Time for Richard Cree to swing into action as he investigates the boom in virtual golf
I'm on the tee at the 18th hole of the Old Course at St Andrews. With a brief pause to consider my grip, I assume the position and swing. The ball hasn't gone far before its skews wildly and ends up in the car park. Bugger. Still, the expensive motors will be unharmed and even the dent to my pride is limited because there are no witnesses. Welcome to the world of virtual golf.
Thanks to a huge improvement in simulator technology, there are now more ways to learn and play golf than hacking pieces out of a course or the dull drudgery of the driving range. Furthermore, it's now much easier to include a round with mates as part of a long lunch or a night out.
"Golf can be very time consuming," says Richard Morris, an ex-pro golfer who once beat Ernie Els in a junior tournament. He's a director of Metrogolf in London and, for a painful 90 minutes, is also the poor sod trying to teach me the arcane arts of golf.
With a full round easily taking up a day, the ability to practice at lunchtime or after work is proving popular. Hence the boom in urban golf simulators that bring courses to the people. Suddenly practising your swing at lunchtime or a quick round after work is feasible.
"The idea is that people can come here and book a booth for an hour or even half an hour, practice their swing or play a few holes. It's more entertaining than an hour on a driving range," says Morris, who should know, because he used to work at one.
As to how realistic virtual golf is, Morris admits that while nothing compares to getting out on a course, as a practical alternative the simulators do a good job. Many, including Metrogolf and private members' club City Golf also offer the chance to film your swing and compare it alongside that of your golf hero.
About a week later, I'm back at St Andrews. But this time I'm actually at City Golf, in the heart of the City of London. The idea is to "play the back nine" of the Old Course, but it becomes quickly apparent with my lack of skill that is not going to be easy.
My fellow golfers—yes there are witnesses this time—say the simulator does a good job on the big shots, such as the drives. But the close-range shots (such as putting) are harder to judge. To give a sense of perspective, the simulator indicates the lie of the green, showing when you're putting with or against a slope, something that real golfers have to work out themselves. "I'm much better playing in here than I am out on a real course," says Toby Hellis, director of City Golf. "But it's still a great way to improve your skills and it's lots of fun, too."
For the total beginner, the advantage is that no-one is held up by my slow, hacking progress towards the green and it gives me a feel for the game. And the better players enjoy a decent round.
All of us agree that the real treat is, thanks to waitress service, we are always stationed at the 19th.