Golf Scoring Applications for IPhone

Airfare from Portland, Oregon to Monterey, California: $280. Seven nights in The Lodge at Pebble Beach: $6,475. Seven rounds of golf at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and The Links at Spanish Bay: $2,665. Two dozen golf balls: $80. Playing golf at the west coast's finest courses on a Macworld expense account, in order to review all of the iPhone golf-related applications: priceless.

That, at least, was how the scenario played out in my head when I suggested to my boss that I review every golf-related application available for the iPhone. As of today, that's seven different applications (nowhere near the 18 versions of Sudoku that Dan Frakes recently worked his way through). All of these programs are related to helping you track a round of golf; one even provides distance information for tracking shots during your round of golf. Given that most of these apps aren't free, and some cost $20 a pop, we thought it would be useful to take a look at all seven programs, and then look at the best of the bunch in more detail.

The reality of such a project, of course, was much different than my dream scenario outlined above--much like certain credit card commercials that may have served as my inspiration. In those commercials, you never see the reality of the credit card customers fainting when they open their huge bills at the end of the month. In my reality, I did most of my testing of the iPhone's golf scoring applications while seated in my home or walking around the neighborhood (to simulate usage while playing). I did, however, take the top pick out for a round of golf at a local course, to see how it (and the iPhone's battery) would hold up to the rigors of real-world use.

Desired features

While golf is a relatively straightforward game--place club behind ball, swing club, say bad words, repeat--keeping score can actually be somewhat complex. For each player, you may want to track strokes and putts per hole, indicate whether their drive hit the fairway or not, track any penalty strokes for balls hit out of bounds or into the water, and keep track of any wagers between the group members. It would also be nice to store notes for each hole on a course--tips on which clubs to hit, which side of the fairway to target, etc. Ideally, all of this information should be tracked (and presented with statistics) over time, so you can gauge your progress. In addition, a golf scoring program should be able to save a collection of courses (using manually-entered or downloaded course data) you typically play on, along with names and handicap information for the players you usually play with.

None of the available programs do all of these things--in fact, none of them can track wagers at all. Of the remaining criteria, each program handles at least some number of them, with varying degrees of success. Overall, though, none of the seven programs available scores an ace in the field of golf scoring on the iPhone--they all have shortcomings for someone who's serious enough about golf to be in the market for something to replace their old-fashioned scorecard. With that said, two programs stood out from the rest--one because it takes a different approach to golf scoring, and one because it's just better than the rest. Before we get to the winners, though, let's look at the other players.

The contenders

Here's a brief overview of each of the five golf scoring programs available today that didn't make the cut for a full review.

Birdie ($19)

At first glance, Birdie looks like a very good entry into this field. However, after using it for a few hours, I found myself frustrated with certain features of the program. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Birdie is the score entry technique. Birdie uses a slider that must be moved left (reduce) or right (increase) for each stroke on a hole. So if you've got four players in your group, and you all take a seven on your club's tough par five, you'll be sliding your finger to the right a total of 28 times, just for one hole! While the slider looks nice on the screen, a set of simple plus and minus buttons would be much faster and less stressful on your index finger.

Birdie does have some unique features in this group--it's the only program that includes a timer for use when hunting lost balls, and it includes your score in gross, net, and Stableford formats. You can also send your final scorecard out by e-mail, which is very useful

With just a few tweaks, I think Birdie could be a strong competitor in this group, but as it stands now, other programs are easier and faster to use.

Golf-Ace ($20)

The score entry method used in Golf-Ace is very well done--it's super fast to use, and incredibly intuitive. However, the program lacks much in the way of statistics, and I experienced some bugs and crashes during my testing.

The developer has an update that's already been submitted to Apple (on July 6th) for approval. Based on the release notes for the update, many of the bugs I encountered will be addressed once the update is released. Unfortunately, it's not clear at this point when the update will be made available by Apple. Once it is, and assuming the update addresses the noted issues, Golf-Ace will become a strong competitor in this niche.

