`Virtual Golfers' Tee Off Indoors

Computers, videocameras allow those eager for spring to `play' courses around the world

WHILE the "great blizzard of '93" may have dampened hopes for an early glimpse of grass, snowbound golfers have an escape from the icy landscape. No, not a quick trip to Florida or the Southwest, but a drive to the nearest purveyor of "video," "virtual," or, simply, "indoor" golf.

There, with the aid of computers, videocameras, and big-screen images of some of the world's best-known courses, golfers can use their own clubs, real balls, and a bit of imagination to approximate an afternoon on the links.

This alternative to the real thing has been around since 1979, when Optronics Ltd., a Salt Lake City company, marketed its first "golf simulator." There has been a steady growth in the popularity of the "indoor" game, with sales doubling each year through the early '90s, says Optronics spokesmen Dave Dodds. Nearly 1,500 of his firm's Par T Golf simulators are in use today. Optronics now has competitors, but it remains the leading supplier of "virtual" golf equipment.

Many of the company's simulators are installed overseas in such diverse locations as Japan, Korea, and Finland. (Finland, in fact, has the heaviest concentration of these machines in the world, one for every 100,000 residents.) Resorts, restaurants, and even cruise ships are among the locales for indoor golf.

In the US, predictably, simulators are most numerous in the snow-prone zones. One such golfers' oasis is Players Billiards and Indoor Golf in Norwood, Mass., a southwestern suburb of Boston. Manager Bob Piso explains a few rules, types the names of two newcomers into the tee-side computer, and invites the players to choose men's, ladies', or professional tees.

That selection made, the twosome is ready for a simulated round at Quinta do Lago, Portugal. (This course, Mr. Piso says, is the straightest he offers and probably best for first-timers.)

Straightness of fairways aside, both golfers manage multi-bogeys on the first hole - just about what you'd expect for the first swings of the season. The Part T simulator tells you how you're doing on a large, red computer display near the tee. It notes the distance you've hit, how far off line you've gone, and proclaims you in the fairway, in a sand trap, in the rough, or on the green - sometimes to your amazement (an emotion common to "real" golf, too).

Average golfers may find that "virtual" drives fall a little short of their imagined powers. Yet Mr. Dodds says that the machines have been tested by golf professionals and shown to give accurate readings on distance, if they're well maintained. Ah well, humiliation is part of the game. Shanked shots, topped shots, "fat" shots - all add strokes to your score on the simulator, just as in actual golf.

There are shortcomings, however. Putting is a lot like pee-wee golf without the hazards; the computer assigns you a letter on the 350 square feet of rug between you and the screen, and you take aim at the cup from there. Because this simulated green is free of tricky "breaks" and the odd textures found in grass, most golfers tend to play as many as 10 strokes below their normal handicap, admits Dodds.

Another problem: Bad lies are nonexistent, since every shot is hit from the same green carpet ("sand" shots are played from a swath of white with a much spongier pile). Dodds says this drawback is being addressed: Future Par T products will have "cutouts" in the tee area to provide tougher lies when you land you in the rough.

More advanced machines may even be able to penalize you realistically for hitting a tree, he says - though that's a tough one for engineers. A golf ball into the limbs can end up almost anywhere. Currently, the simulator is very forgiving of a shot aimed right at a thicket in the center of the screen.

How good is all this for your game? Jim Howe, a golf professional who runs Swing Works in Irvine, Calif., has a simulator in his shop and sometimes uses it as an instructional tool.

"Particularly with beginners, it gives them a sense of playing, as well as a chance to learn some golf etiquette," he says. He has noticed, too, that golfers of medium skill seem less enthralled with the simulators, perhaps because the machines' readings poke holes in their (unrealistic) views of their own abilities.

While the simulator has been a good "selling tool" for him, it's a long way from the outdoor game, says Mr. Howe. "You don't see the true ball flight; it's not truly realistic."

You do see the fairways of some spectacular courses, however. And you even see the image of a ball bounding down the fairway after your shot strikes the screen. Optronics' offerings include California's Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, North Carolina's Pinehurst, plus 10 others. Courses are frequently added to the list. St. Andrew's in Scotland, for example, was recently put on film. A four-person crew spent 12 days at the Royal and Ancient Club taking 1,000 to 1,200 pictures - enough to give indoor golf enthusiasts a feel for the renowned course's windswept (minus the wind, of course) fairways.

Not all the courses are available everywhere, since simulator operators pay an extra $600 for each additional course, on top of the $27,500 that the basic unit costs.

The $12.50 an hour paid by patrons at Piso's establishment in Norwood is typical of "greens fees" for simulators. So if you have a full 18 holes in mind, slow play is out of the question. May that "virtual" golf necessity become a reality in the spring.

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