We tend to take technology for granted, don’t we?
If you remember rotary phones, UHF television, and AM radio, the fact you can buy a device that communicates – legally – with a freaking satellite is pretty mind-blowing. And get this: the freaking satellite can communicate back and tell you exactly where you are on the planet and, within a few yards, how far away you are from something.
And not for nothing, you can also shoot an honest-to-God laser beam at a stationary object. It won’t vaporize or anything fun like that, but you will find the distance to the tenth-of-a-yard. And let’s not even get into that whole Pythagorean uphill/downhill adjustment.
What in the name of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century is going on here?
It’s golf tech, my friends. We have Star Trek-level stuff giving us more information than we’ve ever had before. Does any of this help you play better? Well, that, of course, is entirely up to how you choose to use – or not use – it.
Laser, Watch, or Handheld?
This past summer, the SkyCaddie SX500 copped “2019 Best Handheld Device” in MyGolfSpy’s GPS Buyer’s Guide. Our testers appreciated the SX500’s visuals, functionality and feature set, so we thought it might be interesting to take a deeper dive into the technology behind it all and discuss how – and if – it might matter when you’re on the course.
Whether to use a laser, watch, or handheld (a stand-alone like the SX500, or a phone app) is an age-old question, kind of like Ginger vs. Mary Ann. There’s no shortage of options in this particular golf technology category, and every year the technology improves. That’s true for both the hardware and the software.
“We’ve had handheld devices through the years,” says Paul Calabrase, National Sales Manager for SkyGolf, maker of SkyCaddie GPS watches and handhelds. “Technology is now catching up and giving us hardware advancements, so we can give golfers close to the same detailed information Tour players use in their yardage books.”
Do you remember what it was like back in the dark ages of oh, say, 1999? We’d hunt for the 150-marker, step off the approximate yards to our ball, do a little mental trigonometry to adjust for topography, pick a club and whack away. And if it was a course we’d never played before? Well, make sure to pack plenty of balatas.
If you pine for those old days, then you no doubt still scribble directions on the back of an envelope.
“People just didn’t know what GPS was 20 years ago, they didn’t know what we were talking about,” says Calabrase of SkyCaddie’s early days. “’Whaddya mean you’re communicating with satellites?’ It was a steep learning curve with consumers, retails stores, and pro shops.”
Today GPS is ubiquitous, but are all GPS devices created equal? Well, as with anything, it all depends on the quality and quantity of data.
Measure Twice, Whack Once
Anyone who works with tools – be it a surgeon or a plumber – will tell you the most important tool in their toolkit is their measuring device. It’s the same for golfers: how far and where to are steps 1A and 1B for each golf shot. Every GPS device works basically the same way: it communicates with a network of satellites and overlays your position onto the most recent maps in its collection. What separates them, however, is the relative accuracy of the ground data.
“We actually send mappers out with survey-grade equipment,” says Calabrase. “We put down what we call ‘Smart Markers’ – basically electronic marks – out on the course, so we’re not guessing. Nobody else is doing that. Other companies use satellite images, so if there are any changes to a course – a bunker moved, a tree cut down, or a green reconfigured – they have to wait until there’s a new satellite map published to get any data on it.
SkyCaddie has been mapping and re-mapping courses for 20 years now and will re-map a course whenever there are any significant changes. The company has relationships with superintendents, golf pros, and owners who will contact SkyCaddie with anything from trap redesigns and tree removal to new greens or tee boxes. A basic re-map will take the better part of a day, and processing all that information into a computer and making it usable can take several more.
Calabrase says hardware improvements in SkyCaddie’s new SX500 handheld unit allows the company to package and deliver all that information to golfers, even non-Techno Geeks, in a digestible, functional way.
There are several fair questions to ask. First, isn’t a cheap – or even free – app going to be good enough? Second, do I really need that level of detail? And third, and most obviously, can’t I just take my eyes off the damn screen and look up? The answers to those questions are as personal as boxers vs. briefs.
What level of information do you want? How often you play new or unfamiliar courses? And what level of technology are you’re comfortable using?
MyGolfSpy’s testers were most impressed by the level of visual detail provided by the SX500. You get a 5-inch, full-color screen (about the size of an iPhone XR) with a graphic rendition of the hole you’re playing and distances to different landing spots, depending on how far you hit the ball. There’s also an ideal landing spot that’s been designated by the course mappers who, as mentioned earlier, have actually walked the course with a George Jetson-looking backpack to set electronic markers.
“The mapper’s getting what the golfer actually sees,” says Calabrase. “He’s right there on the ground. He’s not looking at an aerial image, so whether you’re playing a hole that goes uphill or slopes downhill, our mappers are able to walk out there and map those points and determine your fairway target – where an ideal tee shot should land. They go out there in the middle of the fairway, find the safest spot and map that location.”
You can access as much – or as little – information as you want. Different icons on the touchscreen will provide you with layup and carry distances to bunkers, water, or other hazards, as well as a bird’s eye view of the green showing ridges, contours, and tiers – something unique to the SX500. Our testers valued that level of detail, rating the SX500 tops for display, functionality, and accuracy.
“We’ve always had that detail, but we really didn’t have the platform to show it,” says Calabrase. “On a watch, you have to scroll to find the info you want. On a smaller handheld, you don’t have full imagery.”
