Range in the Home

Super-sophisticated golf simulators mean Pebble Beach can come to you. And they're popping up in more high-end homes.

When cold weather settles on Columbus, Ohio, local golfers brace for a long off-season, stashing their clubs in attics and garages in a grim ritual of letting go.

Randy Wilcox takes no part in these proceedings. On a recent winter morning, with snow drifts blanketing his favorite nearby courses, he rolled out of bed to play.

The sky above Pebble Beach was clear, and a gentle ocean breeze rattled the flagsticks; the weather was so pleasant it seemed computer-generated, as did the caw of gulls and the sound of crashing waves. That's because it was. But when Wilcox, a six handicap, waggled on the first tee, the club and ball were real, as was his satisfaction as he watched his drive bound down the fairway.

"The only downside to having this in my home," said Wilcox, a 58-year-old entrepreneur and real estate investor, "is that I never get anything else done."

Like other devotees of the famously addictive game, Wilcox believes that nothing beats the pleasures of an actual golf course. But when time and weather conspire against him in the Midwest, he's happy to indulge in the next best thing. (See our list of golf-simulator providers.)

Not long ago, for the price of a nice sportscar (about $50,000), Wilcox purchased a golf simulator from Michigan-based AboutGolf, a leading company in this growing industry. Installed in a game room that also houses a home theater and a well-stocked bar, the simulator gives Wilcox access to dozens of the world's most famous courses, like Spyglass in California, St. Andrews in Scotland, and TPC Sawgrass in Florida. He swings his own clubs. He hits his own ball off artificial turf. In the eye blink it takes for his shot to thud against a 10-and-half-foot high projection screen, finely tuned sensors track its flight.

Wilcox can watch a wedge track toward its target or a wildly errant three-iron kerplunk in a pond. It isn't quite real golf, but it requires the same skills and triggers the same pendulum swing of emotions. With a few clicks of a button, Wilcox can play god or greenkeeper, summoning wind and clouds, altering the course conditions. He can call in buddies for a friendly fourball or compete in tournaments against other far-flung virtual golfers, whose ranks have been swelling in recent years.

Once found mainly at teaching facilities and driving ranges, sophisticated golf simulators have been making their way into a growing number of high-roller homes. Advances in technology have vastly improved the virtual experience, which helps account for their surge in private residences. But so do the tight schedules of many avid golfers with plenty of money. John Watters, a spokesman for San Diego-based Full Swing Golf, another major player in the industry, says that home installations now account for half of his company's new sales, up 30 percent from five years ago.

"Some of it is the guy who's really into golf," says Bill Bales, C.E.O. of AboutGolf. "But the simulator customer is also the guy who's done well for himself, and now he's starting to look at all the cool stuff he can put in his house. Maybe that used to be a swimming pool or a fancy kitchen. Now it's a home theater or a wine cellar or a golf simulator."

AboutGolf got its start more than a decade ago, building software for computer golf games. By today's standards, the graphics were hokey, the interfaces ham-fisted. Virtual golf bore virtually no resemblance to the real thing. But just as primitive Pong evolved into PlayStation, simulators have traveled light-years since.

Today's leading home simulators draw on technology worthy of a NASA command center. Using both infrared and microwave sensors, they can track not just ball speed, arc, and spin, but also axis of rotation, which is vital for capturing a shot's true trajectory.

"For years," Bales says, "spin axis was our holy grail."

Simulators also make the backdrop look remarkably real. When Wilcox steps onto his tee, he's faced with a projection screen that replicates his chosen course. The actual layouts have been filmed from multiple angles, every contour measured to within a few inches, then fed into computers and reproduced in digital display. Simulator makers can customize designs to fit most any room.

"If you have space to swing a club safely," says John Watters of Full Swing Golf, "we can put one in your home."

Like a country-club memberships, high-end simulators come at a price, starting at about $45,000. Some buyers choose to add real plant and water features around the tee. And while most basic systems come with dozens of courses in their database, additional layouts cost more. Still, some simulators can easily accommodate other applications, becoming, say, home theaters or high-speed virtual auto-racing games.

Instructors have long relied on simulators; golf guru Jim McLean has a Full Swing Golf simulator in both his Florida teaching facility and his home. But many golfers focus more on recreation.

Take Wilcox. Though golf season in Ohio lasts only six months, he rarely takes a long break from his favorite pastime. He plays upward of 275 rounds a year. Recently, he got off to an electric start at Pebble, carding two birdies and an eagle in the first four holes. Then he cut the round short.

Says Wilcox, "I figured, hey, it isn't going to get any better than this." The way technology is going, you never know.

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