Those who play golf will often extol its virtue as a fun activity, or even a form of therapy, depending on who you ask. Regardless of whether it is for leisure or professional pursuits, it is a game that requires concentration and effective mechanics to be successful. Not to mention the right equipment to make sure you’re on the right track — or perhaps fairway is the better choice of word there.
A golf watch is the sort of device that can bridge the gap between amateurs and pros, at least enough to analyze your game and to do so in a mere fraction of the time. You won’t have to guess how far you hit the ball, nor which club might be best for the next swing. These specialized watches are also packed with information about the courses you play on, thereby giving you a better idea of what you can expect once you hit the links.
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What can a golf watch do?
It’s important to distinguish between a golf watch and a smartwatch because they aren’t necessarily the same thing. You may get smartwatch-style features on a golf watch, but unless the term “golf” is part of the feature set, it’s unlikely that a smartwatch will have all the golf-focused features that make golf watches what they are.
A major difference is that golf watches almost always have built-in GPS, which makes location data, like distance and swing speed, much easier to track from your wrist. They can even display wind speed and direction. With course information already preloaded onto the watch, you also know in advance where obstacles, like bunkers, waterways, and trees might be. These watches can carry information about tens of thousands of courses from around the world, so this kind of experience isn’t limited to one geographic location.
In a sense, a golf watch is kind of like a virtual coach and caddie. It certainly won’t carry your clubs from one tee to another, but it will tell you key points that you would want to know while playing through a round of golf. And with the watch’s screen so visible, it’s easy to conceptualize all the information you get with the available visual aids.
How GPS works on a golf watch
It is true that GPS on golf watches won’t match the precision of a golf laser rangefinder, a device that measures distance by shooting an invisible light out to an object in the distance and recording the time it takes to return back. Golfers like pointing them at flags on the green to determine exactly how far the cup is. The Garmin Approach Z82 is an example of such a product, and it’s perfectly legal to use during golf tournaments.
GPS on a golf watch doesn’t have laser-guided precision, so instead, it works much like it does on any other device. It knows your location because it communicates with satellites to triangulate your exact position. When you tell the watch where you are looking to hit the ball, it calculates both the distance and fastest route to get there.
It’s really no different than how GPS in a car works, with traffic or toll roads among the obstacles to reaching a destination quickly. On a golf course, the watch will highlight bunkers, water, or trees that may complicate hitting the ball cleanly down the fairway or onto the green. The recorded distances may not always be completely accurate, but they are going to be really close, and good enough to know exactly which club to pull out for the next shot.
Golf watch software
Unlike smartwatches, golf watches don’t generally fall under ecosystems that may integrate more tightly with iOS or Android. There are no dedicated golf watches currently running on Apple’s watchOS, Google’s Wear OS, or Samsung’s Tizen, among others. You may find golf apps for watches running on those platforms, but they are not built to focus so strongly on golf.
That doesn’t mean golf watches won’t work with iOS and Android. They absolutely can, though without running on established smartwatch operating systems that include app stores to download third-party apps, they may not offer the same depth that way.
It does depend on the watch, though. For instance, Garmin golf watches run on Garmin’s own platform, but not always with the same feature set. As an example, the Garmin Approach S10 is solely focused on golf to the point it doesn’t offer any other activity tracking. The same is true of the Approach S12, though it adds additional features the S10 never had.
Once you move up to the Approach S42 or Approach S62, you start to see more smartwatch-like features as part of the mix. That includes activity tracking, like steps, calories, and sleep, among others.
Golfing without a watch
If a watch isn’t your style, there are devices that offer very similar features without strapping over your wrist. These trackers are pocket-sized and have larger displays compared to watches. Plus, they have practice modes and many of the same course information and game tracking you would find in a golf watch. The Garmin Approach G30 and Approach G80 are examples of these types of devices.
Golf watch style and display
Golf watches are, well, watches, so you could expect there will be some flexibility to change the look and feel to suit your comfort and taste. There are ways to do that, and they apply to both the hardware and software.
Manufacturers, like Garmin, make their watches compatible with other bands if you want to change up the style or colour. Garmin golf watches use the same clipping mechanism as the company’s other smartwatches do, and you can easily swap them out to get the look you’re after.
