When Father's Day neared this summer, I narrowed down my gift search to my dad's favorite gadget category: golf accessories. After four years, his beloved Garmin Approach S2 golf watch had recently crapped out, making its replacement an obvious choice for my token of his father-itude this year.
I landed on the Bluetooth-enabled Garmin Approach S20, a $199 golf watch and Approach S2 successor. Not only was it affordable, but it also matched my dad's essence: no frills, dependable and poised to get the job done, which is why it's one of the best GPS watches for golfers.
Hitting the links
For this review of the Garmin Approach S20, I played a few rounds with my dad, Jeff, who has golfed for more than 30 years. In that time, he's seen every evolution of every gadget targeted to the game. Aside from tees and golf gloves, my dad believes a golf watch is the most necessary accessory when playing.
But he hasn't owned a new golf watch in several years. In that time, golf wearables have evolved to include features like expanded fitness tracking, smartphone notifications and even sleep monitoring.
When he strapped on the S20, Jeff already knew the basics of how to operate it out on the course because of his familiarity with the S2. But with practice and patience, he learned the modern functions that make the Approach S20 as much of an everyday wearable as it is a golf watch.
Design: Boring, but practical
The Garmin Approach S20 doesn't attract curious eyes out on the links like the TAG Heuer Connected Golf Edition. Rather, the S20 blends in with average golf togs, as if it doesn't want to be noticed.
And I don't blame it. The S20 isn't unsightly, but it's unfashionable. The basic, perforated silicone bands and flat, square case speak more to its functionality than its looks.
My dad admired this about the S20. The tang buckle lets him put it on and take it off with ease, while the compact casing doesn't get in the way of his swing. At 1.5 ounces, the S20 is incredibly lightweight, as if it's barely there.
The monochrome LCD 128 x 128 display appears archaic next to any Apple Watch face. But Jeff is colorblind, so he appreciates the high-contrast, pixelated screen. "It's retro. I dig it," he said.
Another "retro" aspect of the Approach S20's design is its lack of touch-screen control. It took a bit of practice to operate the S20, especially after using the single-button, touch-screen TAG Heuer Connected Golf Edition.
A major perk of the lack of touch controls is a lack of fingerprints. Even in the bright summer afternoon sun, the S20's display remained clean, clear and legible.
The Garmin Approach S20 comes loaded with more than 40,000 golf courses around the globe. When you're ready to start a round, the GPS identifies the course(s) you're nearest and lets you select the correct locale. On each hole, the watch tells you how far you are from the front, back and middle of the green.
The course map and hazard warnings look crude, but no regular golfer will have trouble deciphering the icons. If you're on a course for the first time, though, you might want to open up the Garmin Golf app (available for Android and iOS) to get a more advanced rendering of the hole's layout. Instead of marking hazard locations by letters on the watch, the app's map displays the nature of those hazards. This is good for determining whether you're dealing with a lake or sand trap.
This watch also packs Garmin's AutoShot technology, which relies on your wrist movement to trigger a shot and track shot distance. After you've taken your first swing, the watch begins recording your location. When you've reached your ball and take your next shot, the watch takes note of how far you traveled between the two shots to calculate your shot distance. If you open up the Garmin Golf app, you can match your shot distance with the club you used and how fast you swung. Jeff found this data helpful for finding about how far he hit the ball with each of his clubs.
Though AutoShot doesn't register putts, you can still record shorter shots and keep track of scores right from your wrist. As an above-average putter, my dad didn't hesitate to brag about his shot ratio using the S20's tally as evidence.
Fitness and health features: Useful afterthoughts
In addition to the Garmin Golf app, the Garmin Approach S20 is also compatible with the Garmin Connect fitness-tracker program. The odometer, heart rate monitor and timer are all useful features that elevate the S20 from a basic golf watch to a formidable fitness wearable.
The Garmin Approach S20 is also rated 5 atm for water resistance, or able to withstand submersion in up to 50 meters of water. So my dad could go for a swim or take a shower at the golf club after a round without having to remove his watch.
Another health perk of the Garmin S20 comes in its sleep-tracking capabilities. My dad wasn't so keen on using those himself, but they nevertheless are a neat addition for seeing how rested you are for early morning rounds — and how much coffee you'll need beforehand.
Battery life: Lasts long without charge
Garmin advertises 15 hours of battery life for the S20 in GPS mode and up to eight weeks without GPS usage.
Constant GPS tracking can be a battery zapper. In its final days, my dad's Approach S2 couldn't survive 18 holes (or about 4 hours). So when the S20 still had half its charge left after two days in a row of rounds, he was absolutely elated. Have I made my case yet for a daughter-of-the-year award?
When my dad wasn't out golfing, the Garmin Approach S20's battery persisted. Even as it tracked steps, mirrored phone notifications and monitored a night of sleep, the S20 showed no signs of needing to charge.
Value: Good as it gets
Priced at $199, the Garmin Approach S20 is one of the most affordable brand-name golf watches on the market. For the cost of two caddies (or less, depending on the prestige of your course), you get a reliable golf wearable with the useful features of a fitness tracker.
The $1,850 TAG Heuer Connected Golf Edition offers identical golf features at more than nine times the cost of the S20. The $400 Garmin Approach S60 offers significant style and display advancements, though, like a color touch screen.
But the Approach S20 is still the best golf watch you can get for less than $200.
The Garmin Approach S20 is the golf watch to get if you don't care about the bells and whistles of more modern-looking wearables. Someone who golfs often will appreciate the hardware's long battery life and AutoShot data. Those who play less frequently aren't overspending for a gadget they'll be happy to have on the occasions they hit the links.
While my dad has eyes on the Garmin Approach S60 for a future holiday gift, he's fulfilled by his S20 variant at the moment. And as he has learned how to integrate his smartphone with the watch, his satisfaction has grown. He never wore his Garmin S2 off the course, but now he wears the S20 regularly.
Between the Garmin Approach S20's extensive golf features and fitness tracker traits, it's the best wearable you can get for the green, and for the price.