Golf Memoir ($5)

While Golf Memoir somewhat works as a replacement for the basic pencil and scorecard, the reality is that it's much easier to use the scorecard than it is to use this program. The main screen looks promising, with a spot to enter a course name, and an Invite Friends section listing people (seemingly in random order) from your contacts database. However, inviting people to join your round of golf doesn't seem to do anything at all--there's no change in the scoring screens, nor are you given the chance to call the people you've invited to ask them to play. I'm not sure I understand the point of this particular feature.

To me, this program really doesn't feel like it was ready for general release--the company's website consists of a half-dozen sentences and a broken image link, there are features (such as the Invite Friends bit) that don't seem to work at all, and features that should be in even the most basic of golf scoring programs (such as savable course information) are missing.

Golf Tracker ($5)

Golf Tracker is another program that has an unfinished feel to it. The main screen has but one button--New Round--that takes you to a data entry screen for your new round of golf. In the Course section, you can enter a new course by hand, but you can't download course information from the net. Creating courses is time consuming, and they're not editable nor deletable when done--once entered, the course remain forever, complete with any typos you made.

Entering your score on a hole is relatively fast, though somewhat annoying--you tap a small box next to your name, which then brings up a full-screen overlay with buttons labeled from 1 to 10; tap a button to enter that score, and the full-screen overlay disappears. It's quick enough, but it seems like overkill to bring in a full-screen overlay to enter a single number--a row of buttons would accomplish the same result without the visual interruption.

Golf Tracker is light on features, though it works reasonably well (once you've manually entered your courses) for tracking scores.

Hey, What's the Golf Score? ($10)

This program, like a couple of the others, feels unfinished in many ways. Entering course data, for instance, is quite frustrating. After entering the basic course information, you then have to tap on a hole number to enter the par and yardage for that hole. However, you can't just enter those values on the first screen you reach--you must first tap an arrow next to Par, then use a scroller to select that hole's par value (which goes from par 1 to par 9, so you could, I guess, enter putt-putt courses). You then tap Select, tap an arrow next to Yards, and then enter the yardage using three different sliders--one for each digit! Click Select when done, then repeat the entire process for the next hole.

When you're scoring a round, the process is similar--tap an arrow next to a player's name, use a scroller to select the score (which maxes at 9), then tap Select to go back to the previous screen and repeat for the next player. Between the data entry difficulties and the missing features, I can't recommend Hey, What's the Golf Score in its current form; there are better alternatives available.

Golf scoring done differently

iYardage (Free)

iYardage is a somewhat unique app in this collection, in that keeping score isn't really its main purpose. Instead, its designed to help you track your progress during a round, including yardage information for each shot. It doesn't do this with any sort of advanced GPS or cell phone tower triangulation. Instead, it uses course maps that have been drawn to scale, and you then literally drag your shot (on the map) from its starting point to where it wound up. At that point, you can see exactly how far your tee shot went, and how many yards are left to the pin. (Pin and tee positions can be set by simply dragging the marker to the right spot on the map.) The program records each shot location, so you can review your round in the future.

Flip your iPhone sideways, and you've got a scorecard, complete with a putt counter, along with indicators for a fairway hit, green in regulation, and up-and-down. You see nine holes at a time on the scorecard, but unfortunately, there's no total for the round--you'll have to add the two halves together yourself.

Because of the need for these customized maps, there are only a handful of courses presently available. This is, by far, the biggest drawback to the program. Unless you're playing Poipu Bay (Hawaii), or Pebble Beach, Poplar Creek, or Metro Golf Links (all in California), you won't be able to use iYardage. The developers, though, have posted instructions on how to use a Windows PC (or virtual Windows on an Intel Mac) and a free NASA program to submit and upload your own courses.

This map creation process isn't trivial, but the selection of available courses should be growing in the future. I plan on working through the task for one of our local courses, and then trying iYardage out on the course to see how well it really works--potentially, it could replace an expensive GPS-based range finding machine. Note that iYardage can only track one player's round.

The best of the bunch

TeeShot ($20)

At $20, TeeShot is tied with Golf-Ace as the most expensive program of the bunch. In this case, though, you really do get what you pay for, because it's also the best of the bunch.

