Driving into the future

Simulated golf is taking players into a course of their own


THE GAME OF golf has a lot to answer for — complex rules, white belts, high levels of frustration and profanity — but at least when you play, you’re out in the elements, interacting with the natural world.

Unless you’re not.

“The mainstream golf world doesn’t grasp the idea that there are a lot of rounds of golf being played indoors,” said Bill Bales, the founder and chief executive officer of aboutGolf, which designs and manufactures golf simulators endorsed by the PGA Tour and used on the U.S. Golf Channel’s instructional show “The Golf Fix.” “They don’t count these rounds, but [the golfers] are wearing shoes, using their clubs and balls, having a satisfying experience playing against each other and by themselves.

“I really think we can grow the game of golf beyond the circle of current golfers by creating this thing that is like the game outdoors, but you can do it at night, you can do it for an hour, you can do it without anyone behind you trying to hurry you along.”

Golf simulators have been around since the early 1970s. They were amusement-park novelties, tucked in the back of a retail shop or in a forgotten corner of a golf center. Today they’re serious pieces of equipment, with a $50,000-$60,000 ([euro ]39,000-[euro ]46,000) price tag and engineering worthy of a space shot. But are they golf?

“The hardest thing to do is to convince someone who played in a sim 15 years ago to come and check it out,” said Ken Reynolds, who was partner and chief operating officer of the EverGreens Indoor Golf Center near Lake George, N.Y. Those antediluvian machines featured grainy photos of a course projected onto a simple screen; you whacked a ball into the screen, a device measured the time it took for the ball to pass through two points, and after calculating and extrapolating, it told you your distance and transported you to your next location.

Today’s most advanced simulators put you in a true 3-D environment, as though you’ve been transported physically into an ultra-high-definition video game. Stereoscopic cameras are trained on the hitting zone, where they record club speed, ball speed, launch angle and all components of spin. The flight of the ball, projected into the virtual course in the time it takes the ball to hit the screen, replicates the shot that would result in the outside world with remarkable precision.

Full-swing simulators have to serve two distinctly different purposes: entertainment and performance. The entertainment side is on display at the indoor golf centers that are springing up. In the U.S., golf leagues have taken the place of bowling leagues for an evening’s recreation; there are couples leagues, skins games, match play, all taking place on simulations of great courses from all over the world. Brad Lefebvre, chief development officer for the Crosswoods Indoor Golf Centers in the Phoenix area, travels with a group of friends who use the simulators to familiarize themselves with the places they’re going to play.

“I can bring a client in, and we can play in two hours,” said Mr. Lefebvre. His leagues attract golfers looking to avoid the blistering summer heat and occasional winter rains — “it’s the first time in my business life I pray for bad weather” — and ladies’ nights draw a full house for a round of golf and wine tastings.

But it’s the performance side where things have changed the most. The old simulators were notorious for simplifying ball flight. The swing that gave you a big drive down the fairway indoors might produce a duck-hook on the course; the machines were useless for serious practice. Today, they provide all the feedback a golfer can handle, an abstract of angles and velocities for every shot.

Dave Hollinger, the head men’s golf coach at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is sold on the value of the simulator for his players. “We had one kid who didn’t hit the ball high enough to get out of chutes and over trees,” he said. “He worked all winter on getting his ball flight right, and this kid reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship, and finished seventh at the Canadian Amateur.”

Some Tour pros are taking notice. Luke Donald, currently 10th in the Official World Golf Rankings, put an aboutGolf simulator in his Chicago home a year ago. “I use it in the winter as a way to practice, simulate real golf, and play some golf courses that we play on tour,” he said in a phone interview. “The thing I like compared to other simulators is you can work the ball left to right and right to left and it’s very accurate. Others I’ve seen, to draw the ball you have to aim out far to the right to bring it in, but this one reflects how the ball really moves in flight.”

On full shots, the simulator delivers on its promises of realism and accuracy. But roughly half the shots in a round of golf are played from within 50 yards of the hole, and it’s here that the indoor game requires some large mental adjustments.

On touch shots like pitches and chips, golfers generally pick out a target visually and play the ball to that point. On a simulator, you have to play from information instead of what you see. If you’re 30 yards from the green, you have to develop the feeling of hitting the ball 30 yards; it becomes a question of muscle memory rather than hand-eye coordination and judgment. The putting elements have improved, but they call for a similar adjustment; you have to learn how softly to stroke an eight-foot putt toward a hole on a screen 25 feet away. The good thing is, we can all use more time practicing eight-foot putts, but it’s difficult to hold onto that feeling when you go back outside and face a whole different set of sensory inputs.

No simulator can prepare a player for the variety of lies and ground conditions he’ll find on the course. Every lie on an artificial mat is level; uphill, downhill, and sidehill lies require knowledge and practice you can’t get indoors. The simulator will deduct distance for a shot out of thick rough, but that does little to help you learn how to hit it. And there’s no way to simulate the techniques you need from sand.

A beginner trained solely on simulators will face some eye-opening challenges when he emerges from his bubble. But they’ve clearly advanced beyond the gimmick or toy stage, to become a valuable tool for golfers looking to improve — which is to say, all of us.