When I first saw a fellow golfer wearing a GPS wristwatch, frankly, I scoffed: another crutch for the unintuitive athlete, another victory for the plugged-in world. Did Snead or Hogan need a digital assistant to buttress their club choices? Well, consider this confirmed Luddite a recent and enthusiastic convert, thanks to the Garmin Approach S6 GPS watch. While $399 isn't cheap, amortized over a couple of seasons' action, it's a worthy investment indeed. In fact, once you use it, you'll likely be hard-pressed to play without it ever again.
The Approach S6 has a good-sized and quite legible color display (1-inch diameter) but doesn't feel bulky or look any more imposing than an ordinary watch. Its highly navigable touch-screen interface is readable in direct sunlight and responsive to a glove-clad fingertip. There are also four hardware buttons on the body of the watch, which will jump from a Course View map of each hole to a Green View for a more detailed look at the putting surface. A wee tap on the screen will indicate the distance between any two points, just in case you want to lay up to a certain distance rather than risk a shot to a well-guarded green.
Although you probably won't be playing in a deluge, if you do get caught in a random storm, or go swimming in a water hazard, the S6 should more than hold up; it can be submerged in up to 50 meters of water. The TomTom Golfer is similarly water-resistant.
The numbers displayed on the Approach S6 will tell you the distance to the front, middle and back of a green, and will also measure how far you hit your last shot. Golfers love consistency; knowing exactly how much juice is in a well-hit club is essential information.
In the first days of the GPS boom, you might have had to connect your device with a computer to make sure the course you were playing was in the database before you left the house. The S6 comes preloaded with over 30,000 international courses. As soon as it determines its location, you're immediately ready to grip it and rip it.
You can also tweak the overhead hole views by letting the S6 know how far you hit your drives off the tee. If you're beast enough to bang the ball 300 yards, the S6 will zoom in on the area correspondent to that distance and show you what lurks around the dogleg, be it a bunker or water hazard.
In addition, the Approach S6's PinPointer view gives you a rough idea of where the flagstick is when you're burdened with a blind shot. I'd suggest eyeballing the line for insurance; the watch will give you a general direction, but with money on the line, well, better to be absolutely certain where the hole is.
The Garmin Approach S6 doesn't just give you little maps and yardage information, it also allows you to log your score and attendant statistics, like number of fairways hit, total putts and your score relative to par. And if you keep a handicap, the S6 will make adjustments to your score based on your index and the relative difficulty of the course (as indicated by the slope rating). After the round, sync the watch to your computer and use the Garmin Express software to further analyze your performance. (You can also sync it to your smartphone via Bluetooth.) Overkill? Maybe, but too much information is a concept golfers can't generally get their heads around.
Finally, in the bells-and-whistles department, the folks at Garmin have incorporated a couple of pedagogical features called TempoTraining and SwingStrength. Golfers have all heard the ratio 3:1 when it comes to professional golfers; that's the relative duration of backswing to follow-through that amateurs should ostensibly try to emulate. The S6's built-in accelerometer can indicate your tempo either graphically or sonically, and train you to match the ideal. That feature is best used on the driving range, as you don't want to be beeping your way around an actual golf course.
Once I arrived at the course, the Approach S6 without fail was able to zero in on where on Earth I was, and then auto-advance hole by hole as the round progressed. Its measurement of distances from point A to point B was accurate to within 4 yards of the on-course yardage markers. When it comes to approach shots to the green, I could touch the screen to get a more exact idea how of far I was from the flagstick, a critically important feature.
You can easily keep score during the round, though you won't be able to view the entire scorecard or detailed statistics until you sync up later with a mobile device or computer. Assuming you don't want to be carrying your smartphone around on the course (poor etiquette, for one thing), the S6 will silently notify you of any incoming phone calls and will actually display text messages if Bluetooth is activated. Navigating from screen to screen, via the touch screen and four buttons, is less than intuitive, but can be mastered easily after a couple of rounds.
Garmin's claim that the Approach S6 will last around 8 hours per charge seems accurate when used on the course extensively, meaning one should definitely charge the device in between rounds. If you just use it as a watch, the Garmin will stay charged for months, and roughly half a day if you enable Bluetooth notifications. All told, it should last as long as you do, unless you're playing 36 holes in a given day.
The combination of a bright touch screen, accurate and extensive course information, and extras such as a swing analyzer and smartphone notifications make the Garmin Approach S6 a great, if expensive, companion for any stats-obsessed golfer. The only thing it doesn't do is carry your clubs.