"How far am I from the hole?"
It's far and away the question that golfers ask - to each other and themselves - most often during a round. As fun as playing golf by feel can be, the days of eyeballing every shot are long gone, and most everyone who plays this game wants to know the precise distance, within a couple yards or so, before hitting a shot.
Enter the laser rangefinder, which has gone from curiosity to practically standard issue for every avid player in the time I went from junior golfer to working stiff. That's pretty impressive for an item that costs about as much as a 15th club in the bag of most golfers, if not a few bucks more. Having always tended toward playing by feel a bit more than my peers, I would find the nearest yardage marker and estimate how many yards closer or farther my ball was from the middle of the green. It worked for me, but when I finally broke down and bought a rangefinder about a decade ago, I instantly became a fan of the quick accuracy of it and the time it saved.
If you're still waiting to wade into the rangefinder game, I applaud your patience. There's more choice than ever in the market: a healthy mix of established brands and potentially price-disruptive relative newcomers. If you already have a rangefinder but are looking to upgrade, you are also in luck for similar reasons.
Golf rangefinders: A brief introduction
Golf rangefinders typically use lasers to measure the distance to various objects they may be pointed at. A lens magnifies the target, making it easy to hone in using the device's built-in sight. The rangefinder sends out a quick laser pulse and a clock inside the device measures the time it takes for the pulse to reflect off a given target and return. Since the speed of light is a constant, extrapolating the distance from the pulse-return time is a simple calculation, the answer to which appears in the viewfinder almost as soon as the pulse is sent.
Typically a flagstick is the target, and as laser rangefinders have proliferated golf courses have taken to using flagsticks that contain glass crystals, which guide lasers to the cup rather than a tree or mound behind the green. Rangefinders are also useful for quickly measuring distances to slopes, bunker edges and trees.
Though they've been around in some form since before 2000, laser rangefinders have exploded in popularity in the last decade and a half, as in 2006 the United States Golf Association began allowing golf associations or individual courses to institute a local rule in a tournament permitting their use. In 2014, the USGA and the R&A broadly allowed "Distance-Measuring Devices" like rangefinders (and handheld GPS devices) in their amateur competitions, which tacitly made rangefinders acceptable in amateur competition across the world. When the USGA overhauled the Rules of Golf ahead of the 2019 season, it formally inverted the previous rule, making rangefinders legal in competition by default.
The caveat: in order to use a rangefinder in competition, it may only measure distance. In other words, slope is not allowed.
Slope or no slope?
Slope is the primary above-and-beyond feature of golf rangefinders. If a particular object is uphill or downhill of the golfer, the device will add or subtract yardage in order to provide an "adjusted" measurement. A vertical drop of a few feet can make a shot play noticeably shorter, so this additional technology can remove a factor the golfer would normally need to estimate.
For that reason, slope functions are not allowed in tournament play: they provide the golfer with information that is beyond the scope of what the USGA calls "public information a player may get from anyone." Nevertheless, this is a popular tool for recreational golfers, especially on courses that feature big elevation changes. It can also be switched off, which enables the rangefinder to be used in tournament play.
Among companies that make rangefinder models with and without slope, slope capability attaches about a $50 premium to the price of the device.
Other innovations and features
For years, rangefinders' core features were the ability to point and shoot the distance to a target in the center of the viewfinder. But recent years have brought some new bells and whistles to the market, with the most popular brands, Bushnell and Leupold, leading the way.
Bushnell, which boasts that more than 97% of PGA Tour golfers use their products for pre-tournament course scouting, has introduced a handful of cool features on their recent rangefinder models. In 2013, they introduced their V3 model, the first to feature JOLT technology, which, after locking onto a flagstick, sends a quick vibration through the device to tell the golfer it's found the intended target. This feature is now common throughout the golf rangefinder space.
Magnetization is a sneaky-solid recent innovation, too. Bushnell's BITE feature allows its rangefinders to stick to the vertical metal bar of a golf cart. Aftermarket rangefinder protector sleeves with magnets also facilitate this easy storage.
