Mark Twain put it best when he referred to golf as a “good walk spoiled”. Those of us who suffer this particular beautiful game have myriad frustrations to deal with, from the ignominy of teeing off on a par 5 with a long iron because we just can't use a bloody driver, to the inevitable three-putts that are part and parcel of a round.
The question then is: can technology help the average hacker effectively hack their game? I've spent the last few months playing with a couple of gadgets, the Zepp Golf 3D Swing Analyser and Garmin Approach S6 smartwatch, that promise to do just that. This is what I discovered.
Zepp Golf 3D Swing Analyser
Many golf gadgets focus on analysing your swing (as well as the Zepp product, there's also the likes of the SwingSmart Duo Golf Swing Analyser, Skypro Golf Swing Analyser, Swingbyte 2 Golf Swing Analyser, and a bunch more). Which is great, if you have an intricate understanding of swing mechanics and know what to do to correct errors. Otherwise, it's a bit like taking a vegetarian to a steakhouse and being surprised that they look a bit lost when the menu arrives.
Still, even for a relative duffer like me who struggles to break 100, this little box has its uses. Quite a lot of uses, actually, but let's start at the beginning.
The Zepp Sensor is easy to set up (you can find step-by-step instructions online here). Once you unbox it and download the Zepp Golf app (it's compatible with iOS 6.1+ and Android 2.3.3+), just create an account and pair it up with your device. The sensor itself nestles in a mount, which clips on to your golf glove. I thought this might be a bit intrusive – and the last thing us hackers need is any more distractions – but weighing just over 6 grams, this wasn't the case. Once it's on, it's on, and you don't notice its presence.
The proprietary USB charger that juices up the device could be improved on, though: it's very small and has virtually no lead, so it's best suited to being charged out of the side of a laptop, which will be fine for some but could be an annoyance for others. You'd also think that for a device that costs £100+, they could have thrown in a USB wall plug as well, even if this isn't the most effective way to charge it.
Minor grumbles about the charger aside, it was time to hit the range and see how the Zepp Sensor performed. I say range because the Zepp Sensor is a practice device, not something you take out for a full round. Why? Well, for starters, you have to manually input the app with the correct club information, just as you input info into most other wearables. Doing this out on the course three or four (or five...or six...) times a hole just isn't feasible: as well as being an annoyance to you, the aspirational golfer, it's also going to seriously slow down your play and piss off other people on the course.
However, the data gathering itself is difficult to fault, and this starts with the extensive database of clubs and manufacturers to choose from. I was in the market for a new set at the beginning of the year, so I tried out three or four different models over a few visits to the range. All of them were present to select, right down to customising the type of shaft.
Once you start swinging, the data pings itself automatically back to the app. The Zepp Sensor measures your club head speed on impact, swing tempo, shaft angle at the top of the swing, hand plane, club head plane and hip rotation. It's a lot of take in and, if I'm honest, most mediocre golfers like myself won't know what most of it means to begin with. I highly recommend watching some of Zepp's explanatory videos first, or asking your local pro to give you a quick rundown of what the stats actually mean.
But even if you don't have the foggiest idea how your hip rotation affects your shot, you'll still get something out of Zepp's data, as it's presented as an idiot-proof, colour coded system: green means good, yellow average, and red equals bad. Based on the individual bits of data, it also calculates a 'final score' for your shots out of 100, so you can get an overall impression of the quality of your swing from that. Plus, you can also watch a simple yet expertly realised 3D replay of your swing, which is a nice touch.
The more I used the Zepp Sensor, the more useful a few of the stats in particular became. For the average hacker, what you'll want to look at first is how the quality of your shots (and you'll have to use your eyes for this) relate to hand speed and club speed. One of the most common errors I see with bad golfers is trying to hit the ball too hard, or 'murder' it. These days, a decent pair of clubs will do 99 percent of the work for you, so if you're not hitting balls quite how you'd like, that's where I'd suggest starting. Within the app, you can set swing goals, and Zepp also offers tips and suggested drills for improving individual aspects of your swing. Below you can see the difference between one of my better swings, and a fluffed shot.
No, the Zepp Sensor won't single-handedly turn you into a scratch golfer, but it can certainly help you realise some of the basic swing errors you might be making, and potentially knock a few shots off your game. With an RRP of £130 (though you can find it for much less; Amazon currently has it for £115), it's not exactly cheap (you can get yourself a high-end putter for that), but it's reasonable in the context of golf, which isn't exactly a cheap sport. In terms of value, it's a good alternative to coughing up for expensive lessons, though I actually think it would work a treat in conjunction with professional coaching. The Sensor itself is also compatible with tennis racquets, so you can use it across sports if you buy an additional mount for about £8. Polo and badminton compatibility to be confirmed.
