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It's Not Golf, But It's Getting There - Plus Buyers Guide


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 CEO of aboutGolf, one of several companies which design and manufacture golf simulators. "They don't count these rounds, but they're wearing golf shoes, using their clubs and balls, having a satisfying experience playing against each other and by themselves."

Luke Donald is one of them.  "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 says. "You can work the ball left to right and right to left and it's very accurate."

That's a pretty good endorsement, and there are other signs of success: the sims are big in Korea and other parts of the Far East, for example. There is a residential market for those who, like Tour pro Mr. Donald, can afford the $50,000-60,000 price tag. But Mr. Bales and his fellow entrepreneurs also have their eye on driving ranges, golf shops, teaching pros, recreational centers, and the occasional bar and grill.

"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," says Mr. Bales.

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, the technology has improved vastly.

"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, whose company, EverGreens Golf, became an aboutGolf dealer after operating an indoor golf center. 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-def 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 centers that are springing up around the country. For some, golf leagues have taken the place of bowling leagues for an evening's recreation; there are couples' leagues, skins games, match play, all on simulations of great courses around 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 places they're planning to play.

"I can bring a client in and we can play in two hours," says 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."

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, with angles and velocities for every shot.

Retailers have found them useful for club-fitting. More than 85% of all clubs are purchased at off-site retail outlets, in a process Mr. Bales calls "FMWAI," pronounced fim-way. It stands for Five Minutes With An Idiot. An accurate simulator will provide the necessary data for an accurate fitting, even when operated by a temporary employee at a chain store.

There's also teaching. "We had one kid who didn't hit the ball high enough to get out of chutes and over trees," says Dave Hollinger, men's golf coach at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "He worked all winter on getting his ball flight right, and he reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship, and finished seventh at the Canadian Amateur."

Then there's self-instruction, perhaps the biggest market of all. Only 10% of golfers take lessons, and if most golfers practice at all they must work on their own.

What do simulators do best? On full shots, they deliver a good measure 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 towards 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. Some simulators deduct distance for a shot out of thick rough, but that does little to help you learn how to hit it. The same goes for hitting from the sand.

Mr. Bales acknowledges these shortcomings, while enthusing about "trajectory physics" and "aero coefficients." On the company's test range, he is seeking "sub-millimeter accuracy in pinpointing the position of a ball in space. When we have all that data, then we'll have the Holy Grail of simulator accuracy."

Sportswriter Jeff Neuman is co-author of "A Disorderly Compendium of Golf." John Paul Newport is off this week. Email: golfjournal@wsj.com.

Golf Simulators: Buyer’s Guide

Golf simulators have come a long way from the Dave & Buster days of golf simulation. New technology has driven the golf simulation to new incredible heights. The new realistic simulators are allowing golfers to practice and play golf indoors when the weather will not cooperate.

Golf simulators come in many forms and sizes. Models range from Wii Golf,which uses the Wii remote to replace the golf club and ball. On Wii Golf, the player swings their arm to control a simulated golf club on the screen. The flight of the ball is displayed on either the users computer or TV screen.

The most advanced golf simulators use computer vision-based camera systems that use high speed cameras to track both the club and the golf ball after the golfer hits a regular golf ball with their own clubs. Other types will use a laser tracking system to track the ball and club.

These systems generally use a projector to display the golf shot on a large screen displaying either a photorealistic or computer generated golf course image in front of the player. Golf simulators are installed in a wide rage of locations including private homes, business offices, golf retail stores and new type of business, indoor golf centers.

Indoor golf centers typically have two to 12 golf simulators installed and offer golfers a way to play golf when the weather makes playing outside impractical. Some simulator companies are including video capability and pressure plate technology for teaching purposes that indoor centers are offering.

Some lower cost golf simulators use sensors contained in a golf hitting mat to monitor the club and ball contact zone and calculate the resulting golf shot. One of the most critical features for people considering installing a golf simulator is ceiling height. To be able to safely swing a golf club indoors requires a ceiling height of at least 10 feet, otherwise there is a real risk that some tall players might hit the roof with their golf club.

At the PGA Merchandise show last week, displays from most of the major golf simulator manufacturers were on hand to introduce their new innovations.

 

1. aboutGolf Limited

aboutGolf uses its proprietary 3Trak ball tracking technology to track the ball and club. That 3D machine vision technology, known as 3Trak, was released in May 2008 and has since revolutionized the indoor golf experience.

about golf

3Trak begins gathering club data as the club approaches the ball, and begins gathering ball data at the moment of impact. High-speed, 3D cameras gather images of the ball and the club at up to 2300 frames per second.

” The 3D realism of aboutGolf is second to none,” said Theodore Stechschulte,  COO of aboutGolf. “We are dedicated to producing golf environments that feel, look and play like the real thing. We render all courses in full three dimensions using the latest in 3D graphics advancement. 3D environments, unlike photo-based systems, do not limit players to the areas of the course for which there are photographs. And aboutGolf 3D graphic environments allow the shot location to be a valid 3D position, resulting in a seamless play experience. “

The images provide direct measurements on extensive data related to the ball and club, providing useful information for instruction and improvement. The measurements are also used in conjunction with true-trajectory physics to accurately replicate the shot — regardless of its speed, direction or shape.

