Jim Neveau, TGW Columnist
While most of the nation is currently experiencing a tremendous warm-up in temperatures in the run up to the spring season, there is still an appetite for more ideal conditions than a golf course can deliver. There is still a decent amount of chill in the air on most mornings, and people may not have the time to get in a full 18 holes just yet. Between that group, as well as the group not willing to start spending vacation days to play hooky just yet, there is an interesting alternative that has taken root in several places around the country: full-on golf simulators.
Now, simulators themselves have been around for quite a while, but in recent years, places that offered the technology to play a round of golf completely indoors have started to step up their game in terms of the amenities offered to their customers. Whether it be food and drink specials like you could find at Dave and Busters, or wait-staff ready to bring you ice cold beer in your assigned space for your round, the convenience level has truly gone off the charts at these establishments, and it’s no surprise that the appetite for the game has brought people in droves to these facilities, especially during the cold winter months.
One of the more interesting places in the Chicagoland area for this type of experience is the Indoor Golf Links in Orland Park, Illinois. There, they have 16 stalls that afford a variety of golf courses to choose from. Whether you want to go play a classic like the Old Course at St. Andrews, an American icon like Pebble Beach, or newer courses like the Kapalua Plantation Course, there is a variety of places to choose from, and all it takes is a simple mouse click to transport you to those places.
Obviously, people going to one of these places will have some questions that they will want answered before they begin their rounds. How affordable is it? How realistic is the game play? Is the surrounding atmosphere too distracting? Is it possible to lose a golf ball even in an indoor facility?
Working in the type of order that anarchists would be sure to love, we will start with that last question, which shouldn’t be dusted off so quickly. Granted, it isn’t easy to lose a golf ball when all you’re doing is hitting at a screen and have two noise-drowning walls surrounding you, but it is possible, as I quickly learned during the practice session before my round. Hitting one of my patented high shots with my sand wedge, I was flummoxed when my Titleist somehow managed to get stuck above the screen. Despite my best efforts, and the helpful efforts of the staff, the ball was lost to the ages. Not wanting to cause a scene over a ball I had picked up on the cheap at the Tinley Park Golf Expo a few weeks prior, I carried on.
The atmosphere was also an interesting one to play the game. Obviously when you are on a course, you are pretty much in open space at all times (except for those of us with a penchant for marauding through the forest searching for our errant shots), but in this arena, you are in pretty close proximity to the surrounding walls. This is obviously done so that you discourage people from standing next to each other while violently swinging potential tools of destruction, but it is also done to keep the ball from careening around like a hyper dog’s attention span. This may not be bothersome at first, but after a few shots, you start to feel slightly claustrophobic, and it takes a little bit of getting used to before you are capable of doing your best Bubba Watson impression and just let it fly.
Besides the confined space, there is also the matter of the music. As most places with food and alcoholic beverages tend to do, music is played over the speakers, and while most of the tunes that were played on this particular day in Orland were of the “Beatles and other non-offensive” variety, there were some tremendous duds. Hearing LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” isn’t what I would consider to be very conducive to hitting a tough shot over the road hole bunker at St. Andrews, but that is exactly the predicament I found myself in during this round (a more detailed version of this event will come later).
Obviously, during a round that was played mostly for kicks and giggles, these minor distractions were no big deal. Yeah, there was the competitive nature that any golf outing will foster, but it was tempered with the feeling infused in us by the laid-back atmosphere at the facility. This is neither a good thing or a bad thing; it just is.
The affordability is decent, especially when you consider how much it would cost to play a round of golf in real life. Granted, things are cheaper right now because it’s the slow season at most golf courses in the US, but when you compare it to summer rates, and consider the amount of time that you are saving by not having to walk between shots or deal with arrogant jerks with nothing better to do than fish for drowned Srixon’s while you wait for your turn to play, it is worth the investment. As a word of warning about Orland specifically, however, go during the week. It’s not as busy and the early bird rate of $24 per hour is pretty solid.
Finally, we come to the biggest question of all: how accurately does this simulator portray a round of golf? Well, for starters, drives are pretty accurate. As a general rule, I either pull the ball hideously or slice it when I mishit it, and the array of sensors and gadgets designed to gauge both the off-center nature of my shots, as well as the power behind them, were top-notch. My failures on a real golf course were my failures in the electronic arena, and the opposite held true as well.
Iron shots were also surprisingly accurate. When you consider that pretty much no one can really hit a golf ball off the mats laid down at most cheap driving ranges across the nation, the reaction of the ball after being hit off the turf at this facility was pretty good. Even shots out of the rough were pretty realistic, with the simulator seemingly downgrading the distance you were able to hit the ball if you were in the thick stuff.
Wedge play was where things started getting dicey. I’m not the world’s most powerful hitter, so even I was surprised when I was able to fly a sand wedge 110 yards. The mulligan button (a nice tool if you are playing for fun and don’t mind offending the sensibilities of the stuffy types at the USGA and R&A) came in handy on several occasions when the wedges were pulled from the bag, and that is something that should be addressed if improvements are to be made in the simulated experience.
On the subject of wedges, there is the subject of bunkers, or rather the complete failure to accurately depict what hitting out of a bunker is like. As the entire civilized golfing community knows, Tiger Woods managed to avoid every single bunker at St. Andrews in route to a huge victory there in 2000, but as the average duffer, I couldn’t have hoped to have been so lucky. I hit into several traps, including the iconic Road Hole bunker on 17, but I was saved by the fact that the software seemed patently unable to accurately tell where in a bunker a ball was placed.
As an example, in that bunker on 17, I was literally an inch or so from the face of it. Now, anyone who has seen this bunker knows darn well that you pretty much have to pitch out sideways in order to survive, but thanks to a glitch in the technology, I was able to hit a standard chip shot with my sand wedge to within mere feet of the hole. My scorecard thanked the computer for this egregious offense, but my pride as a golfer was the even bigger beneficiary.
Finally, there is the matter of putting. Now, one cannot reasonably expect that a simulator would be able to accurately depict the various turns and slopes that a putt has to deal with on a real green, but the simplicity of the set-up was almost mind-boggling. You simply hit the putt over two sensor bars at an arrow on the screen, and the speed of the putt, along with the measure by which you missed said arrow, would tell you whether or not you had made the putt. This proved to be troublesome at times, however, as the sensors would occasionally not read the ball and would in fact suggest that you had somehow descended into a level of drunken stupidity and putted your ball in the completely wrong direction. Obviously, this silliness was easily corrected by a quick trip to the mulligan button, but the irritation that it caused was fairly acute.
A possible solution to this issue was proposed by my playing partner for the day, a former PGA professional with a penchant for pairing primate names with terms relating to excrement. He suggested having a series of holes in front of the putting surface, and having the computer say that you needed to hit the ball in said hole for the putt to count. Granted, this wouldn’t take into account matters of break unless you installed costly hardware to move the surface around as necessary, but it still would be a lot more realistic (and more pleasing to the eye) than putting at an arrow on a screen.
Overall, my impression of the place was positive. The atmosphere was casual and fun, the course selection was very respectable, and the simulator itself was largely good. Aside from issues with the wedge game and putting, it pretty accurately portrayed the distances that a player would normally hit their clubs, so it could very well be an intriguing training tool, as the facility employing a PGA professional would suggest. The value was unquestionably good, and it is worth giving a shot if you are willing to set aside any unrealistic expectations of realism that you may have.
Golf is supposed to just be a fun game anyway though, right?