Golf course navigation: Should you use a laser rangefinder or GPS on the course?

Laser rangefinders and GPS units are two very different technologies that serve the same purpose: providing accurate yardages to the target, whether it's the pin or a course feature. Each get there a little differently. Mike Bailey compared two specific models, the SkyCaddie Linx Golf Watch and the Nikon Coolshot laser Rangefinder.

Okay, raise your hands: How many remember what it's like to look for sprinkler heads on golf courses to get yardages? Worse yet, pacing the yardage off from the sprinkler heads or the 100-yard, 150-yard and 200-yard poles at the end of the fairway? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? Especially with the proliferation of distance-measuring devices now on the market.

It's been well over a decade since we first started seeing Global Positioning Systems on golf carts (some courses were even charging for it). Back then, the idea was that courses could make money off them as an added amenity, but nowadays, GPS on carts is probably more valuable for fleet and course management than it is attracting golfers.

After all, most golfers have some kind of distance-measuring device at their disposal, and there are so many. GPS technology has advanced from cart-based units to hand-held units. There are smartphone applications (many of them free), devices that actually talk and, the latest rage, watches that not only give yardages but can record stats, how many calories you burned and how many steps you've taken. On the laser-rangefinder side, stabilizing technology has made it easier than ever to capture targets, and many models can adjust for slope by adding or subtracting yards depending on whether or not your target is uphill or downhill.

For the last couple of months while playing golf at more than 20 different courses, I've tested two distance measuring devices -- the Skycaddie Linx golf watch from SkyGolf and the Nikon Coolshot 40i.

Skycaddie -- which uses real live human beings to map out the more than 35,000 courses in its database -- markets itself as the most accurate GPS device on the market. Nikon, which might seem like a newcomer to the crowded golf rangefinder market, has an extensive pedigree in optics and laser devices. The company, known for its cameras and binoculars, has been making golf rangefinders under other companies brands (such as Calloway) for several years.

Each seems to have advantages over the other, but finding a clear-cut winner isn't easy. In a sense, they really are apples and oranges, but depending on what you want to get out of your golf game, your seriousness of play, one of them might be right for you. Here's a look:

Initial cost and cost to operate

Skycaddie Linx: Premium golf watches have a suggested retail price of around $200, which allows you to connect to a complimentary app on your smartphone. With its free subscription, it gives front, middle and back yardages to the pin, but you can also upgrade (for a small annual fee) to get more detailed information such as distance to hazards and trees and layup distances.

Nikon Coolshot 40i: The suggested retail for the Coolshot 40i is $299, but that's pretty much where your cost ends. The battery lasts for years, and there is no subscription cost.

Ease of use

Skycaddie Linx: If you're just looking for distances, it doesn't get any easier than the Skycaddie Linx. All you have to do is go to settings, find the course you're playing and the watch pretty much advances hole by hole as you play. When you get to your ball, simply look at the watch and you get the distance to the middle of the green. You can also find measurements to hazards and look at diagrams of the hole.

Advanced features are a little more complicated, especially when you start inputting your stats, saving your rounds, etc. But with a little diligence, you can get it down fairly rapidly. The bonus with the watch, as opposed to any laser rangefinder, is that it can track distance traveled as well as calories burned. The watch also has to be charged, but you can get a couple of rounds of golf in on one charge. And if used strictly as a watch, you can go a couple of weeks or so before recharging.

Nikon Coolshot 40i: Capturing targets takes a little bit of skill, no matter what kind of laser device you use, but I've been told by golf pros that this Nikon is a little easier to use than some of the others on the market. Maybe that's because it has a first-target priority mode, meaning that it will give you the yardage of the shortest target in the field (not the trees behind the green, for example) when you try to get the distance to a pin. I found it very easy to use, but you still have to get it out of the cart or your bag, aim and point, which takes a little longer to do than simply looking at a watch. Still, once you get used to it, it's pretty quick.


