Embracing Indoor Golf

March 16, 2010

For several years, my friends and I have played golf on New Year's Day -- our way of officially closing the books on the old golf season and opening the books on the new. We drive south until we find grass -- usually in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, which owns a dozen courses and closes them only when they're covered with snow. This year, a blizzard had buried the Eastern seaboard as far south as North Carolina, and for a while we thought we might actually have to head north, toward Buffalo, a city not usually thought of as a winter golf destination. But at the last minute Hacker (real name) found a place to play just a couple of towns away, on a golf simulator at a restaurant called Maggie McFly's.

Simulator technology has improved tremendously since the last time I played indoors, in the early 1990s. As always, you hit shots into a picture on a screen, and a computer takes over from there. What has changed is the sophistication of the imagery and the accuracy with which various sensors pick up a ball's velocity, trajectory and spin. The machine we played on New Year's Day was manufactured by a company called aboutGolf and is endorsed by the PGA Tour. We played the front nine of Spyglass Hill and the back nine of the Old Course at St. Andrews, and when Gene P. hit a shank, his ball squirted into the trees so realistically that we all laughed, just as we would have at home. In case you're suddenly wondering, aboutGolf's website says that a home setup costs "less than the average swimming pool" -- about 50 grand.

The putting took some getting used to. To read the breaks, you have to analyze the movements of dozens of virtual marbles rolling around on a projected grid that looks like a college-textbook illustration of the curvature of space-time. But the room we played in had a flat-screen TV and a big couch, and a waitress brought us beers and bacon cheeseburgers, and there were four guys in the room next to ours who looked almost exactly like us. In the end, we decided that playing at Maggie McFly's wasn't as good as playing real golf but was way better than bowling.