Garmin Approach S6 Smartwatch
So, the Zepp Sensor is a useful gadget to help you work on your game off the course. But what about taking technology onto the fairways (or into the bunkers, if your game is anything like mine)? I've also spent the last month or so playing weekly rounds with the Garmin Approach S6, a touchscreen GPS smartwatch designed with golf and only golf in mind.
First things first: we're moving up significantly in terms of price here. With a £330 RRP (though it's currently available on Amazon for £260), this product is top of Garmin's golf wearables range and isn't a cheap bit of kit - by way of comparison, a complete newbie could equip themselves with clubs and all the other essential gear fairly handsomely for a similar amount of dosh. Nor is it overly stylish or 'premium-y', with a perforated rubber wrist strap and bog standard circular plastic face.
What it does offer, though, is a hell of a lot of functionality. At the heart of the Garmin Approach S6 is a GPS chip and an extensive database of pre-loaded course maps (more than 38,000 internationally, according to Garmin). The coverage of courses really impressed me. Yes, I was expecting the 'proper' courses I play at (Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park) to be there, but the slightly shoddy par 3 buried up in Epping Forest? The unkempt little 9 hole tucked away next to an old mental asylum in Wandsworth? I wasn't so sure, but they were all there.
You'll want to spend a bit of time with the manual to get the watch's basic operations down, but once you have a grasp on this, it's pretty easy to operate and the touchscreen is nice and responsive. Once you've loaded up your course and linked up with a satellite (this can take a little while, so have patience) you're ready to start your round, and that's where the Garmin S6 really comes into its own.
For the average duffer, its actually the simplest functionality that makes this a great and useful gadget: CourseView mode. The combination of GPS chip and course maps means the device will tell you exact yardages out of the course, whether it's the distance to the green after a good drive, or various layup distances (150m, 200m, 250m etc) if you're playing cautiously - I found the latter very helpful when playing the excellent but testing Trent Park, which features lots of water hazards and some mean bunker placements.
The screen itself isn't quite as vibrant as some of Garmin's press shots make out, but it is glove-friendly and performs just fine in the sunlight (when we actually have some). I also can't stress how useful having exact distances right on your wrist is - the simple task of choosing the right club for your shot may sound easy, but it's something us golf idiots get wrong all the time. You can also tweak the placement of the pin in line with what the greenskeeper has decided on the day, if you're feeling especially jammy.
Once you've used the S6 for a round or two, there's even more cool features to access. Provided you have a Garmin Connect account and have synced up the watch, it'll start zooming in on the area where you're likely to hit the ball, based on your previous tee shots (so zooming to 250 yards away if your average drive is 250 yards; the S6 keeps track of all your shot measurements). There's also score tracking - you just tap the '+' button on the screen to add a shot - a 'PinPointer' feature that tells you the direction of the pin if you're shooting a blind shot (like on a hard dogleg), and data analysis similar to the Zepp Sensor.
The latter feature actually comes in two forms: 'SwingStrength' and 'TempoTraining', which unsurprisingly, measure your swing strength and tempo so you can (hopefully) make adjustments if you're doing something wrong. You can also pair it with your smartphone and receive basic email and text notifications, like 'meet me at the clubhouse'. Battery life proved ample, with a full charge comfortably surviving a lazy 18 hole round - I can rarely suffer consecutive rounds, but it looked up for another 18 the following day.
My experience with the Garmin Approach S6 wasn't perfect, though. It was occasionally a bit glitchy and failed to pick up when we'd moved on to a new hole. (I'm sure that there's an easy way to manually adjust this, but I didn't fancy diving into the instruction manual mid-way through a round). And despite the raft of useful functionality, there are limitations with such a small screen (a problem for all smartwatches, really) - if you want a richer visual experience and have a similar amount of cash going spare, then it's the Garmin Approach G8 you might want to look at instead.
Having said that, the Garmin Approach S6 is an excellent device that can help all types of golfers. I'm obviously writing from the position of a hacker, but there's plenty for more advanced players here as well. Though not cheap, it's a worthy investment that will help you improve your game even if you only use some of its functionality. Garmin also offers other, more affordable smartwatch options but based on my experience, I'd say saving up for the top-of-the-line S6 is the way to go.
I'll shortly be playing with a comparable product from rival TomTom, and will let you know how it matches up when I do. In the meantime, share you thoughts about golf and tech in the comments below!
Header image by JD Hancock