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Simulated golf puts spring in step

Golf is never quite as distant from a Western New York point of view than when a new PGA season has sprung, the snow's piled high and the temperature's colder than a Bill Belichick interview. At this time of year the game on the home front is still an oil change away: three months or, it seems, 3,000 miles.

Oh, we have our options. There's the living room carpet, where many a putt has been holed with, the dreamer in us insists, the Masters on the line. There are the local golf domes, the ones still left standing anyway, where a crisply struck iron that finds the intended seam in the fabric equates to an approach hit stiff on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open. And if the shot goes awry, by all means hit another. In Buffalo there's no shame in a January mulligan.

Right about now we'd give two strokes a side all summer long just to get away and take aim at a fairway, a pin, to see more accurately the results of what might be produced by our dormant swings. And that's why last week I jumped in the car and never stopped until I'd made it all the way to Pebble Beach, which isn't a bad drive if you time the traffic right.

My game was as it always is fresh out of hibernation, finely honed, all those bad habits yet to awaken and work their way back into the mix. I birdied the second hole, a par-5. I made the turn in 41. But it was then I began to experiment, because if you're going to write a column on the experience, if you're going to explore the good and the bad of simulated golf, it becomes necessary to sacrifice your game for the benefit of the reader. Or so I told myself when I duffed a shot and watched it skitter 25 yards up the high-definition fairway at Tee It Up golf on Camp Road in Hamburg.

There are things not to like about playing simulated golf on an ocean course such as Pebble Beach. There's no pounding of the waves against the shore, no warm sea breeze to buffet birds in flight, no dolphins frolicking in the surf. Then again, there's a lot to like about the experience, most notably that you're playing Pebble Beach for a fraction of the cost of playing Pebble Beach, which isn't to suggest simulated golf, at $25 to $40 an hour, is exactly cheap. But it is an easy walk and infinitely more beneficial to your game than, say, a round on PlayStation or Xbox.

There's no need to play a course at one of these establishments (there's also Frog Hair, on Transit Road in Amherst) although there are plenty of courses from which to choose, heightening the temptation. More disciplined golfers inclined to sharpen their swings through the art of practice can hit a driving range, or a par-3 course, and analyze the stream of data that accompanies every stroke. No wonder I'm losing 15 yards on my drives, Charlie. Just look at my launch angle!

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. I found that a couple of swings is all it takes to settle into the experience and forget that you're hitting into a 9-by-12 foot screen from some 10 feet away. The shot distances as relayed by computer were realistic. So was the ball flight, the shot settling into a fade when you know darn well you just slid your bottom hand underneath and hit an undesired cut.

What I didn't like about simulated golf was the putting, which requires a whole lot of practice to develop the proper touch. But I don't have to leave my living room to work on putting. The swing itself is a different matter, as attested by the gouge in my ceiling.

And so next week I plan on doing it again, a quick 18 the ideal remedy for Western New York's winter doldrums. The only question is, to where should I head this time? I'm leaning toward Spyglass. But how can I pass up Kiawah Island? Or Pinehurst No. 2?


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