Golf has evolved hugely since it began over 600 years ago in Scotland (the Dutch may claim 700 years ago!). Improvements in ball and club technology have been so great in even the past 15 years that the game is completely different in the modern era compared to the eras of Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones.
Laser rangefinders are part of that change, utilizing technology originally developed for military and medical use which dates back to the late 1950’s. Sniper teams depend on accurate distance estimates when determining the impact of wind, gravity and whether a target is within range.
The first laser rangefinder units built for use in golf were introduced in 1955 by Bushnell, which remains the largest producer of rangefinders.
Until recently, electronics weren’t allowed anywhere near a golf course on tournament days. Then they were allowed subject to certain conditions. Now, they are allowed with even less restrictions.
The USGA and the R&A provide a “local rule” that is adopted for almost all competitions.
The “local rule” allows the use of distance measuring devices. If your device (rangefinder or smartphone) measures other conditions such as slope or wind speed, those features must be turned off or disabled. If you can’t turn those features off, then your device is not legal, but if you can and do turn them off, then it is legal – learn how golf rangefinders actually work here.
Most organized golf tournaments utilize the local rule, but it’s always a good idea to read the rules sheet or check with the tournament organizer before using your golf rangefinder or GPS.
If you are looking for more information on the best golf rangefinders try this comprehensive article.
Rule 14-3 covers “Artificial Devices and Unusual Equipment; Abnormal Use of Equipment.” It basically says that no golf player is to use any device that helps him or her in the game. This enables the skills, judgments, and abilities of each player to be compared without an unfair advantage over another.
The general understanding is that GPS devices are legal for many tournament events. In 2006, the USGA and R&A introduced a change to Rule 14-3 which had prohibited the use of distance measuring devices. The new rule permits the use of distance measuring devices (not slope, or wind speed or direction) as a local rule – meaning that local course rules would determine whether allowed or not. In 2014, distance measuring devices were allowed for use in all amateur events.
And it seems that the banning of slope measuring technology is here to stay, for now anyway.
The exceptions to the earlier rule were the now retired Bushnell Tour X and the the Leupold GX-4i. Both of these laser rangefinders had received special approval from the USGA by using a brightly colored faceplate to turn on the Slope feature, thus indicating to anyone paying attention that the device was not legal. When the bright faceplate was removed, the devices were (and still are) legal.
With the new rule, it’s more of an honor system. Faceplates are not required, and manufacturers have implemented a simple ON/OFF switch rather than the faceplate system. The player will simply switch the device out of Slope mode to make it legal.
What is allowed and not allowed
The USGA allows two types of devices for measuring distances.
The first is stand-alone devices, like rangefinders, that can be hand-held or a smartwatch. The second type, is multi-functional devices, like smart phones or tablets.
A golfer is allowed:
- to share the GPS device among players
- to measure and gauge distances to targets
- to measure and record distances of shots
- a GPS device to have other conforming features (clock, calendar, scorecard)
- access to phone, text, emails and weather
- access to record swings after the round
A golfer is not allowed:
- to measure and gauge calculated distances for slope
- to actively measure and gauge weather conditions with a built-in feature
- to call, text or email their swing coach during a stipulated round
- to record and review an image or video of a swing taken during a stipulated round
- swing measuring features
- club suggestion features
Golf purists tend to disapprove of rangefinders in golf as giving an unfair advantage and not in the spirit of the game, believing that the technology making its way into clubs dilutes the level of skill needed to excel at the game.
If you are playing a friendly game, it is probably a good idea to make sure that your group agrees to the use of golf rangefinders. You don’t want to upset your friends!