Golf equipment review: The Leupold GX-5i3 rangefinder vs. Garmin Vivoactive HR

If you're still on the golf course hunting for sprinkler heads in the fairways and pacing off your yardage, you're a dinosaur these days. What was a novelty for years has turned necessity for any avid golfer.

Two main ways to determine a yardage is by two very different methods: wearable GPS and rangefinders.

I've noticed that golf cart GPS is becoming rarer to find. While they are great for destination or unfamiliar courses, they are expensive and have limitations. Cart-path only renders them essentially useless, and more and more courses seem to be using them as revenue streams and bombard the golfer with ads. (Sorry, I'm not down with that.)

Smart phone apps are capable, and in many cases the GPS apps can be free (like GolfNow, which has overhead hole views and yardages) or very cheap. The problem I've encountered is that it can be cumbersome opening the lock screen 50-60 times each round (if you have a company phone that auto-locks after a minute like me) and the battery life just doesn't seem to last.

Not having the best available information to you, especially on an unfamiliar course, certainly costs you strokes - and probably more so than a driver that is a few generations old. For the last few months, I've brought along two different measuring devices in my bag, the Garmin Vivoactive HR, which is both a golf GPS unit and activity tracker, and the Leupold GX-5i3, the company's most advanced model.

If you're considering using GPS or a rangefinder, here's what I've found:

Rangefinder Pros

There's nothing more accurate than a rangefinder, and Leupold, a brand better known in the hunting and tactical space than golf, the GX-5i3 measures down 1/10th of a yard. Using a laser rather than satellites overhead takes away any funny business that is in play with GPS. It's also simple to use. There are literally two buttons and besides setting up advanced True Golf Range features you only really use one of them. This Leupold model has some advanced "TGR" options, including adjusted yardage for slope, temperature and altitude. You can also program your irons distances into the device and it will tell you what club to use based on the adjusted yardage.

Reticle view of the Leupold GX-5i3.

These advanced features (which must be disabled to be USGA conforming) seem to cater to a mix of either novice golfers learning how factors affect their approach shots, or competitive golfers who are really dialing in their yardages. If you're like me and don't use the TGR too much, you can save some money with the Leupold GX-1i3 ($389 MSRP).

GPS, activity watch pros

Versatility is the hallmark of the Garmin Vivoactive HR ($249 MSRP), and it's particularly useful if golf isn't your only sport. I use it for everything from a pedometer to tracking running and swimming activity (bonus points: the soft vibration the alarm makes gets me out of bed without disturbing my wife). It's about as jack-of-all as it gets before you start to paying the extra $100-plus for the Apple Watch.

You can keep score and stats on the device, and there is nothing faster of less cumbersome than simply looking down at your wrist and getting a front-middle-back yardage.

Something else that I've noticed comes in handy with wrist-based GPS is if I spray a drive into trouble, by using the shot measuring feature, I can get a better idea of where to search for my ball. That has spared penalty shots -- and my playing partners' grief -- on many occasions.

I really like the available data on the Garmin Connect software of the Vivoactive. I can keep score on it easily (I haven't written a number on a scorecard in awhile), and I love looking at my course's average scores per hole as well as my "dream round" scores.

I had the older generation Vivoactive and I was pleased to see a lot of improvements. It has wrist-based heart rate now, and also (this really bugged me), you can view the time of day while playing a round of golf by hitting the back button.

Rangefinder shortcomings

It's really just human error -- shooting the wrong object -- to worry about with a rangefinder.

Blind shots, obviously, are a rangefinder's kryptonite. Also, mentally, I've noticed that in windy conditions, I've found that I have to remind myself that the number in the reticle isn't gospel and I need to feel the shot.

Lastly, I've learned the hard way that rangefinders can be easy to lose. They tend to come in a black case, so if you keep it in the console of the golf cart, you may very well forget about it (as I did on a golf trip a couple years ago, and despite calling the course an hour later, was never to be found). It's tougher to lose a watch that you're wearing.

GPS, activity watch shortcomings

Overall I've been very pleased with the updates to the new Vivoactive HR versus the older generation. Unlike more specialized golf GPS wearables, it lacks yardage to bunkers off the tee and around greens. For data geeks, there are more comprehensive solutions for shot tracking out there as well, like Arccos Golf.

Accuracy is generally pretty close for front-middle-back, but there is something very confidence-boosting about using a rangefinder to get the EXACT number to the stick versus a general idea (even if I'm a mid-handicapper who is seldom dialed in).

Also, one hiccup I've run into a lot is that my job takes me to a lot of brand new or totally rebuilt golf courses shortly after (or even before) they've opened. If the course hasn't been re-mapped before you play it, the watch is useless for yardage.

The Verdict

It's tough to beat the versatility and bang-for-buck both on-and-off the course of the Vivoactive HR. I've been fortunate to have both a watch on my wrist and rangefinder in the bag lately, and I find that I usually just use the rangefinder on par 3s. Otherwise, call it being a little lazy, but I just check my watch for the front-middle-back yardage.

That said, if I'm truly playing a competitive round with more on the line than a drink or two, the peace-of-mind of a rangefinder like the Leupold is clearly going to be my go-to.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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Hi Brandon

Another enjoyable & insightful article, Brandon --thanks. You say
"GPS, activity watch shortcomings"

"Overall I've been very pleased with the updates to the new Vivoactive HR versus the older generation. Unlike more specialized golf GPS wearables, it lacks yardage to bunkers off the tee and around greens..."

I currently wear a GOLF BUDDY model VS4 on my belt & give it a 6.5 on a scale of 10.

I'm like you in that my 'Front-Middle-Back" of green feature gets me 90 percent of the way there. But I'd love a reasonably simple wearable GPS device that tells me distance to traps off the tee. Is there such an animal? Thanks.

I find my sky caddie gps unit to be handy when it is very windy. Downwind you may just want yardage to the front and let the wind take care of the middle pin. I always use both , but because some greens are so large it helps to know front back and middle

Electronic Measuring Devices are a must have accessory for golfers of all skill levels. Not only do they speed up the pace of play but there is never any second guessing yardages to the front edge of the green, to the pin, clearing hazards etc. I've never been a fan of GPS devices, I've just never found them to be as accurate as a laser. I've owned two laser range finders for years, both are Bushnell. One has slope indication on it which I use for pretty well every game I play, but for tournaments, I leave it in the trunk & pull out the other Bushnell without slope.

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Golf equipment review: The Leupold GX-5i3 rangefinder vs. Garmin Vivoactive HR