The debate in amateur golf about whether it's better to use a rangefinder or GPS device is a spirited one. But as companies find new ways to outfit their rangefinders with more GPS functionality, it may prove short-lived.
The latest device from Garmin, the z82 (MSRP: $599) is the follow-up to their z80 model. It features a point-and-shoot rangefinder accompanied by a very capable, color GPS flyover in the viewfinder. The main hindrance of a traditional rangefinder - the ability to sight hidden hazards - is no longer an issue.
Garmin isn't top-of-mind when talking rangefinders, however; that space has recently been occupied by Bushnell and Leupold. The z80 represented Garmin's first foray into the category in 2018. Released in April 2020, the new z82 appears to be among the most advanced hybrid model on the market. Bushnell also makes a Hybrid model that provides front-middle-back green distances (retails for $329 at this time) and an external display so you don't need to look into the viewfinder for those numbers.
The Garmin z82: Highlights and how it works
For better golfers, having an exact number to the flag is essential over a simple front-middle-back yardage to the green that your standard GPS wearable device can provide. But why not have both? The z82 gives you the pinpoint accuracy of a rangefinder down to the yard, complemented by 41,000 golf course maps pre-loaded, complete with front-middle-back yardages to the green as well as hazards marked off. When you look in the viewfinder, the display is plenty sharp and bright. To the left of the scope is a full-color, detailed GPS map flyover with all the necessary yardages. The Laser Range Arc is a handy feature that draws an arc at the distance that was laser-ranged, so you can see all relevant distances to all hazards in play.
The light went off in my head as to how useful a hybrid rangefinder-GPS device like this can be when I was playing the most difficult hole at my home course recently. The 16th is a tree-lined, dogleg left par 4 to an elevated green. It's an especially tricky tee shot since the landing zone is blind, it's often into the wind and the ground slopes down towards a pond that can be between 240-270 yards.
Adding to the complexity of the shot is that the tees seem to move forward and back 30-40 yards on any given day. On my last round, I pulled out the rangefinder on the tee and was able to see an exact number to the front edge of the hidden hazard. The added confidence helped me stripe a hybrid into the ideal spot, which left me with a manageable 9-iron into the green and ultimately a (rare) par.
There are additional bells and whistles with the z82 like Pin Seeker, which can guide you to the flag if you're, say, in the wrong fairway and have trees or a hill between you and the green. This can definitely save time. The user can toggle the device to a tournament-compliant mode that takes out the wind data and the "Plays like" distance calculation that accounts for uphill/downhill. Overhead GPS is compliant with most amateur tournament play.
The Garmin z82: Shortcomings
I started using the z82 after considerable time with the Leupold GX-5i3, an excellent rangefinder, so that is my jumping-off point for comparison. From a point-and-shoot perspective, Leupold outperforms the z82 with a smoother experience and faster execution time. But Leupold only does one thing (albeit exceptionally well). Garmin's range-finding capability is still sufficient.
The z82 takes about 12 seconds to boot up when you turn it on so it can load the maps, and requires a little additional time to find and select the correct course to play. Keep that in mind when you power it on in the first fairway.
The beauty of a traditional rangefinder is the simplicity. The Garmin has three buttons and more functions and I found myself hitting the wrong button a lot now that there are choices. You can keep score and track fairways and greens on your z82 and it will sync with your Garmin Golf App. Scoring on a rangefinder seems cumbersome compared to a watch, phone or paper.
Lastly, you'll need to be more aware of your battery life than with a traditional rangefinder unit. I've never had a rangefinder that ran out of batteries before I lost it. By comparison, the z82 gets about 15 hours of battery life out of this unit, so you'll want to charge it with the USB cord included every few rounds.
As I've written before when reviewing rangefinders, I'm always a little nervous about adding another high-end accessory to my bag that could fall off or be left behind somewhere. The z82, at $599 MSRP, may be the most expensive item in your golf bag. A little peace of mind can be found in the "Find my Garmin" function. The device's Bluetooth must be on and it has to have been paired to your phone with the Garmin Golf app. You can select the "Find my Garmin" function from the app, or, if you're on the course and the app detects you've moved away from the rangefinder, you'll receive a push notification asking if you've left it behind.
Garmin z82: The Verdict
The Garmin device and app ecosystem is especially good for those who like the brand's activity trackers such as wearable smart watches (click here for my recent review of the Approach s62 watch). While Garmin isn't a rangefinder-first brand, it does GPS very well, and this hybrid GPS-Rangefinder device provides the down-to-the-yard accuracy of a rangefinder while offering the mapping perks of overhead GPS.