One in a weekly series of stories about golf gear to run each Wednesday.
By Gary Van Sickle
Great technological advances often create great showdowns. See Beta versus VHS, cassettes versus compact discs and cable TV versus satellite dish.
Golf presents the Battle of the EMDs (electronic measuring devices) between laser rangefinders and GPS devices.
The pendulum has swung back and forth a few times, but overall, sales to the public have remained pretty close to a 50-50 split since rangefinders arrived on shelves in the mid-1990s.
Last summer was a missed opportunity for the greatest advertising moment in GPS history. Remember when Jordan Spieth took more than 20 minutes to play 2017’s most memorable shot? Spieth had a “Raiders of the Lost Par” adventure during the British Open at Royal Birkdale when his errant drive at the 13th hole beaned a fan and caromed into a thick lie on a dune’s slope. He took a penalty drop on the practice range after leading a rules official on a merry jaunt between some equipment trailers parked on the practice range while considering his options.
Then Spieth and caddie Michael Greller scrambled atop a couple of dunes to get a yardage – or at least their best guess – and Spieth played a smart shot just short of the green, saved bogey and went on to win the Open. It was a tense moment and also a very long one.
If EMDs were allowed in professional golf, Spieth could have used a GPS unit to get a yardage to the green instantly, eliminate his guesswork and play that shot 10 minutes sooner. Of course, most PGA Tour players prefer laser rangefinders because they want exact yardage to the pin position. John DeCastro, Bushnell’s global product lane director, said the Darrell Survey reports that 97 percent of PGA Tour players and 93 percent of LPGA players carry Bushnell laser rangefinders (but can’t use them in competition, under Rule 14-3).
GPS uses satellite position to provide distances to fixed points, such as front, middle and back of the green. That’s usually good enough for recreational golfers.
So even if EMDs were allowed, Spieth likely would have had a laser rangefinder, which would have been of no help because his view of the green was blocked by a mammoth dune.
Spieth’s problem could have been solved by the new Bushnell Hybrid ($399, www.Bushnell.com). It is a rangefinder that also provides GPS location. So you get the accuracy of a laser with the convenience of GPS when an out-of-the-line-of-sight shot arises.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” DeCastro said. “Like peanut butter M&M’s.”
The Hybrid is arguably the coolest EMD produced so far. Bushnell first offered a hybrid model in 2011. I had one of those beauties, and it was a bit of a beast. It was a little bulky, the size of a handheld video camera. The laser worked great. To switch to GPS was an ordeal. You had to manually input the name of the course you were playing. If you left the unit in GPS mode all of the time, the GPS ate up so much battery power that it wouldn’t last all 18 holes during a slow round.
Bushnell’s new Hybrid has no such issues. It is modestly thicker than the normal model but also features dual battery sources. The GPS battery is rechargeable.
“So if the GPS does go dead, you still have the laser,” DeCastro said. “You’ll get at least three rounds from the GPS battery. You can get about 50 rounds out of the laser battery.”
I like the Hybrid because it gives readings from both distance functions in the viewer. When I press the button atop the Hybrid, I see a number for the distance to the flag plus GPS numbers to the front and back of the green. That helps me deduce whether the pin is located nearer the front or the back. It also provides an instant yardage double-check.
The Bushnell Hybrid means I can bench the small, off-brand laser I scored in a golf outing and have been using this year. I’ve suffered several mis-clubs because the laser apparently hit a target other than the flagstick, but I didn’t know. One foul-up was from 93 yards, not the 111 yards that the laser indicated, and that didn’t turn out well. One month later, hey, I’m almost done whining about it.
Another nice Bushnell touch is the vibration that accompanies the lock-in on the flag, known as Jolt Technology, which gives me confidence that I did, indeed, hit the flagstick and not a prominent birch tree behind the green at a course that will go unnamed. The Hybrid is pre-loaded with 36,000 courses and uses Bluetooth to update its library.
Not everybody needs the kind of precision that the Hybrid offers, nor is willing to pay up for it. Plenty of golfers prefer wearable EMDs. Bushnell’s iON2 Golf Watch GPS ($179) provides a wealth of data and can be used as a pedometer, too. “This is what my mom wants,” DeCastro said.
The Phantom ($99.99) is the most fun entry in Bushnell’s lineup. It fits in the palm of a hand and includes a high-powered magnet – Bushnell calls it Bite Technology – that grabs onto any metal surface, such as a cart bar, and provides yardages in big, easy-to-read numbers for up to two rounds before needing a recharge.
Where do I stand on the laser-versus-GPS issue? I lean toward the laser, but why choose when Bushnell provides both options in one handy package? It’s perfect because there are wild times on the course when you really, really need GPS guidance.
Just ask Spieth.