2005: The world of virtual golf
By John Steinbreder
Count Todd Anderson among the soon-to-be-converted. That is, to golf course simulators. Like many who still are among the uninitiated, Anderson had never used a simulator until this year’s Masters. But that’s when the director of instruction at Sea Island (Ga.) Resorts “played” a few holes at IBM receptions during the tournament, and doled out swing tips as a featured speaker at the events.
As guests reveled in playing the 18th at Pebble Beach or firing at a flag in a closest-to-the-pin contest, Anderson quickly grasped all that the simulator had to offer: realistic course graphics, its merit as a teaching tool and its entertainment value. He was impressed, so much so that he’s considering purchasing one for Sea Island.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found it to be good fun,” Anderson says.
Growing awareness of simulators’ many uses and their ever-improving technology are leading to a steady sales climb for the machines, some of which cost more than $55,000 each.
Just how widespread are they becoming?
The Golf Galaxy retail chain now has 55 simulators in its 44 stores across the United States, using them for both customer entertainment and clubfitting.
Princeton University recently installed one so its golf teams could work on their games during the offseason.
Members at the Isleworth Country Club outside Orlando, Fla., have put one in their clubhouse so they – and their guests – can play simulated rounds in the Champions Grill (when they’re not playing the course best known as Tiger Woods’ home track).
And they’re becoming popular fixtures in the homes of the rich and famous. Donald Trump has a unit, and so, too, does New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. They’re popping up on cruise ships and in sports bars as well.
Further evidence of the burgeoning business comes from San Diego-based Full Swing Golf, widely regarded as the category leader.
“Our sales jumped 15 percent in 2004 as we placed more than 250 new units worldwide,” says Scott Werbelow, the company’s vice president. “And we are up 15 percent for the first quarter of 2005.”
(Though Full Swing is privately held and doesn’t disclose financial data, simple math gives a glimpse of the company’s sales activity: 250 units sold at $55,000 each generates revenues of nearly $14 million for 2004.)
Full Swing, however, has ample competition. The directory for the 2005 PGA Merchandise Show, the industry’s largest trade expo, lists 17 simulator companies. Full Swing’s rivals include Toledo, Ohio-based AboutGolf, a newer entrant and subsidiary of the Friendly Software Corp., a longtime producer of golf computer games; Golftek, which is headquartered in Lewiston, Idaho, and run by Bud Blankenship, who is credited with pioneering many of the innovations in swing analyzers and golf course simulators; and Dead Solid Simulations of Pittston, Pa.
Golf course simulators have been commercially available for nearly two decades, but it is their technological advancements that have given them traction in the market.
Basically, simulators are virtual-reality machines that employ computers, cameras, software and highly sophisticated sensors designed to provide an accurate description of what happens when a ball is struck. (See box.) Individual units generally measure 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, and often, exceed 10 feet in height. They resemble a typical driving range bay but with one big exception: Golf balls don’t litter grassy fields; rather their images are projected on screens.
Companies such as Full Swing not only can simulate practice facilities, but they virtually recreate more than 50 golf courses, giving golfers opportunities to play famous links without ever leaving their stalls. Many top courses are available, such as Harbour Town, Royal Melbourne in Australia and Pinehurst No. 2. To offer such exacting replicas, each layout is videorecorded from a helicopter, photographed from the ground at different angles, and then loaded into a simulator’s computer system. (Full Swing pays a licensing fee to the courses for the right to use their images.) Not available on the simulator rota: Some hallowed tracks, including Pine Valley and Augusta National, which have rejected such commercialization.
The simulators are programmed to provide immediate data on each ball that is struck, spewing information such as distance traveled, shot trajectory and remaining yardage to the hole. In addition, many simulators offer a variety of game formats, from scrambles to alternate shots. That versatility is appealing to retailers like Golf Galaxy, which often use virtual-reality golf tournaments to entice customers into their stores.
Different types of artificial turf are used to provide realistic lies, resembling play from fairways, short or long rough and even bunkers. Breaks and slopes of greens also are perceptible on the screen. And it is possible with most units to view upcoming shots from multiple angles.
The simulator’s ability to create these playing conditions – any time, anywhere – has piqued the attention of coaches nationwide.
“Simulators are a great maintenance tool that enable our players to stay limber, retain muscle memory and keep interested in the game when it is too cold to play outside,” says Will Green, head coach of the Princeton golf team. “We put ours in a little over two years ago, and at that time I knew of maybe five colleges that had them. Today, that number has quadrupled.”
Certainly, coaches aren’t the only ones taking note. With more sophisticated graphics on the way and more courses being added to the playing menu, simulator sales seem destined to continue growing across the board. Just ask the converted.
Greta Wagner, general manager for the Chelsea Piers golf complex in Manhattan, explored purchasing simulators in 1999, but wasn’t impressed. “But I noticed big improvements in the product when I went to the PGA Merchandise Show a couple years ago,” Wagner says.
Since then, Wagner has bought two.