A round of golf in the future may not even be held on a golf course. As land grows more and more valuable in many parts of the world, it seems inevitable that golf courses taking up 150 acres will become increasingly scarce. The majority of golf experiences in the future could well be digital, and recent technology and product breakthroughs are proving we're well on our way to that.
Welcome to the next generation of golf simulators, where losing a golf ball is impossible, you can't get sunburned or frostbit, and there's no fear of impending development on the fairways.
Golf simulators have been around a while. But until recently, their authenticity has declined the closer you get to the hole, where the real skill of golf truly begins. But even that appears to be changing rapidly.
Golf simulators are getting pretty darn real
Golf simulators, from companies such as Full Swing and aboutGolf, are providing more realistic graphics and sound than ever before, and you can assume the technology will just continue to improve, perhaps exponentially over the next decade. These machines, which easily cost $50,000 each or more for a setup, offer extras you can't get on a real golf course, like flyovers of your shot from different angles and, of course, real time information on your ball-striking statistics, like launch angle, ball speed, clubhead speed and spin rate (all used to calculate your shot).
Some simulator companies also provide options beyond golf. For example, HD Multi Sport Simulators out of Canada can be set to kick a soccer ball, a field goal through the uprights or shoot zombies.
And if you're thinking golf simulation could never be as popular as golf on real courses, think again. It already is in South Korea. The reason is obvious: There aren't that many real golf courses over there, they're located far from population centers, and they are too expensive for the average player. Yet golf is growing in South Korea, no doubt thanks to the proliferation of simulators.
South Koreans are able to do this because of companies like GolfZon (which reportedly owns 80 percent of the simulator market in South Korea). The company not only builds one of the best and most realistic simulators in the world, but is also featured at "screen golf" centers (similar to TopGolf) in Korea. The centers have rows of bays, and if the center is big enough, it can potentially handle as many golfers as a real course, but doesn't have to figure weather, darkness or even pace of play into its tee sheets.
I got to try out GolfZon at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando last month and can tell you it was pretty realistic, from the sound to the graphics to the turf that provides not only fairway lies but rough lies as well. True, if your ball lands in a virtual bunker, it's still hardly the real sensation, but this experience feels a lot like golf. If I had one of these machines, I might never leave the house.
GolfZon also claims to have the most realistic short game and putting experience on the market. I found the chipping and pitching just that, but once I got to the putter, I made double bogey on the three holes I played despite hitting the greens in regulation. I may not be the best putter in the world, but I can assure you as a single digit handicap, I don't four-putt all my greens. And yes, with a little practice, I'd get better at simulator golf putting. The full-swing experience didn't take any real adjustments; the putting shouldn't have to either if it's a complete golf experience.
Realistic putting solutions are being developed
This is where a new company called NextLinks might have a solution. Instead of simulated putting, why not make that part actual putting to an actual physical hole? Just like real golf, the actual ball you strike at this point eventually winds up in the cup. This makes sense when you think about it. Putting greens don't require a hundred acres and can now be integrated with a simulator, thanks to NextLinks.
The concept was developed by David Shultz, a former engineer for General Electric. In his 25 years with GE, he specialized in taking over projects that seemed to running into a dead-end and finding solutions to see them to fruition.
"The downside to playing golf on a simulator has always been that the short game and putting experiences haven't played like real golf," said Shultz, NextLinks' founder and CEO. "We've solved that by having beautifully-designed synthetic turf greens that you can chip and putt on in realistic shot conditions."
NextLinks' software seamlessly blends golf simulator play with realistic short game shots and putting on specially-designed putting greens. Using patent-pending Pinpoint Spotlight Technology each player's position in the simulator game is tracked. It allows them to play and putt out from a spot designated by a colored laser mark being displayed on or near the green.
The dynamic "Spotlight" system not only allows seasoned golfers a more realistic, immersive golfing experience, it can also guide beginners and non-golfers through a plethora of more fun-based games.
"Picture popular target-practice games like corn hole, darts or horseshoes. We have golf versions of those that introduce patrons to golf in an un-intimidating, entertaining way," Shultz said. "The system also has golf instruction applications and competitive games that make the surrounding venue very versatile. The spotlight system controls the traffic on the green, so the same space can function as the ultimate golf training facility or the hottest nightclub in town."
NextLinks is a scalable concept, meaning venue owners with 850 square-feet of space up to 100,000 can license this golf entertainment platform. The first NextLinks facility has opened in Santa Ana, Calif., along with a major project under way at the Indian Wells Resort in Palm Springs, Calif. The first venue outside of California will debut Spring 2018 at Safeco Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners. More facility openings, including at golf courses, resorts, casinos and other entertainment venues are planned for the coming months.
Greens that can change shape and slope
If NextLinks isn't enough to whet your appetite, check this out: Designed by German engineers Christoph Pregizer and Lukas Posniak, the folks at a company called Puttview have a mechanical green that can actually change its contours. It's linked to a highly sophisticated computer program and projection system that can not only show the putting golfer all the slopes on the green, but the line to start each putt at the ideal speed.
This is a real breakthrough for practicing putting. Some PGA Tour players already have one, and they're already slated for a couple of commercial locations in New York City and Chicago. Right now, Puttview isn't integrated with a simulator to complete the golf experience, but it certainly doesn't seem like it would be out of the realm of possibility to set up realistic putting lines that change with each hole.
No doubt, golf simulators still have room for improvement, but with VR and AR technology developing rapidly, an incredibly realistic simulator golf may be closer than we think. (Maybe they'll start coming with wind via some sort of blower that will really make the shots seem realistic. Rain on the other hand, who needs that, right?)
And as we brace for a future with fewer and fewer real golf courses – an unfortunate time perhaps that could without Pebble Beach or the Old Course at St. Andrews because of climate change and rising tides --- these courses and many others that go by the wayside can be preserved digitally for generations to come.