Golf watches: what you should look for when buying a golfing wearable

What does a golf watch actually do and what should you think about when buying one?

How to buy a golf watch
(Image credit: Getty)

If you're in the market for a new golf watch, you have come to the right place. I've been trying a few new ones myself, in between lockdowns, and have come up with this handy buying guide to golf watches.

Golfers are by no means Luddites. In fact, most of us embrace new technology, if we think it'll knock a few shots off a round. Many golfers were wearing golf-specific 'smartwatches' before Apple had even released the Apple Watch. Nowadays, the Best golf watches are absolutely packed with functionality that's useful both off the course and (more importantly) on it. 

GPS technology was a real game changer for amateur golfers. Whereas the pros have always had the luxury of caddies to inform them of yardages, wind direction and hidden hazards, it doesn’t seem like too long ago that the only way for the casual golfer to work out how far he had to the pin was to seek out the 150 yard marker and either pace out the distance to the ball or just take an educated guess.

Then along came hand held GPS devices, laser range finders and then golf watches. It was transformational. While some golf traditionalists are calling for a rollback in the technology for drivers and golfballs, the introduction of GPS has almost universally been embraced. 

Whether the professionals should be allowed to use this technology in tournament play is a source of much heated debate but at an amateur level the game is much better for these advancements. Frankly we’d now be lost without it.

Hand held GPS devices and range finders are hugely popular and some golfers prefer using them over a watch for various reasons. Some favour the precision a range finder provides while others simply prefer the larger screen of a handheld GPS (or a smartphone). It’s also true that some golfers simply do not like wearing a watch while swinging a golf club as it can feel restrictive.

For those who do not mind the feel of a watch on their wrist while playing it makes a lot of sense to invest in a golf watch because it makes things much simpler and it speeds up play. Instead of reaching into your bag for the range finder and then having to zap the flag to get your yardage you can just look at your wrist and you will know in an instant. It really is that simple.

Most watches come pre-loaded with tens of thousands of golf courses and will know where you are playing as soon as you activate it on arrival at the course. You click a few buttons to confirm where you are playing and what tees you are playing from and away you go.

How a GPS watch can help you on the course

Garmin S62

(Image credit: Future)

The most obvious thing is that it will tell you how far away from the green you are. So when you arrive at your ball a quick look at the watch will tell you how far you have left to the front, middle and back of the green and in some cases it will also suggest the club you should be using (based on information it has gathered from your previous rounds), while also providing invaluable information about the wind, elevation and giving you a heads up about any green side bunkers that may not be visible from the fairway.

Most watches are typically accurate to within 3-5m although the Shot Scope V3 claims to be accurate to 30cm, which is extremely impressive. For many golfers just knowing how far away from the green they are is enough and there are some watches that will do that and very little else. The higher up the price scale you go, however, the more features and functionality you will discover.

Let’s take a look at some of those things and how they can help you.

Picture this. You are playing on a course you have never seen before. You stand on the first tee looking down the fairway and you see trees on the left and a bunker on the right. Ahead of the bunker is a water hazard running across the width of the fairway but it’s hard to tell how much room there is between the back of the bunker and the front of the stream. 

You want no part of those trees so can you carry the bunker? Secondly, if you do carry it will your ball reach the water? To the naked eye it is impossible to judge. A good golf watch will tell you exactly how far it is to carry that bunker and it will also give you the distance to reach the stream.

So now you know that if you hit driver over the bunker you are in danger of running out of fairway and ending up in the stream. But if you hit your fairway wood from the tee you have enough to carry the bunker while still coming up short of the water hazard. Decision made. Now you just need to execute the shot but for that you are on your own as not even the most expensive golf watch can help you with that.

Onto the second hole where you are playing a blind tee shot. Just what is on the other side of that hill? You see the marker post and know the line you are supposed to take, but the fear of the unknown can make it extremely difficult to fully commit to your shot. Many golf watches will provide you with a detailed map of what lies ahead, not to mention all of the relevant yardages to the unseen hazards. 

You now reach the third hole. A par three from an elevated tee with the green in a valley below. The tee marker tells you it’s 150 yards from the yellows but a look at the watch tells you something different. Why? Because of a little something called “plays like” yardage which adjusts the yardage depending on elevation. That 150 yard par three is actually a 135 yard shot because of your elevated position.