They also come in a variety of materials and textures, including silicone, nylon, leather, metal, and titanium. Styles also vary within each of these materials, adding another thing to consider when you decide what will fit best with your preferences whenever you want to play a round.
If the default watch face isn’t doing it for you, switch it out for another one. Much like other smartwatches, Garmin’s Connect IQ store offers a number of alternatives, and that includes the ability to use one of your own photos from your smartphone as a custom selection. However, if you change the watch face can also change the information you see onscreen, which could be a quick snapshot of golf-related or activity-focused tracking.
For the most part, golf watches tend to have more ruggedized designs, with the durability to work perfectly fine in contact with rain, water, and sand, as well as temperature changes. It’s the kind of protection that will serve you well during an 18-hole round, though you can also rely on its durability if you choose to wear it during a wide range of other activities. Golf watches that include additional activity tracking very much fit those use cases. You just have to make sure they can handle both clear and saltwater.
You don’t expect a golf watch to come into dangerous contact, but that doesn’t stop manufacturers from fortifying them. It’s common to see Corning Gorilla Glass on a variety of golf watches to ward off wear and tear, and also keep scratches at bay. You do still have to be careful as the glass isn’t indestructible, but these watches owe some of their ruggedness to the quality of the glass.
Golf watch features
There are various features that make golf watches unique, and they have everything to do with playing the game better. They do vary from one device to another, so you may not see every one of these apply to every watch, but most are often readily available to you.
It’s not possible for golf watches to track clubs entirely on their own, as there is no way to connect the two. That is, unless you use a dedicated club tracking device, like those Garmin makes, a sensory gadget that attaches to the top of the club’s grip to communicate and relay a range of stats to the watch. This combination can tell you whether you swing one club differently from another, how fast your swing is, and other details that stand out for every stroke.
Seeing the green
When a golf watch has information about so many courses, it includes the exact scale for the greens, letting you know the shape and size. It’s also possible to view a green that may have multiple distances, particularly longer ones that may require extra strokes to sink the ball. You can then position a digital pin on your watch to note where your ball landed on the day you played, letting you reference that again when you play the same hole at a later time.
It’s not possible to see the green or be completely sure of which exact direction it’s in, particularly on more difficult courses. With course information on board, a golf watch can point in the exact direction and include the distance you need to hit the ball to stay on track for a birdie.
A human caddie can always help keep score with a pad and pencil, but a golf watch can do it all, too. With the watch logging shot tracking and distances, it can keep everyone honest on the course and ensure you’re on pace or playing toward the goals you’ve set for yourself. Even friendly competitions can take advantage of by setting up a leaderboard.
Notifications and more
The more advanced the golf watch, the more smartwatch features you will get with it. That doesn’t just include activity tracking, but also notifications coming in through your smartphone. See incoming messages, emails, reminders, and alarms come in, so that you stay in touch. You can also choose to silence them if you’d rather play a round undisturbed.
This applies to both iPhone and Android phones. Golf watches, especially those from Garmin, will have their own dedicated smartphone apps to control or customize watch settings, including the notifications you want to see, as well as bring in some of the tracking data the watch collects to your phone.
What you aren’t likely to find in a golf watch is access to a voice assistant, like Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa. Fitness tracking for sports apart from golf are sometimes available, usually on more premium models that were built with the sensors necessary to track other activities, like running, cycling, hiking, swimming, and more.
Golf watch Apps
Third-party app support depends on what the watch manufacturer is able to offer. There are, however, apps you can download to your phone that can work with golf watches and other golf trackers. One example is Garmin Golf for iOS and Android, where much of what the watch tracks display on the phone instead. It’s easy to set up leaderboards with friends to keep the competition fresh and get bragging rights going for the next round. The app has very wide compatibility with Garmin’s golf product lineup.
Certain golf watches may even offer support for contactless payments directly from your wrist, much like you could manage with other smartwatches. These watches won’t support more common payment systems, like Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay, though you can always try to see if whichever platform is available on your watch, like Garmin Pay, will work for you.
Take the next step
Now that you have a better idea of what goes into wearing and using a golf watch, you’re ready to check out Best Buy’s latest selection to see what you should wrap around your wrist.