Priced at a whopping $400 – not including annual subscription fees – and packed with enough information and features to put a PGA bagman out of business, SkyGolf's SkyCaddie SGX is the Cadillac of golf GPS rangefinders.
Its bread-and-butter HoleVue mode delivers exact yardage from your position to any spot on a given hole, as well as distances to suggested tee shot targets plus as-the-crow-flies yardage to the flag. Using the thumb-stick players can move the fairway target to find accurate yardage to any landmark; key information when developing a plan of attack on holes with ball-eating bunkers and hazards.
Switch to IntelliGreen mode – accomplished simply by tilting the device to the right, thanks to a built-in accelerometer – and you'll see a map of the green, including nearby traps, water, and trees. Distances to the front, centre, and back of the putting surface are provided, as well the yardage between flagstick and green edge. Even better, the green will automatically orient itself to your angle of approach, meaning you'll have more precise yardage to greenside elements.
If you happen to be playing a course mapped for SkyGolf's new IntelliGreen Pro feature – and quite a few popular courses are – you'll also have access to green elevation information, including distances to specific tiers. This proves useful, but only to players with the foresight to plan putting tactics and the skill to land the ball where they choose.
Tilt the device to the left and you'll enter scoring mode, where you can enter strokes, putts, and tee shot information. Scores and statistics will be uploaded to SkyGolf's online CaddieSync App the next time you connect the device to your computer. Inside the app you can view such interesting stats as scoring averages on different hole types, putts per round, and even your average driving distance – assuming you've taken the time to measure shot length by pressing the ball mark button after teeing off and again when you arrive at your ball.
Yardage accuracy is far more reliable than what I've seen in golf GPS phone apps, and quicker to calculate, too. I found no evidence to discount SkyCaddie's claim that its maps offer "sub-metre" precision, and it dialled in distances in about the same amount of time it took to pull the device out of my pocket – very important, since the last thing your playing partners want is to see you standing in the fairway waiting for your GPS to respond.
Plus, its breadth of course information is unmatched. The SGX comes pre-loaded with basic information on 30,000 courses, with the ability to download and store more advanced information on up to 50 courses at a time. Advanced course data was available for all of the Greater Toronto Area courses I visited, but you'll probably want to verify that it exists for your home course prior to purchase.
Note, though, that holes aren't always perfectly described, despite SkyGolf's ongoing endeavour to ground-verify all of the courses in its database. For example, while I was impressed to discover that the third hole at Toronto's Don Valley Golf Course – which was transformed from a par-4 into a par-5 just last year – was up to date, I was dismayed to see that that the par-5 sixth came up as a par-3 on the digital scorecard, even though it showed an accurate hole map. That little glitch played havoc with my round scoring and statistics.
Keep in mind, too, that in order to maintain access to satellite data after the first 30 days you'll need to purchase a subscription, which can range from $25 to $70 per year, depending on the options and features you choose. Given how few GPS devices require subscriptions these days, I can't help but think SkyCaddie's subscription fees will eventually go the way of the dodo, especially considering the high cost of the hardware. Sadly, we're not there quite yet.
I'd also like to see a few hardware revisions in the SGX's successor. The analogue thumb-stick, for example, feels overly firm when using its directional functionality. I found I often ended up pressing so hard that I would accidentally depress the stick, sending an "enter" command in whatever mode I happened to be in. It wasn't a huge issue in HoleVue mode, but it became bothersome in menus and on the scorecard.
And while the TFT LCD is extraordinarily viewable in direct sunlight – I never had trouble viewing anything – it's surprisingly susceptible to scratches. After bouncing around in a pocket for a few hours with a couple coins and wooden tees for company, the surface was covered in fibre-thin grooves. SkyGolf would do well to forge a partnership with Corning.
But the biggest hitch for some may simply be syncing it with a computer. I tried a trio of Windows 7 machines, and it failed to properly connect with any of them. A quick check online revealed that my problem was not uncommon. I eventually enlisted the aid of SkyGolf's technical support and after about 15 minutes spent watching a technician control my computer from afar (he tried various fixes that involved changing settings, updating Java, and downloading files), my SkyCaddie was synced. I'm still not quite sure what the problem was, but it's good to know that SkyGolf provides quality support.
Even with these issues I've no hesitation endorsing the SGX for single-digit handicappers. Assuming your favourite courses are in its stable of those supported by advanced features (you may want to check with local pros before buying), it will undoubtedly prove useful and could even help shave a few strokes off your game once in a while.
However, I'm less bullish about recommending such a pricey piece of equipment to weekend duffers. The catch-22 with golf gadgets is that their efficacy is often directly linked to a player's skill, which means most aren't of much use to the vast majority of people who purchase them.
Consider this: It's not very hard to estimate your distance to a flagstick within about ten yards based on your position relative to a course marker, like the 150-yard stakes on the side of a fairway. For most people that's good enough. Golfers have been eyeballing yardages for hundreds of years, after all. The only time the sort of exact yardage available through dedicated GPS devices really matters is when you know how far you hit each of your clubs within a couple of yards, which most people don't (despite what they might think).
Moreover, the SGX's more exacting features – such as IntelliGreen – will prove a boon only to players with the ability to execute precise shots. Knowing the exact distance required to clear a bunker providing cover for a flag tucked away in the back corner of a green won't do a weekend warrior – whose best strategy is almost always simply to aim at the fat part of the green – much good. In fact, such knowledge might put bad ideas in their heads, luring them to try shots they simply haven't the skill to hit.
I'm not saying that rangefinders can't be helpful to less experienced golfers. They can, for example, prove a great aid in teaching players about their club distance. But you hardly need a luxury device like the SGX for such simple duty. Any old rangefinder will do.
If, however, you're the type of player who knows exactly which club in your bag can land on and hold to a seven-yard deep tier 145 yards away, or who understands that it doesn't matter that you can carry a greenside bunker 220 yards away if you have only 10 yards of firm putting surface behind it to work with, then investing in a proper golf GPS could prove an enormous boon in certain situations. And you're unlikely to find one better than the SkyCaddie SGX.
Note to readers:
I'd originally intended to pit a pair of rangefinders against each other, and even procured a Callaway uPro MX for that purpose. However, just days before filing my review Callaway announced that it was voluntarily recalling the MX, citing its performance wasn't meeting the company's own standards for excellence. Customers apparently complained about unspecified technical issues.
If you happened to have purchased one of these devices, Callaway will take it back and reimburse you for the full purchase price, including tax. If you're happy with it – I found my demo unit tracked yardage very well and had an appealingly simple touch interface (though it froze up on the course a couple of times and lost my scorecard and stats data) – Callaway will continue to support it.