The United States Golf Association (USGA) and R&A Rules Ltd. (The R&A), which together set the global rules of golf, determined in 2006 that electronic distance measuring devices, including GPS and laser devices, are permitted for use under the Rules of Golf when a local rule is put into effect. Previously, they were not.
Since 2006, the golf GPS and rangefinder market has grown significantly, and the latest devices include advanced green views, scorekeeping features, and more. Golf GPS apps have also found their way on to the Apple iPhone, BlackBerry phones, and other mobile electronics.
The expansion of electronics use on the golf course caused the USGA and The R&A to issue in fall 2009 a “Joint Statement on Electronic Devices, Including Distance-measuring Devices.”
The statement was issued for two reasons:
- To reiterate that “the device must measure distance only; it must not measure other conditions such as wind speed or direction, the slope of the ground, or the temperature.”
- To clarify what may or may not be done with “multi-functional devices” such as the iPhone and BlackBerry in competition.
Dedicated Golf GPS Devices
In the case of dedicated golf GPS devices of the type offered by Garmin, Callaway, SkyCaddie, and others, this ruling is a reminder that extras such as wind-speed indicators, thermometers, and slope-reading capability would make the devices non-conforming and not allowed in competition.
Smartphones and Other Multi-function Devices
In the case of multi-function and smartphone devices that can run golf GPS apps, such as the iPhone and BlackBerry, the ruling is more complex, but it is clear. Some have interpreted the 2009 USGA/R&A Joint Statement to mean that multi-function devices that may include phone, Web-browser, and weather app capability, are not permitted for competition under any circumstances.
That is not the case, says Carter Rich, equipment standards manager for the USGA Test Center, based in Far Hills, New Jersey. For example, use of a conforming golf GPS app on an iPhone or BlackBerry is allowed when the local rule permitting use of such apps is in effect, with some qualifiers.
These fall into two categories:
1. Resident functions normally found on smartphones, such as web browsers, and calling capability.
2. Golf-specific apps or other apps that might assist the player in making a stroke or in his or her play.
Even though a golfer could potentially open a weather site via a Web browser during competition, Rich says, the rules do not prohibit the use of a Web browser-equipped smartphone in competition. There are other, permitted uses for a Web browser, such as checking e-mail, for example (don’t do that in my foursome, though!). As with many rules of golf, it’s up to the golfer to stay within the rules with these capabilities on devices in his or her possession during competition.
The same is true for phone calling capability, for example. “It’s fine to call your family and let them know you’ll be late for dinner. But calling your coach for swing tips is of course not permitted under the Rules of Golf,” says Rich.
Regarding specific apps, there are some that you may not have on your device, whether you use them or not. For example, green slope-reading capability is not permitted on dedicated GPS or laser rangefinders, nor is it permitted on smartphones and other multi-function electronic devices, says Rich. Simply having a green-slope reading app or functionality on your device is enough to make it non-conforming, and to disqualify the golfer.
However, a conforming golf GPS smartphone app that provides distances is still permitted.
The bottom line? Keep using conforming dedicated GPS devices and smartphone apps when the local rule permitting them is in effect, taking care to keep in mind the letter and intent of the rules as clarified above.