Course data can be entered in any of four ways: there's a live search feature to find and download courses from the web, you can enter hole information as you play, you can use the very good built-in course editor (and then upload your finished course to the web), or you can use the free CourseBuilder on the Mac to enter data for a number of courses at once, which you then upload to the web and download to TeeShot on your phone. CourseBuilder is really easy to use, and makes creating entries for all your local courses about as simple as possible. Because users everywhere are creating and uploading courses, the population of available courses is large and growing daily.

When you choose to download a course from the web, Safari launches and displays TeeShot's course download page. Specify your search fields, tap Search, then click on the course in the results list that you'd like to download. Tap a couple more buttons, and you're back in TeeShot, with the new course downloaded and ready for use. Unfortunately, you can only download one course at a time, so you'll repeat this process when downloading multiple courses.

TeeShot is a one-player application--so much so that you can't even enter your name or handicap. You just start a round, and then start recording your scores. TeeShot can track strokes and putts (with simple plus/minus buttons), fairways hit (and missed left or right), and penalty strokes. But if that's not enough detail, you can shot-by-shot detail--which includes club used, yardage covered, the result (fairway, green, in the hole, etc.), and if the shot incurred a penalty or not--for every single shot on each hole on the course.

Completed rounds can be reviewed at any time, including all of the hole-by-hole detail. There isn't, however, a traditional scorecard view showing pars, birdies, and bogies. (The summary screen for the round is close, but it's not as easy to read as a scorecard, and doesn't include totals.) Instead, a Round Details screen will tell you the total strokes, putts, fairways hit, penalty strokes, and greens in regulation, in addition to the duration of the round . You can see these stats as you play, too, including a timer that displays just how long the round is taking.

For the real statistics junkies, a Statistics screen displays a ton of cumulative results--rounds played, total strokes and putts, stroke averages per hole type, and the total number of birdies, pars, eagles, up through the infamous (and way too common on my cards) "triple bogey+." There's no per-course statistics, however, but even as it is, these statistics provide information you can use to help improve your game.

The biggest shortcoming of TeeShot is that it's a one-player application; the ability to track scores for a foursome would be a nice addition. I'd also like to see a notes field, both for holes on the course ("Stay left off the tee here") and for a given shot on a hole ("Pull hooked the drive; nice!").

Out on the course

I tested TeeShot with an 18 hole round at a nearby municipal course, Red Tail Golf Club. Nine over par for the first six holes isn't great, but hey, it's been about a year since I last played!

Data for the course was available for download from the web, so no data entry was required. I found the program easy to use while playing--even though I walked the course and carried my clubs on my back. I kept my iPhone--protected with a full-coverage leather case--in my back pocket. If you're going to walk and carry a phone, some sort of heavy-duty case is highly recommended. The iPhone is light enough that I didn't even notice its presence even while swinging the club.

At first, I had some troubles with double-counting strokes, but that was due to user error (when entering shot-by-shot information, those strokes are automatically added to your total, so you don't need to also enter them separately). After I figured that part out, the program worked flawlessly. Battery life wasn't a problem--at the end of the round (4.75 hours, according to TeeShot), I'd only lost maybe 1/10th of the battery indicator on my year-old iPhone. (I entered shot-by-shot information for most every hole, not just my score.) During the round, I was also checking e-mail occasionally, and I made and received a test call, just to see if that would mess up TeeShot (it didn't). I was impressed at how well the battery held up to regular (if brief) use over nearly five hours, especially given my phone is running on a year-old battery.

TeeShot came through my real-world test with flying colors. Compared to an old-fashioned scorecard, TeeShot was actually easier to use, and the program tracks a ton of interesting information about your round. Now, if I could just get out enough to use some of that data to improve my game!

Conclusion

Overall, if you're going to buy just one golf scoring application, TeeShot is the cream of the current crop. When compared to other programs in the App Store, $20 seems expensive. When compared with the cost of a round of golf, or even that of a dozen golf balls, it's really not much at all--especially for something that works this well. Over time, I think we'll see improvements in all the apps I've covered here, and I'm looking forward to "round two" of these programs to see what they have to offer.

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