It is often said that the best camera is the one you have with you. This, together with great camera apps, explains the enormous popularity of smartphone cameras. The same can be said about a golf watch.
If a golf watch is not on your wrist when you start your round of golf, it is pretty useless. Many are the rounds where on the first fairway I have raised my wrist to get the distance to the evil ditch hidden behind the hill in the middle of the fairway, only to find that I forgot to put on the golf watch before leaving the house. Or, even worse, finding it dead because I forgot to put it on the charger.
The Apple Watch is not for everyone. But if you have one and love it, you’ll wear it all the time. Yes, you still need to remember to charge it every night, but this is now part of your daily routine, just like charging your phone, so it’s not something you’re likely to forget. When you get to the golf course, it will be there on your wrist, ready to assist you.
What is interesting about using the Apple Watch as a golf watch is the plethora of apps to choose from. With a traditional golf watch you are pretty much stuck in time (no pun intended). You have what you purchased, and upgrades, if any, are more or less limited to adding new golf courses.
With the Apple Watch the game has changed completely (no pun intended here either). Since the hardware already exists, the huge investment in hardware design and development is eliminated, and smaller, more innovative app developers can have a go at developing software for golfers.
The result of this is a bit of hit and miss, just as with the apps on your smartphone.
In this article we test four popular golf GPS apps for the Apple Watch. For this review we focus only on the watch functionality of the app, not the additional features you get on the phone screen.
Golfshot has been one of the leading golf apps for a long time, and has been one of my personal favorites. It now supports the Apple watch, but with a limited feature set.
The watch app has three main screens that you swipe between:
- A main screen that shows front-center-back distances
- A scoring screen that allows you to put in strokes and putts for each hole
- A map screen that shows a live Google satellite image when you have an internet connection
Inexplicably, the most useful screen is hidden and only accessible with a force touch. If you force touch and choose “Hazards”, you get a screen similar to the main distance screen but with much more detail, including distances to bunkers and water hazards in a scrollable view. Why this is not the main screen is very odd.
You can also force touch to measure a shot, but the data is not saved.
The only stats you can save are strokes and putts. On the scoring screen you can also see your total score and your Stableford points in the upper left, but in microscopic gray type, hard to read in the sun. And if you want to record sand shots, penalties, fairway hits, etc, you need to use the iPhone.
Golfshot only allows you to keep score for a single player from the watch. If you start a round with more players on the iPhone, the watch simply ignores the extra players.
The watch app is responsive and doesn’t crash or hang. However, the satellite image screen is quite useless in most cases, as you cannot zoom or scroll the image, and it is too small to be of any real use on the watch. The font size on the main distance screen is also rather small, for no particular reason it seems. But the app gets the job done, and your scorecard is saved to the database of rounds you have built up as a Golfshot user.
Fungolf is a fairly new entry in the golf app market, developed in France. What stands out with Fungolf is that all hole maps are vector graphics, which means that once you have downloaded a course you don’t need to be online to see the maps. This is particularly important when traveling in countries where getting internet access on you phone is prohibitively expensive. You simply download all the courses before you leave home, or at any free wifi spot.
On the watch, the main Fungolf screen gives you a graphic green map view, complete with any traps or hazards around the green area. This can be quite useful the first few times on an unfamiliar course. You can scroll down on the main screen and see distances to other traps and hazards, and at the bottom you can input scores and number of putts for each player. Once you do, the app auto advances to the next hole. It is very straightforward and easy to use, even fun one might say 🙂
Fungolf allows you to keep score for all the players in your party, and you can see the total score of all players on a leaderboard with a force touch and a button press.
You can also end and save the round from the Apple watch, something that the other apps sometimes struggle with and require you to get your phone.
Fungolf has been stable throughout our test period, with no crashes, the best of the bunch in this regard. Highly recommended.
Hole 19 is another recent entry in the app market, developed in Portugal. Hole 19’s strength is in the distance display; large and clear numbers, easy to read even for someone who needs reading glasses, by far the best of the bunch in this regard. It has no map functionality on the watch.
The basic distance screen has no scrolling or swiping functionality. It only shows distances in large type, and hole number, par, and stroke index in smaller type. To advance to the next hole, you press a button to get to the scoring screen to input strokes and putts, then swipe to record fairway hits, then swipe again to see you current score against par, then press a button to advance to the next hole. You do get to record a few more stats this way, but it would be nice to be able to advance automatically after inputting the score without all the swiping and button pressing. However, once you get used to it, it goes pretty smoothly.
Hole 19 does not allow you to keep score for more than one player from the watch. In fact it stops functioning properly if you start a round with more than one player on the iPhone, and no longer accepts any scoring input at all, which also prevents you from advancing to the next hole. You can manually change to any hole selectable from a list, but to get to this screen you have to press “distances” from the main screen, somewhat obscurely.
Hole 19 had quite a few hangs and crashes at the beginning of our test period, but with a few updates it has greatly improved and now appears stable, but with the above scoring bug.
GolfPadGPS on the Apple watch has some unique functionality. After you start a round on the iPhone, the watch screen displays the distance to the center of the green in large, easy to read numbers. Front and back distances, as well as hole number, hole par, and your current score are also displayed on this screen. Swipe down and you can see your layup distances that you selected in the iPhone app. So far pretty standard stuff, well displayed.
