Duffers get help in holing out

Do you ever suspect that while you're sitting in the outer office, waiting patiently to talk to that "busy" executive, he's inside practicing his putting? Lots of people find the sensation of swinging and swakking at that little white ball so pleasing they can't wait to get out on the course. So they don't wait. As a result, sales of golf practice aids are on the rise.

"When Don starts talking about his golf game, it's like watching him return to his childhood," says once woman about "her parttime insurance agent, full-time golfer" husband. "He's like the mail service; nothing can deter him from his golf game. And when it's net the season, out comes the plastic putting green."

When they can't get out on the course, many duffers reach for their indoor golfing setups.

These range from a simple paper cup lying on its side to Astroturfed greens with angled holes and simulated sand traps. Prices range from $9 to $900. The most expensive this reporter could find was an electronic device that measures just about everything the golfer does, including the speed and direction of a swing.

While sales figures for the golf practice industry were not available, almost all sporting goods stores and manufacturers contacted reported marked increases in their business in recent years.

Jack Culley, from Meridian, Idaho, has created and marketed a golfer's dream called the Putting Tutor. This device features "realistic grass and a patented device that actually changes the hole's angle." After all, he says, "practicing putting in the home or office is beneficial, but there is nothing like putting on the actual golf course."

Mr. Culley says that with limited advertising he has sold more than 3,500 devices since October. The great percentage of Putting Tutors have been sold to "professional people -- doctors, lawyers, and dentists who have extra funds to afford such gadgets."

The real advantage of these devices is the small amount of space they can be used in. Most fit in the average office or living room.

Golf practice centers are another means of simulating the golf course. Some have adjustable targets with nets to catch the balls, electronic devices to measure speed, direction, and distance, and Astroturf teeing and putting surfaces. Places like Golftown in Danvers, Mass., or the Beard Walter Golf Studios on Park Avenue in Manhattan allow the gold enthusiast who doesn't have time to spend playing 18 holes, or who lives near a city where land is too precious to allow a full course, to "golf" to his heart's content. And the practice almost always helps the game.

Harold McGrail, a golf pro, has his own indoor golf school in Boston. He says business has improved because of the exposure TV gives to gold. His indoor setup uses artificial turf with nets. "Nothing too fancy, just enough to teach the game well."

John Koslowski is president of Sports Management Services Inc., which manufactures and holds patents on several indoor golfing center arrangements. One patented device his company manufactures is set up in a large room -- about the size of two tennis courts. There is a target at the end of the room which can be adjusted and angled according to the golfer's proficiency.

In another arrangement, the golfer is led into a room with a movie screen at one end and a tee-off area at the other. The ball is hit into the screen and, depending on the force of the stroke, lands "so many frames away." The frames are then interpreted into yards so the golfer can tell the accuracy, direction, and strength of his stroke.

"Using our devices and similar setups," says Mr. Koslowski, an avid golfer himself, "has really tightened my game."

While Anne Braham, part owner of Al Liebers World of Golf in Manhattan, agrees that the devices definitely do help any faithful golfer, "Everyone who buys these would agree that there is no substitute for the golf course. But the aids are better than nothing."

Al Liebers World of Golf carries 20 golfing aids. Mrs. Braham says "sales are booming."

Practice devices do especially well in New York, she reports, where the nearest golf course is often miles away.

One useful device is the Swinger, a short, heavy club made by Kerdad Inc. The club has a force gauge which allows the user to measure the strength of his stroke (no ball needed). If the gauge knob clicks when the golfer swings, he has reached a certain strength and is ready to set the knob a little higher. The club doesn't get heavier, it just measures the force of the swing. This practice strengthens the golfer's stroke, allowing him to hit the imaginary ball farther.

Anne Braham urges caution for the avid practicer. "People tend to flail away , rather than hitting and relaxing like on a real golf course."

Some golfers prefer not to employ practice devices. "Nothing is any good without a ball and a place to use it," says Harold McGrail.

Gerald Privin, a weekend golfer in Albany, N.Y., says, "I wouldn't buy one if you paid me. I get plenty of practice every weekend out on the course. And if I feel the urge to practice, I go out in the backyard and putt into a cup, or swing into the fields."

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