For most players golf is a 24/7 obsession and the technique of your next golf shot is never normally far from any amateur hacker’s mind. However, that’s very much at odds with the way we use golf watches, which tend to be strapped on just before a round and then removed immediately afterwards.
There have been exceptions. The Garmin Vivoactive did a pretty good golf watch impression, but the features appeared amongst a host of other sports, and did little more than basic range finding. If you want a full list of features – including shot detection and hazards – it was back to a specialist golf watch.
Essential reading: Garmin Vivosmart HR review
The Garmin Approach S20 aims to be the golf watch for every day. Packed full of golf gubbins with a few smartwatch skills thrown in, the idea is that keen golfers can wear their golf watch when they’re not out on the course. But is it any good? Wareable hit the golf course to find out.
Garmin Approach S20: Design
While golfers perhaps aren’t known for their sense of style per se, we were expecting the Approach S20 to be a little more ‘executive’ when it came to design and build.
The Approach S20 is built entirely from plastic, and is available in black, white and midnight blue. The plastic watch is matched by a rubber strap, the design of which comes from the company’s line-up of running watches. It’s not ugly, but it’s not much of a looker, and while it looks fine out on the golf course, it hardly stands up visually as a golfer’s every day timepiece.
The upshot of the plastic construction is that it’s exceedingly light and comfortable to wear. The strap design means it’s easy to get the perfect fit, which is essential for a long day on the golf course.
The screen is a pretty dull monochrome affair, similar to any of the existing Forerunners. The 128 x 128 panel just displays texts and super-basic graphics, but it’s legible in bright sunshine, easy to read and does its job solidly.
There are four buttons for accessing menus, and the operating system on the whole is very easy to use, even when using some of the more obscure features.
Overall, it’s pretty much like every other golf watch out there. A metal construction would have convinced us to wear it away from the golf course, but the Approach is hardly offensive.
Garmin Approach S20: Golf tracking
When it comes to golf features, most of what you need is about distance. When you hit the course, the Approach S20 acts like any normal GPS golf watch. You start the round and it searches for nearby golf courses. Choose the one you’re stood on and start the round.
When you’re on the first tee you’ll see three distances displayed on the screen: the front, middle and back of the green will be shown off, and you’ll also see a map of the green ahead, so you can see what you’re dealing with if the dancefloor is out of sight.
So far so simple, but strangely we did have some issues with the distances. On our final test round each shot was coming up around 10 – 15 yards shorter than our playing partner’s Approach S4. And sure enough, we were looking at pitching wedge numbers on the watch that were simply much further in real life. We didn’t have a problem on any other round, but on our final testing round, accuracy was an issue, and there’s no easy way to explain it.
You don’t just get pin distances. Tap on the menu button in the top right and you can get a host of distance information for essential information on lay-ups for dog-legs and hazards. This is fairly standard feature fayre for golf watches these days, and an essential for any golf watch worth its salt.
A nice addition to the Approach S20 is the scoring system that’s built into the watch, and this is one feature that really stood out for its simplicity and ease of use. When you walk off the green to head to the next tee the watch will prompt you to enter the number of shots for the previous hole. Just enter it by using the up and down button to enter the score and press OK to see the yardages for the next hole. It’s hardly a replacement for a decent golf app like Hole19, but for those still scoring on a scrap of card, it’s a handy insurance in case you lose it.
The data is then imported into the Garmin Connect app along with data on your shots, automatically collected from the watch. This is Garmin’s new AutoShot feature, which claims to offer a record of every shot you’ve taken on the course.
This sounds like a golfer’s dream – we’re all data nerds at heart – but in effect, it works so poorly it’s barely worth bothering with. Out of 18 holes, it recorded perhaps three properly, and maybe ten partially, with no data for the rest. It’s perhaps not surprising, but no less disappointing.
Another disappointing feature is Garmin Connect for golf. The web app features some useful feedback on rounds, and you can review your performances. It’s hardly slick, and but the real disappointment is the lack of room for golf in the mobile app. There’s so many better free apps out there for analysis, we’d rather just use the S20 as a golf watch, and forget the rest of the ecosystem.
Essentially, the Approach S20 a complete range of golfing features, delivered – on the whole – in an easy to manage way. However, with the AutoShot feature not ready for prime time, it feels there’s little here for golfers we haven’t seen before.
Garmin Approach S20: Smartwatch stuff
Of course, a big part of the Approach S20 is its usefulness when you’re not playing golf. And it attempts this via fitness tracking and smartphone notifications.
The Approach S20 uses the same move bar style feature as the Forerunner family, which builds up via inactivity and gets cleared by moving around. What’s more, it records steps and distances from your rounds, as well as general activity, which it displays at the bottom of the watch face.
Once you’ve paired with your smartphone you can also get notifications from your phone delivered on the watch. This basically takes any push notification and displays it on the watch face, enabling you to read messages and texts, as well as third party social networks, in full on the wrist. This actually makes a lot of sense on the course, as well as in every day life, so you can keep your phone in your golf bag and not miss anything important.
Both the notifications and the activity tracking do what they say on the tin. The activity tracking is no-where near as useful or complete as one of Garmin’s dedicated bands – like the Vivosmart HR or Forerunner 235 – or something like the Fitbit Alta. However, they add an extra dimension to the golf watch experience, and make it more useful to golfers than one of its bog-standard predecessors.
Garmin Approach S20: Battery and price
Battery life is another impressive aspect of the Garmin Approach S20. You can get around two decent rounds from the battery before it needs a charge, but around a month of normal every day watch use, which is mightily impressive.
And the price is fairly impressive to boot, and shows that Garmin is recalibrating its entire golfing range. At $199 the Approach S20 costs significantly less than previous generations including the Approach S6, which retails at $100 more.
Yes, there are high-end features missing – you can’t see the layout of an entire hole, there’s no colour screen and the swing tracking stuff doesn’t make the cut – but those are features most golfers would live without for a significant saving.