There’s certainly no shortage of products to give you front-center-back distances, and if you’re just trying to hit the green, that may be good enough. And if you’re worried about paralysis by analysis, or don’t think you’re good enough to use all that information, overload is a justifiable concern.
“But it really doesn’t matter what level golfer you are, if you can take four or five strokes off, that’s 95 instead of 100,” says Calabrase. “If you can get that information easily, you’re going to play better. Our hardware technology has caught up with our back-end technology, so golfers can get that information a lot easier than before.”
We mentioned earlier the SX500 can show you the contours on a green; a patented feature SkyCaddie calls IntelliGreen.
“Our mappers go out and walk the perimeter of the green, so I have this huge image of what the green looks like and everything that’s around it,” says Calabrase. “And that image will rotate depending on where I’m standing. If I’m on the right side of the fairway or in the left rough, the green will rotate, so I’ll get a look at it from my angle.”
The bigger screen on the SX500 also lets SkyCaddie show you major green contours, false fronts, mounds, and undulations on many of the courses it has mapped.
“When you look at the image, you’ll find these contours. If the pin is on the third tier today, you can move the cursor to where that tier is and know it’s 141 to get up on that tier, so you might pull a 9-iron instead of a wedge. Since the image on the screen is two to three times larger than it was on our earlier products, you can slide the cursor to either where the pin is, or to where you might want to hit into the green.”
The acid test for any piece of golf tech is whether some sort of engineering degree is needed to actually use it. Again, our testers found the SX500 so intuitive you don’t even need to look at the manual. Personal experience shows while it’s not quite that simple, you can use it right out of the box without going through hell. It comes with over 35,000 courses already loaded, so you don’t have to connect to your computer and download anything. And when you’re ready to play golf, you hit the “Play Golf” button and, uh, play golf.
“It finds the course for you, and it goes to the first hole,” says Calabrase. “You don’t have to do any course searches on the device, hit different buttons, or figure out if you’re in the right menu setting. People are used to touch screens now, sliding cursors around, double-tapping, pinch, and zoon – new technology has really helped the customer experience. You turn it on and play golf. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
If you’re an ARCCOS or ShotScope fan, the SX500’s stat-tracking function won’t thrill you. It requires a bit of work on your part, such as telling the unit what club you’re hitting and then pushing a button to set the point where you’re hitting from – a manual process that needs repeating with each shot. You can sync the round and all your stats to your SkyCaddie 360 account very easily via WIFI – there’s neither Bluetooth nor a need to connect via USB to a computer.
One other useful feature is the ability to scout out a course before you play it. You can view any course while sitting on your couch watching TV and get an idea of what you’ll be facing when you actually get out there, with all the same functionality as you’d experience during a live round. Say, for instance, you’re in a member-guest at a course you’ve never played before, or maybe you finally scored a bucket-list round at Torrey Pines, Firestone, or Congressional. This function allows you to – in essence – walk the course (albeit virtually) to prepare for the round and map out a strategy.
If that’s your thing.
Speaking of Subscriptions
Depending on your perspective, the $399 price tag on the SX500 is either reasonable (when compared to a full-featured laser rangefinder or the Garmin Approach G80 handheld: both well over $500), or crazy expensive when compared to a ShotScope unit at $189. And there’s another factor to consider: a required annual SkyCaddie subscription to make the unit operational.
“We include the first year as part of the purchase, but after that, there are a couple of different plans,” says Calabrase. “If you just play in one state and don’t really travel, it’s $29.99 per year. If you just play in the U.S., it’s $49.99, or for $60, you get everything.”
Before this gets too far down the rabbit hole, Calabrase points out the subscription fee isn’t a cash grab; it’s actually used to pay for sending out their people to map – and in some cases re-map – golf courses so the unit will be up to date. SkyCaddie will map or re-map a couple of thousand courses a year, and, as mentioned earlier, the process is both labor-intensive and time-consuming.
“Traveling is expensive, hotels are expensive, paying people to spend all day at a golf course to walk around with a high-tech backpack is expensive,” he says. “Once a golf course does a renovation, moves traps, rebuilds greens or even flips nines, whatever product you’ve been using is now useless because you have the old satellite image and the old data. What you’re paying for is having us go out there and keep everything updated.”
While paying $400 for a GPS device, and then spending another $30 to $60 to use it after the first year may be a tough ask, SkyCaddie does try to make it go down a bit easier to take by offering three-year discounted packages. For example, you can get a three-year U.S. package for $120, which, if you consider the first year free, amounts to $30 a year for the first four years. You get other perks, as well, including a free subscription to Golf Magazine (if you don’t have one already), and access to SkyGolf 360 Cloud and the SkyGolf Mobile App. Some plans include three-dozen Bridgestone golf balls, as well as access to something called Boxgroove – a service that allows you to book tee times at over 1,000 private clubs in the U.S. and Canada.
Now that you have a bit better idea of the technology and feature set behind our top-rated handheld GPS unit for 2019, and why our testers loved it, we have a few questions for you.
First off: are you a handheld guy/gal, a watch wearer, a laser pointer, or a combination user?
And second, does this level of information – which is pretty much the same level of detail you’d find in a Tour caddie’s notebook – help or hinder your golf game?
Let’s hear it GolfSpies, what do you say?