Skycaddie Linx: The watch, like the other Skycaddie products, is about as accurate as it gets when it comes to GPS devices. I found when using both that I was able to verify within a a couple yards the distance I got through the Skycaddie Linx with the Nikon or sprinkler heads. Of course, the Nikon measured to the pin or other feature on the course, and the Skycaddie doesn't know where the flagstick is. Still, for the most part, center of the green is all I need if I know the pin positions.

Nikon Coolshot 40i: Simply put, as long as you've captured the correct target, the accuracy with the Coolshot 40i comes down to millimeters. The danger here is that if you've got a back-pin position, and if you think it's middle, you have to be careful not to hit it longer than the distance measured or you could easily be over the green.

In either case -- the watch or the laserfinder -- you have to know the pin positions to make good club selections. The Coolshot 40i can also be used in slope-adjustment mode, depending on whether the shot is uphill or downhill. This mode is usually not legal in tournament play, but it's kind of cool on mountain courses. If only it could adjust for the altitude!

Skycaddie Linx vs. Nkon Coolshot 40i: Which is better?

The Skycaddie Linx is quicker and easier to use, but it can't possibly be as accurate as the Nikon Coolshot 40i, which uses laser technology. That's why serious players tend to prefer the laser devices over GPS devices. But the Linx definitely has its advantages. On blind shots, it can give distance to the center of the green, where the Nikon can't. And it provides diagrams of the hole with its hazards, shape of greens and other features.

The Nikon Coolshot 40i, however, never needs recharging and can be used on any course. While the database for Skycaddie is impressive, it can't possibly keep up with every new course and renovation. On a recent trip across the West, I found that out firsthand on a couple of courses -- the new Rockwind Community Course in Hobbs, N.M., and new Canyons Course in Park City, Utah. At the time I played them, I couldn't find either one of them on the Skycaddie database. And when I played Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in Stateline, Nev., it didn't reflect the most recent renovations, specifically the ninth, where I had an actual approach of 140 yards that read 250 yards or so on the GPS because the Skycaddie Linx thought the green was in its old location.

If I only could have one, I would choose the Nikon Coolshot 40i, but it's a close call. I love the ease of use of the Skycaddie, but don't like having to recharge every night or so on an extended golf trip. You can do a lot more with the Skycaddie Linx, but I'm just not that interested in tracking my rounds or stats. If you are, this is a great investment.

The Nikon Coolshot 40i remains in my golf bag, always ready to use and always accurate. It's a little less that I have to remember when traveling, making life a little simpler; and with my golf game, simpler is better.

UPDATE: In 2017, Brandon Tucker tried out the new Leupold GX-5i3 rangefinder and compared it with the Garmin Vivoactive activity tracker with golf GPS. See the results here.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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How can I pick out the best product from those listed on this site?

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Great information that I needed to make the decision on GPS or Range Finder. The issue for me was wanted was the range. I don't need my heart rate or storage of stats. I find courses have less and less yardage markers.

Thank you
Gerald Rico

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Battery problems with the Linx make it unusable after 2-3 years so go with range finder

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Rangefinders are better, hands down.  I cover the dilemma on but the bottom line is that rangefinders are more precise.  GPS devices need satellites and accurate pre-programmed targets while you can shoot a rangefinder directly to any target you want.  The only area that GPS devices beat rangefinder is the speed (if you wear it vs carry).  You can shoot your rangefinder in 10-15 seconds once you have your process down, so it's not a big difference, anyway.

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I bought my little NEO for $50.00 and it has never failed me. I put up against the most expensive pieces of equipment out there and it never fails it's dead on accurate.

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i use both .  When playing greens like at Bandon Dunes you need a rangefinder.  Front , back , and middle yardages don't mean anything on real big greens .  However , you can not beat the sky caddie for verifying your club decision. 

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Golf course navigation: Should you use a laser rangefinder or GPS on the course?