and 4 Rangefinders

Price-wise, the best-equipped handheld units are in the same ballpark as the best-equipped range finders. On the lower end, you can find functional GPS watches and functional range finders for less than $200, so there’s no real price advantage one way or the other. Apps can be anywhere from free to 50 bucks and range from somewhat functional to pretty good. The benefit there is if you don’t like one, you can try another without blowing much cash.

GPS vs. Rangefinder – Determining Factors

There’s a school of thought that says the lower the handicap, the less GPS with full-hole imagery helps. That school believes better players can get around the course just fine with either a range finder or a simple front-middle-back GPS watch.

Five or 10 years ago, that was likely true. It’s still true for the better player who plays all his golf at the same few courses. But developments in handheld technology provide detail and information any golfer, regardless of handicap, can use no matter where they play.

Simply put, it’s all about course management.

“If you’re 250 out, do you hit a 3-wood no matter what or should you hit 6-iron and wedge?” asks Sky Caddie Sales Manager Paul Calabrase. “If you have a GPS, you can look at what’s in front of you and it’ll do the math for you and tell you what you have left for an approach.”

The higher handicapper may want to hit a 3-wood in that situation but the odds say the ball is more likely to wind up in the woods, a pond or a bunker than the green. That can turn what might have at worst been a bogey into a triple or worse pretty quickly. Eliminate a few dumb mistakes and you can easily shave four or five strokes off your score.

For the lower handicapper, being able to slide a cursor to preferred landing spots and get an idea of the actual shape and undulations of greens can be invaluable.

“Our IntelliGreen® function gives you the exact shape of the green,” says Calabrase. “It rotates based on your approach angle and you can move the cursor to the pin location. It creates a smaller target zone. It might read 142 to the front, 155 to the middle and 168 to the back. If you move the cursor to where the pin is, you’ll see it’s maybe 150, so you’ll have enough club to carry the front but not so much that you’ll be too far past it.”

The landscape of a golf course that can be seen through a rangefinder

As we’ve mentioned, if you play the same course or courses all the time and you know them well, a rangefinder or a simple front-middle-back GPS watch may be all you need. Hole imagery comes from your local knowledge and you eventually learn which holes you can go for and which require laying up. If the courses are hilly, investing in a rangefinder with slope would be a nice treat.

If you travel for business or pleasure or enjoy exploring new courses, a handheld unit with hole imagery has obvious benefits. Rangefinders and basic GPS watches don’t help much when faced with blind shots, hidden hazards or false fronts. And, sure, you can look over the scorecard or a resort’s complimentary yardage book to get an idea of what you’re looking at but units such as the SX 400 and SX500 offer more interaction. The screen automatically rotates based on your angle of approach and you can move the cursor to get precise yardages to specific targets or hazards.

In these cases, a handheld is the equivalent of a digital caddie or, at the very list, a digital version of a pro’s yardage book.

“For the average golfer, here’s a safe spot to hit it,” says Calabrase. “But you can move the cursor around to fit your needs. That allows you to personalize the experience based on your abilities and what you want to do on the golf course.”

GPS vs. Rangefinder – Final Thoughts

Technology is a wonderful thing. It gives you a barrel-full of options to help you figure your how-fars. It’s just a matter of which one fits your needs.

And depending on your situation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be just one. Many golfers use a laser or basic GPS watch on their home course and use either an app or a handheld when they travel. Some will even use both at the same time: the handheld to get an idea of the layout and layup and then the laser for their approach shot. The affordability of new technology makes doubling up a viable option.

A man looking through a rangefinder rather a GPS

If you decide a rangefinder is for you, slope is invaluable. Unless you use it in a tournament, it’s not cheating, no matter what golfers who take themselves way too seriously may believe. Most units today offer more than adequate optics and overall quality and MyGolfSpy’s Buyer’s Guide can help you weed through the marketing mumbo jumbo to make a good decision.

As mentioned, there are plenty of sub-$200 basic GPS watches that will do that job just fine. If you’re looking for more in a watch, both Sky Caddie and Garmin provide full-featured watches with varying degrees of hole imagery. Pricing, of course, will be higher, but so will the performance. Again, make sure to check MyGolfSpy’s GPS Buyer’s Guide.

Handheld units offer the greatest overall functionality for the golfer who wants it. It is, however, important to note that not all GPS is the same. Many apps and handhelds use satellite imagery, which may or may not be up to date and could miss new hole routings or tee boxes or up to 25 percent of the hazards on a given course. Sky Caddie spends a lot of money every year sending its people to walk each course to make sure every bunker, creek, pond and the shape of every green are accurately mapped.

A man on a golf course who might need a rangefinder or a GPS

A final consideration is shot tracking. While handhelds can do the job, albeit manually, this remains the domain of Shot Scope and Arccos. Both collect data automatically and both have developed extensive tools to analyze that data and present it to you in a usable way.

One last thing. It’s often said by the get-off-my-grass crowd that all this fancy technology does nothing but slow the game. Reality, however, tells another story. Time yourself finding a yardage marker and walking off the distance to your ball and then compare that to whipping out your rangefinder or GPS. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

A slow golfer is a slow golfer, no matter how he figures his how-fars. A slow golfer without a rangefinder or GPS will be a slow golfer with one. In the right hands, the technology has the potential to speed up the game. In the wrong hands, well, a slowpoke is a slowpoke, regardless of technology.

Your turn, GolfSpies. What do you use and why did you choose it?

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