Magnification power, screen brightness and range are also differentiators among rangefinders. Most commercially available models boast 6x magnification, with Bushnell's beefed-up Pro XE model ($550) using 7x magnification. Different models will boast 1,000-yard-plus maximum ranges, but the most important figure to consider is the maximum range at which they'll lock on to a flag or other specific golf feature. As with all electronics, you should read and compare the specs to make sure you're paying for what you want and need in a device.
In the last year or so, several rangefinders have added GPS with their point-and-shoot bread-and-butter. One shortcoming of rangefinders is that terrain can limit the information it can give you, so knowing the distance to an unseen green edge can inform the golfer more deeply than before.
Other brands offer further interesting features. As its name suggests, Nikon's higher-end Coolshot Pro Stabilized ($449) has a built-in image stabilizer, which makes it easier to zero in on a target for those with somewhat unsteady hands. Leupold, whose highest-cost golf rangefinder, the GX-5i3, sells for $845, includes features like fog mode and enhancements to the slope function that include calculated compensations for ambient temperature and altitude above sea level. It also has a one-touch mode that delivers distances to multiple targets within the viewfinder as the golfer scans the landscape.
The current market for golf rangefinders
Recent years have brought a host of lower-cost rangefinder companies to the market to challenge the established players, whose more basic (though still plenty useful for most golfers) models start around $200 to $250. Here's a rundown of the brands you'll be choosing from:
Bushnell. Fair to say they're the Titleist Pro V1 of rangefinders, due to heavy usage among the pro ranks. Models range from the $250 V4 to the substantial, slope-enabled Pro XE at just over twice the price. For what it's worth, my rangefinder is an old Bushnell V2 that I bought for about $220 and is still performing well about eight years later. It's been through hell and keeps working.
Leupold. High-end hunting heritage brand that dates back to 1907. Mainly makes rifle scopes and binoculars. Golf rangefinders are a side-hustle, but they're made with the same seriousness at a price to prove it. Base PinCaddie model sells for $325 and prices rise from there.
Nikon. Best known for cameras, they also make rangefinders for golf as well as hunting and forestry. Two models: a base at $230 and the aforementioned Stabilized model at just less than twice that.
Precision Pro. Founded in 2013. Broke the $200 barrier with their first offering, the V400. New NX9 models, with and without slope, sell for $270 and $220, respectively, while delivering features like magnetization and target confirmation vibrations. Also makes a basic model, the NX2, that eschews those latter two features and sells for $170.
Blue Tees. Direct-to-consumer brand that touts a slope-enabled model for just under $200.
Tasco. Bushnell sub-brand that offers low-frills point-and-shoot options where with the lower price come some compromises on magnification and accuracy, plus no convenience features. But if you don't want or need any of that, they can be had for as little as $80 on Amazon.
The tech set
Garmin. Household name for all sorts of GPS devices, including golf handhelds. Approach Z82 rangefinder ($600) integrates automatic yardages to the green with hole overlays all within the viewfinder.
VoiceCaddie. Perhaps best known for its Swing Caddie portable launch monitors, VC also makes rangefinders, including the SL1 ($500), which has GPS integration as well as green undulation data for select courses.
GolfBuddy. Californian/Korean brand's aim L10 V ($300) has a button that will speak the yardage to you.
Finally, a note about batteries. The vast majority of rangefinders are powered by a single 3-volt CR2 battery, which you can typically find at your local big-box store or pharmacy for about $5 per battery, or you can buy in bulk online for a bit less. Many newer-model rangefinders have battery indicators within their viewfinders so you can be forewarned rather than caught off-guard when your device is about to lose power. I usually get about 30 to 40 rounds out of a battery in my rangefinder, but my colleague Brandon Tucker says he has never had to replace the one in his Leupold rangefinder in some three years. The Garmin Z82 he has needs replacement batteries after 15 hours. Notably, Precision Pro includes a "Care Package" with every rangefinder sale, through which they will send replacement batteries to customers upon request, free of charge.
If it sounds to you like this is a crowded space, you're right. And the proposition here is pretty similar to other products with a variety of brands vying for market share. There are established brands with retail presence and (in Bushnell's case) pro tour validation and a somewhat higher price, there are some low-cost would-be disruptors who appeal to the budget-conscious and there are some other, potentially intriguing and innovative options.