What’s unique with GolfPadGPS is that a simple tap on the screen allows you to record your position as well as your shot. This happens automatically when you tap, and you are returned to the distance screen. If you want to record a putt or a penalty, you have five seconds to do so with a second tap, otherwise a regular shot is recorded. This way your score, number of putts, and penalties are kept track of, as well as where you hit every shot. When you get back home, you can log on to your GolfPadGPS account and get a Google map view of each hole, showing every shot of your round. A dream come true for anyone interested in statistics and round analysis.
The watch app is not perfect, though. The main drawback with this system is that you have to remember to record each shot. If you make a mistake you can undo shots, but if you forget to record several shots the only reasonable way to correct your mistake is to do it on the iPhone. A minor annoyance, but it would be nice if the iPhone could be left in the bag for the entire round.
Missing from GolfPadGPS is the ability to see your total round score on the watch, again you need to refer to your iPhone. No map view or distances to hazards are available on the watch, only on the iPhone.
GolfPadGPS is perfect if you want to record and analyze your round in detail. If you want to have an instant view on the watch of your total score or Stableford points, some of the other apps are better. But for the stats nerd GolfPadGPS is by far the best.
So which app is best? First of all remember that this is only a review of the Apple Watch functionality. If you are willing to bring out your phone during the round, many other functions are available in each of the apps, too many to review here (we will review each app in a later issue).
Each of the apps has its own strengths, and it depends on how you intend to use it. Here are our quick observations:
- If you have used Golfshot GPS on your phone for a long time and have a lot of stats that you want to preserve and build upon, use Golfshot GPS.
- If you travel and play unfamiliar courses, Fungolf is the best of the bunch with its offline maps and comprehensive distances to bunkers and hazards. And if you want to keep scores for your entire party, Fungolf makes it easy. You can also easily see who is the leader in a match.
- If you need reading glasses or want the clearest distance display, use Hole 19.
- If you love to review and analyze your rounds after you have finished, GolfPadGPS is the clear winner, delivering maps showing every single shot you made during your round.
One feature that is missing from all the apps is auto-advance to the current hole. With a traditional golf watch you can start a round and then forget about it. If you look at it for the first time on hole four, it will still know which hole you are on. Not so with these apps. You have to manually advance the each new hole, most often by inputting your score. If you don’t use the apps to keep score, this can be a nuisance.
In my opinion, Fungolf is the overall winner among these apps, with offline maps, distances to all hazards, and the ability to score for the entire party. It is only surpassed in the statistics department by GolfPadGPS. However the beauty of the Apple watch is that you can easily try all the apps and decide for yourself, something that is usually not possible when deciding which traditional golf watch to get.
Should you buy an Apple Watch?
If you simply want a golf watch that shows the distance to the hole, the answer is pretty much: don’t buy an Apple Watch. If all you are after are distances to the front-center-back of the green, an older, entry-level golf watch like the Garmin S1 will do the job. If you need distances to hazards, more pre-programmed courses, and longer battery life, a newer model like the TomTom or Garmin S6 will be better. But now the price will start to approach or surpass that of the Apple Watch and the decision gets more complicated. And if you want to use the watch to input scores, these apps are superior to most, if not all, golf watches.
If you own an iPhone and currently don’t wear a watch, the Apple Watch is a great addition. You’ll find that you no longer have to fish the phone out of your pocket to check every notification and email, and you can easily dismiss phone calls you don’t want right from your wrist. You can even answer the phone and speak into the watch with a quick “I’m on the golf course, can I call you later?”. But now we are getting more into philosophy. Do phones even belong on golf courses?
If you want an Apple Watch for more reasons than golf, by all means try to use it as a golf watch, too.
Advantages and limitations
There are some performance differences between the Apple Watch and dedicated golf watches.
The two limiting factors with the Apple Watch are screen real estate and GPS speed and accuracy. The screen real estate issue can be overcome with clever scrolling and swiping, best implemented by Fungolf. Here the Apple watch has an advantage over the traditional golf watch with its great color touch screen.
The GPS issue is more complicated. The Apple Watch doesn’t have its own GPS receiver and therefore depends on the GPS in the iPhone. The phone GPS receiver is a major battery drain, so the iPhone puts the GPS in standby mode when not in use. In practice this means that as you raise your arm to see the distance to the hole, the watch must tell the phone to take the GPS receiver out of standby, acquire the position, and respond back with the current data. This is not instant, it can take several seconds, sometimes longer. As phone hardware gets faster, more efficient, and batteries improve, this situation will surely improve, but as of now, the GPS delay is the biggest drawback of the Apple Watch. With a golf watch the GPS is always on, and readouts are more or less instant. However, battery life is an issue here too, and few golf watches last two full rounds.
The above discussion about delays may lead you to conclude that the Apple Watch is no good as a golf watch, but this is not true. It all comes down to your needs and expectations. If you are already using a golf app on your phone, the Apple Watch is the perfect companion. You can mostly leave your phone in your pocket and get all the functionality you need from your watch. Only when you need an overview of a full hole map do you need to consult your iPhone.
The GPS delay is also not as big of a problem as it may seem. Most often you have plenty of time once you reach your ball, and are waiting for other players to hit their shots. And as discussed above, the situation is likely to improve with your new shiny iPhone you’ll get in the fall.