In 2006, golf’s rules makers allowed the use of distance measuring devices in competition golf when a Local Rule is in effect. The Local Rule must provide that “… a player may obtain distance information by using a device that measures distance only. If, during a stipulated round, a player uses a distance-measuring device that is designed to gauge or measure other conditions that might affect his play (e.g. gradient, wind speed, temperature, etc.), the player is in breach of Rule 14-3, for which the penalty is disqualification, regardless of whether any such additional function is actually used.”
At the time, a smartphone could be used to measure distance provided the only way to access the prohibited functions was to download them on the internet and this was not done.
Since then, there has been substantial growth in the golf GPS and rangefinder market. Smartphone GPS apps also proliferated to cater for the increasing demand. However, the use of these apps became illegal when the manufacturers built in compasses and spirit levels into their phones. These functions could not be deleted from the phone and did not require the user to download an app from the internet to access them.
From 1 January, 2014 the use of a compass is no longer prohibited and the regulations regarding the use of electronic devices have been amended.
The current position regarding the use of smartphones on the course is explained in a Q&A post on the R&A website. The relevant sections are:
Q. What about multi-functional devices, such as a mobile phone, with a distance-measuring application?
- On the course, subject to any club or course regulations, a multi-functional device may be used to phone, text, email or to look up general information, provided the purpose is not a breach of the Rules, e.g. you cannot make a phone call to ask for advice.
When an application that measures distance has been downloaded to the device, the application must be restricted to providing only distance information in order to conform to the Local Rule. If there are other features or applications on the phone that can specifically gauge or measure conditions that might affect the player’s play, such as an anemometer or thermometer, this would render the device non-conforming for use as a distance-measuring device, regardless of the fact that these other features or applications are used or not.
Q. If a player uses his smartphone to look up a weather forecast, is the player gauging the conditions?
No. Accessing weather reports provided by a weather station through an app or internet browser, is not considered to be actively measuring or gauging the conditions and is permissible.
Q. My smartphone has an inbuilt spirit level as part of the functionality of the phone but it is not part of the distance-measuring app. Can I use the phone as a distance-measuring device?
Yes, provided that you do not use the level in a manner that might assist you in your play.
Q. My smartphone has a compass feature. Can I use the phone as a distance-measuring device?
Yes. A compass only provides directional information and does not gauge or measure variable conditions or assist the player in his play.
The post on the R&A website also shows an amended flowchart on the use of distance measuring devices, including smartphones, to further assist players to determine whether a certain device is permissible for use. These can be viewed on randa.org under the ‘Rules News and Features’ section of the Rules tab.
Finally, remember that the use of a mobile phone for any reason on a golf course is subject to any course or club regulations.