COST: aboutGolf simulators run from $39K to $90K, and 41 courses are available.

Advanced modules available – 1.) aG Flix video swing analysis, 2.) aG balance Pro force plate

 

2. Full Swing Golf

For more than 25 years, Full Swing Golf has dedicated itself to delivering the most innovative, high-quality, realistic and enjoyable golfing experience available on an indoor system. Some of the world’s most respected golf professionals also use Full Swing in their teaching and training regimens, such as Hank Haney, Ian Poulter, and Mark Wilson.

full swing golf

” Full Swing Golf has developed a new extension to its existing infrared tracking system,” according to Chad Coleman, Vice President of Sales for Full Swing Golf. “Utilizing a single high-speed camera to focus solely on ball spin and club head data, Full Swing Golf has truly mastered the art and science of ball flight. The ION camera captures detailed spin data using regular, unmarked balls including back spin, side spin, and spin axis. Displaying this information on-screen allows you to make better shot decisions. The ION  camera gives you club head speed, club face angle, and club path information with intuitive on-screen illustrations of your club,so you can improve your swing. “

COST: Full Swing simulators run from $45,000 to $65,000 and 80 courses available.

Advance models include – 1.) Swing Catalyst, which includes High Speed cameras and Balance plate technology,  2.) SwinGuru, which will record, replay and analyze your swing in 3D.

 

3. High Definition Golf

Interactive Sports Technologies™ out of Vaughan, Ontario, Canada is the manufacturer of High Definition Golf™ simulators set a new standard in accuracy and realism for indoor golf. The simulator utilizes advanced computer vision technology to provide the most comprehensive and precise shot analysis in the simulator industry.

High Definition Golf

It has the unique capability to measure all critical ball and club parameters including: ball speed, club speed, launch angle, club face angle, ball spin and spin axis at high accuracy. These factors have made High Definition Golf™ simulators the system of choice for PGA Tour pros such as Stephen Ames and top golf Instructors like Jim McLean.

” In addition to pioneering computer vision technology for ball and club tracking in the golf simulator, Interactive Sports Technologies also developed a new method of 3D modeling for their simulators,” said Todd Richardson, President and CEO of High Definition Golf. “This revolutionary process combines high resolution digital images, satellite data and geophysical data into 3D models of golf courses that not only look real–they are completely accurate everywhere on the course. Every tree, bunker and hazard is faithfully reproduced exactly as you would see it if you were playing the actual course. “

COST: High Definition Golf simulators run from $35,000 to $65,000 and 25 courses available.

Advanced models include – 1.) Video swing analysis, 2.) Weight transfer analysis, 3.) Jim McLean’s 8 step swing module

 

4. X Golf Simulators

XGOLF out of Los Angeles, California was founded in 2000, and since then over 3,000 systems have been sold worldwide, providing golf enthusiasts with a unique experience that emphasizes innovation coupled with honesty and integrity.

X Golf Simulators

Industry firsts such as the variable lie stance platform and the automatic ball teeing system have allowed XGOLF to pull away from the pack. These distinguishing features, along with 19 patents, present a very special value proposition to its customers.

” Our goal is close the gap between reality and virtuality and in doing so, we distinguish XGOLF from the other golf simulators,” according to Ryan D’Arcy of X Golf USA. “Our XPLATE (Variable Lie Platform) and XBALL (Intelligent Auto-teeing System) are two unique features that will bring your golf simulation experience to a new dimension. X Golf also has sensors that capture 1 million data points per second. Proprietary software makes 6,000 calculations per second to measure ball and club data.”

The hardware and software innovations such as dynamic weight balance, short-game playability (12″ putts for example), 3D Collision that provides real geometric reactions to when a ball makes contact with an object, are all examples of how XGOLF has listened and adapted to address the needs of the most discerning golfers from around the world.

COST: X Golf simulators run from $35,000 to $65,000 and close to 100 courses available.

Advanced models include – 1) X Plate, variable lie positioning, 2) X Ball, intelligent teeing system, 3) X Balance, weight transfer plate, 4) X Birdie, video analysis

 

5. GolfBlaster3D

The very latest in golf simulator technology, the GolfBlaster3D Golf System out of Tampa, Florida allows golfers to play on some of the most famous golf courses in the world and use their own standard golfing equipment.

GolfBlaster3D

The GolfBlaster3D software has been created using the very latest graphics engines to allow the display of natural elements such as trees and bushes the highest level of realism. Not only are they portrayed in the highest level of detail but also they demonstrate tremendous realism when reacting with the wind.

” The GolfBlaster3D is so advanced and accurate,” said Jan Burger, Owner of GolfBlaster3D. “The system deploys a unique dual sensor tracking method that gathers information from both the golf ball and the club head. Therefore it is capable of detecting every possible kind of shot played with the ultimate of accuracy. Hooks, slices, fades, draws, lobs, pitches, putts etc are all reproduced with fantastic realism. We cannot imagine any other system having the same amount of accuracy and realism. “

COST: GolfBlaster3D simulators run from $25,000 to $55,000 and 40 courses available.