Onto the fourth hole and this one is a real challenge. A par five even though the green is actually only 380 yards from the tee. Unfortunately there is a forest of tall trees in the way meaning you need to go the long way around and play two shots up the fairway to open up the shot back to the green on the right. Or do you? 

The watch provides you with an alternative option. If you can hit your drive 230 yards up the centre of the fairway the green is only a seven iron away even though you can’t see it because the high trees are hiding its location. You still have the option of hitting a lay up to the edge of the dogleg leaving just a wedge shot back in, but the “PinPointer” compass on the watch is showing you exactly where you need to aim should you want to go at the green. You might not risk it but at least the option is there to go over the trees and give yourself a putt for eagle.

Next, your shot from the fifth tee finds the rough on the right side of the fairway. Usually you would be pacing up and down a fifty yard stretch of rough, looking back at the tee and wondering “did it go this far?” Not any more. 

You know how far a solid drive will carry because the watch has been tracking your shots ever since you got it. Not only that, it is also telling you how far away from the tee you now are so you can narrow your search radius right down to a ten yard stretch of rough. And hey, look, there’s your ball. Thanks, watch!

These are just some examples of how a good golf watch can transform the way you play the game. It opens up all kinds of possibilities that were not there before GPS technology. Now everyone can have their own personal caddy sitting snugly on their wrist.

Most watches will also keep score for you and in many cases will sync with an app on your smartphone afterwards and allow you to keep detailed statistics on things such as driving distance and accuracy, how many putts per round you are taking and will even help you figure out just how far you hit each club on average.

With some watches such as Garmin and Shot Scope you can do all of this for free just by creating an online account and registering your device. 

Garmin Approach S62

(Image credit: Garmin)

Are there any downsides?

If you don’t like wearing a watch while swinging the club then obviously you need a hand held GPS instead. For everyone else though the only downsides to a golf watch depend on which one you buy and whether it does everything you need it to. 

With the higher end watches there is very little to be picky over. Watch yardages aren’t as accurate as those you will get from a laser range finder but they’re close enough for most amateurs. In fact, aiming for the middle of the green rather than going for the pin is often the more prudent option for the average player. 

Watches will give you yardages to the front, middle and back of the green and some will even allow you to use a touchscreen to drag the pin around the green to whatever its location is to give you an even better idea of your distance to the hole. 

This is still not as precise as a range finder but it won’t be far off. Tour professionals need to know their distances to the exact yard but for everyone else a five yard margin for error is nothing, especially if you are aiming for the centre of the green rather than going flag hunting.

What should you be aware of when buying?

Shot Scope V3

(Image credit: GMS Golf)

Not all golf watches are created equal. This is very important to remember. Those handy features mentioned above are not available in every watch and you need to consider that before buying. How much functionality do you need? How much would you like? How much does your budget allow? 

At the top end of the market you’ll find the Tag Heuer Connected and the Garmin MARQ, both of which will set you back the best part of a couple of grand, more due to the build quality than anything they do on the course. These watches are the height of luxury but you can find alternatives at less than a quarter of the cost that will do as much and in some cases even more on the golf course.

The mid/higher price range golf watches also offer lots of smart watch features for health, fitness and apps you can download for other activities like swimming, cycling and various other pursuits. These watches can be worn off the course as well as on it so if that’s something you are into then it’s worth paying the extra rather than just going for a standard golf watch.

Cheaper watches will give you yardages to the pin and some other basic features but to get the full array of benefits mentioned above you’ll need to be looking at one of the mid/higher end Garmin watches. The Approach S62 has all of the features mentioned while the likes of the S40 and S60 come in considerably cheaper and will do most things the S62 can. 

Also check out the GolfBuddy Aim W10 as a great value alternative to Garmin and the SkyCaddie LX5 which has a host of features as well as a stunning HD screen.

You may not want all of the bells and whistles though in which case the less expensive Bushnell or Shot Scope watches might appeal to you. The ShotScope V3 claims to be the most accurate GPS watch on the market but an even bigger reason to use Shot Scope is ClubSense technology. 

Basically this involves attaching tags to the grips of your clubs which allows the watch to automatically record your shots and provide detailed post round analysis of your game using the ShotScope app.

There are watches that will do as much or as little as you need them to on the golf course so it really comes down to what your requirements are. Do not just rush in and buy the first one you see as you may quickly realise it isn’t what you need. Do your research, decide what features you need and what you can afford to spend and you can easily find a device that fits your requirements.