The explosion in popularity in the last few years of GPS golf watches, rangefinders, and smartphone apps that give a golfer assistance during play have prompted the R&A and USGA to address the issue of whether they are legal in competition under the rules.
You can use GPS watches in golf competitions and range finders, and even smartphones while playing, but there are stringent conditions that apply, and certain features of the device may not be used as this would be a breach of the applicable rules.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the rule that governs the use of these devices and when and how you can (and can’t) use them in competition.
Rule 4.3:The Use Of Distance Measuring Devices
Under the rules of golf, rule 4.3 governs the use of rangefinders and other Distance Measuring Devices (DMD’s). This law clearly states that the use of any device that helps a player in their game is not permitted.
This falls under the laws that describe ‘Artificial Devices And Unusual Equipment and Use Of Abnormal Equipment’ and ensures that no player has an advantage over another. Each player has to use their skills and judgment during play.
Amendment To Rule 4.3 In 2006.
In 2006, the R&A amended rules 4.3 to allow for distance measuring devices, and ten years later, the rule was amended again to permit the devices to have the prohibited sport features on the condition they are turned off.
Then use of a ‘Local Rule’ permitted governing bodies of events to permit DMD’s use, provided they conformed to the rules set out under the amended rule 4.3.
In 2016, the USGA allowed devices with the prohibited features (discussed below), provided those features were not activated during play.
This was probably because many of the GPS watches being produced had those features included, and manufacturers weren’t going to limit the features because of these rules for fear of losing sales and market share.
We will discuss the features that are (and are not) permitted under this amendment in the next segment.
The Use Of DMD’s In PGA Events
In February of 2021, the US PGA announced it would allow distance measuring devices in three major events: The US PGA Championship, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and The KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship.
Jim Richerson, the chairman of the US PGA, advised that the PGA are “always interested in any method that may help improve the flow of play during their championships” and noted that these devices had become common in the game had also been included in the rules of golf.
To date, the use of these devices is not permitted in either the US Open or The Open and has not been embraced at elite competition levels but has been allowed at the US Amateur Open since 2014.
GPS Watch Features That Are Allowed In Competition
The amended rules provide certain features to be activated and used during play, while other features are not permitted. Furthermore, the provision for governing committees to use Local Rules to either allow or prohibit DMD’s in events is also in force.
Let’s look at the devices and features permitted under the USGA rules. The USGA makes provision for standalone and multifunction devices to play.
A standalone device would be a rangefinder or GPS golf watch like the Garmin S40 or S42, while multifunction devices would be smartphones or tablets, but in each case, there are limited features that can be active to stay within the rules.
Under the rules, you can use the following features :
- Distance measurement to target
- You may share the GPS device with other players
- Record and measure shot distances
- Calendar, clock, and scorecard may be used on the device
- You can access emails, phone calls, messages, and weather
- You can record your swing for analysis AFTER the round
GPS Watch Features That Are Not Allowed During Competition
As you can see from the permitted options above, only the basic features are allowed during competition and as specified under the local rules if they are in play.
The features that are not allowed and have to be deactivated on your device are:
- Using the device for measuring or calculating distances for slope
- Using built-in features to gauge or measure weather conditions
- Any feature that offers club suggestions
- Any features that measure the golf swing
- Contact via email/text/phone with a swing coach during a round
- Review any image or video of a swing during the round
There is a clear definition of abnormal assistance in the features that are not allowed. If you consider the essence of Rule 4.3, you can appreciate that any player with access to or who uses these features has a clear advantage over players that do not.
While many traditionalists may dismiss DMD’s entirely as being contrary to the spirit and core of the game, the reality is that those same people are using the latest clubs with the technology that helps them hit the ball further and straighter.
The development of technology in golf has made the game a little easier in terms of more forgiving clubs and longer distance balls, but the essence of the game remains in terms of swing skill, etiquette, and course management.
Penalty For Breach Of Rule 4.3
Unlike other rules, where penalty strokes may be incurred for breach, a player would be disqualified immediately if it is established that they are using prohibited features on the GPS watch during competition.
If you are going to be using a GPS watch during competition, you need to be certain whether there are local rules in effect governing the use of DMD’s and the features that are allowed or whether these devices are permitted at that event.
Can You Use GPS Watches in Golf Competitions Conclusion
While the use of GPS watches and other DMD’s are permitted, albeit, with limited features, you should always be fully aware and up to date with the competition rules as well as the group rules for the day.
These devices do have a place in golf, and they will continue to filter more into the modern game. Still, the debate within the R&A and global golf governing bodies will continue around the use and permitted features to ensure the game stays fair and true to its history and culture.
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