Golf by the numbers

To play 18 holes of golf takes only about 20 minutes -- on my home computer. And there is something about the briskness of this game (compared with a real round on the links) that makes me want to play another 18 holes right away.

My game of golf didn't come from a store in the form of a magnetic tape or disk, the way many games are retailed these days. Nor did I write the program myself. I took an easy way out: I copied a golf program from a book ("Basic Computer Games," edited by David H. Ahl and published at $7.50 by Creative Computing Press, Morristown, N.J.).

Copying computer programs from books and magazines is aparently legal, provided you don't try to sell them. Even so, it isn't always easy to get someone else's program to run on your own computer.Differences in software may produce strange results, even if you copy the program faithfully.

But this is where skill -- and some of the fun -- come in, if you have any aptitude as a programmer. For example, in the game program I copied, a typographic error in the book caused the computer to go round in a circle. When I discovered this, it just took a slight change, altering one instruction from "GOTO [line] 690" to "GOTO [line] 960," and I could make progress down the fairway.

There is other fun to be had, if you enjoy programming. Once you get someone else's program to work, you can begin refining it -- putting in special features that make the game even more fun, and (in the finer details at least) give it your personal touch. My own admittedly simple variation was to get the computer to chat with the golfer by name, and to say, "Nice going, [player's name]!" from time to time.

This particular golf game allows you set a handicap between zero and 30 strokes. It also asks what your particular weakness is: a slice, a hook, poor distance, trap shots, or putting. Whatever you admit at this point will come back to haunt you later. If you are a confessed poor putter, the computer will see to it that a least some of yor putts go past the hole or lie short. But the computer will make up for this hard treatment by letting you achieve good distance on the tee-off shot, and even give you a few breaks in the occasional sand trap.

And if you are poor at keeping track of your score under the pressure of the outdoor game, you need have no care indoors: The computer will keep track of par and give you a running total of your score as you progress through the game.

Even if you do not intend to spend hours playing computer golf, it is helpful to have such a game on hand when visitors ask about your hobby. A game that runs smoothly is bound to give a skeptical visitor a better impression than a computer that simply sits there while you brag about its wonderful potential.

Copying a program step by step is admittedly tedious. Written in BASIC language, the golf game has 260 lines to retype on your home computer. Other games with which youngsters may already be familiar include Tic-Tac-Toe, Checkers, and Hangman (only 81 lines to copy).

The games available in a book like this are played mostly through words and figures, rather than the showy graphics of "Star Wars"-type games. Golf, for example, involves some imagination -- some visualizing of a typical golf course. You could play it on a computer, with or without a TV-type screen, because the input and output is all verbal and numerical.

When the golf game begins, the computer sets the stage: "You are at the tee for hole No. 1 Distance is 385 yards.Par 4. What club do you choose?"

Clubs are selected by number. For driving, woods are numbered 1 through 4. The irons are 1 through 9, preceded by a 1, so they range from 11 to 19. If you want to use an iron with only a partial swing, you put a 2 in front of the basic iron number, and when the computer asks, you tell how big a swing (30 percent, or whatever). Finally, on the green and with the ball anywhere from 1 to 50 or so feet from the hole, you are asked how strong a putt you want to make.

When the ball goes in the hole, the computer proclaims, "You holed it!" and announces how many strokes you took. If your terminal is equipped with a bell, it may ring the bell as an extra celebration, and add congratulations if you made a birdie or an eagle (holed it in less than par).

As in the case of real golf, it is possible to improve your score by learning how far each club can move the ball. But the computer is also programmed to use random numbers in calculating your drives and putts, so every game is different, and sometimes you may not do as well as you think you should. And sometimes you will do surprisingly well, and brag about your score, just like a real golfer.

Furthermore, in your capacity as computer programmer, you can always change the figures in the program -- redesign the whole course if you like! What golfer could ask for a bette r break?

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.