 

6. TruGolf

TruGolf out of Centerville, Utah offers affordable golf simulators.

The Technique consists of 3 different models: Technique Personal, Technique Pro, and Technique Prestige. Each Technique consists of an easy to assemble aluminum frame with netting, our TruTrac Dual Tracking System with Integrated Swing Analyzer and are loaded with technology previously only available with very high-end systems.

Trugolf

Perfect for the golfer desiring a year round indoor golf experience with less cost, but designed with the teaching pro in mind. Portable, Affordable, and Feature Rich, the Technique is unmatched in Quality.

TruGolf also can integrate TrackMan or FlightScope with their premium systems for home and business models.

 “Built for lasting performance in a commercial environment and flexible in design to appeal to any aesthetic; our system is fully customizable, allowing you to create an environment the entire family can embrace,” said Dave Ashby,  executive vice president for TruGolf.

COST: TruGolf  simulators run from $7,995 to $55,000 and 83 courses available.

 

7. Foresight Sports

The company’s motto is ” Not just Simulation. Performance Simulation. ”

Foresight Sports

“The same innovative thinking that went into developing the GC2 Smart Camera System has gone into the simulation solutions that it powers,” said Rick Cuellar from Foresight Sports. “The result is Performance Simulation™ by Foresight Sports.  Built on a strong but lightweight modular aluminum frame and finished with impact-resistant nylon-based materials, our simulation solution delivers durable, long lasting performance that lets you get the most out of your GC2-powered simulation experience. And like the GC2, our Performance Simulation solutions give you everything you need at a fraction of the cost of comparative solutions. Our Performance Simulation solutions deliver unprecedented accuracy and performance-enhancing analysis that matters – including verifiably accurate back and side spin data that gives you a true-to-life depiction of each and every shot. Used by the biggest names in golf. Featured in the corporate and VIP fitting studios of Cobra/Puma, Cleveland Golf, Adams Golf and Fujikura, as well as the R&D labs of TaylorMade and PING, GC2-powered Performance Simulation solutions are used by the most trusted and respected brands in golf. “

Following on the revolutionary GC2 Smart Camera System, Foresight Sports out of San Diego, California introduces HMT – Head Measurement Technology – a ground-breaking innovation that combines with the GC2 to precisely capture club head data with an ease and accuracy never before seen.

With HMT, a complete picture of your swing analysis and club head performance is now at your fingertips. Instantly see critical data such as club head velocity, horizontal club path, smash factor and dynamic loft and lie – even impact location – with the same unmatched accuracy you’re used to in the GC2.

COST: Foresight Simulators run from $35,000 to $75,000 and 80 courses available.

 

8. Dancin’ Dogg Golf

OptiShot out of Traverse City, Michigan is an affordable, accurate and portable home golf simulator.

OptiShot

” Until now your only option to practice at home has been to hit into a net,” said Brandon Theophilus, President/CEO of Dancin’ Dogg. “If you’re practicing into a net, you’re missing out on observing your ball’s flight. This means you’re not getting the critical feedback needed to improve your swing. You’re left guessing as to what’s actually happening to your golf shots and will end up practicing the wrong thing over and over again. With OptiShot you can practice with accuracy – great for longer clubs, keep it on your target line, practice with precision – helps you get closer to flags, more birdie puts, see the pattern of your shots – dispersion feature and track progress through time – full session data display. Whether you’re on the driving range in Practice Mode or challenging yourself to a championship course in Play Mode, you will get realistic and accurate feedback. The combination of shot analysis and shot tracer technology puts the information right in front of you so you can make the adjustments necessary to routinely hit better shots with every club in your bag. “

Sixteen advanced optical sensors accurately measure your club through the impact zone capturing shot impact conditions and instantaneously transmitting them through the USB cable to the software.

COST: OptiShot models run from $399 to $4,000 and 21 course available.

 

9. Unex Golf

A new company to the portable simulator market has emerged.

Unex Golf

” Practice your golf swing, right from the comfort of your own home or office!” said Andi Upson from Unex Golf. “No need to run back and forth to the keyboard between shots — use the built-in buttons on the golf pad to control the game with your foot.You’ll get detailed visual feedback after each shot.You can practice with the weight and size of your real golf clubs. UNEX plug and play is easy to operate. Just launch the program and plug your USB cable into the computer and swing pad. UNEX may also be routed to your television or projector through HDMI.”

Accuracy – UNEX Anyshot Golf Video Software gives you precise measurements of your shot and difficulty levels can be adjusted for game purposes verses skill enhancement. Practice on different courses — a variety of course will give you the maximum skill-building benefits. Our virtual software is so advanced that with panoramic projectors (not included), the UNEX software can project on three screens and put you inside the panoramic golf gaming experience. Enjoy the detailed, realistic graphics on your desktop monitor or laptop screen.

It’s easy to adjust your settings using the UNEX Anyshot software for a totally customized golf game.

COST: Unex AnyShot goes for $399 and 14 courses are available.

Story written by Christian Alderucci