Golf is an outdoors game, which can be problematic to us Canadians who love the game. Cold, frost and snow inevitably put an end to the season every fall.
But that doesn’t mean the clubs have to be stowed away in the furnace room beside the kitty litter box for the winter months. You can play on.
Heading south is one option, for those blessed with lots of spare time, money or both, that is. Staying here and moving the game indoors works, too.
I was never overly enamored of indoor golf growing up: A huge part of golf’s appeal to me is being outside, in the sunshine and warmth, and walking.
But indoor golf has become increasingly appealing. I’ve discovered there are lots of cool and fun ways to swing a club while surrounded by four walls and a roof.
Over the next week, I’ll share a few of my favourite indoor spots in and around Toronto. If you live elsewhere in the country, odds are good you can find similar equivalents. So get those clubs cleaned up and get back out there. Or in there, as it were.
Can whacking a ball into a screen replicate the real thing?
That’s the question I set out to answer for myself when I visited Golfzon Park, an indoor Mississauga facility with eight state-of-the-art golf simulators.
I’ve been familiar with simulators, launch monitors and similar tech gizmos for a decade or so, but had used them rarely and purely as data generators (club head speed, launch angle, ball speed etc.) as I was testing or getting fitted for clubs.
But visiting Golfzon was my first crack a using a simulator for just, well, fun and games.
I arrived to find a group of four guys, decked out in full golf gear, caps and cleats included, playing in the simulator bay I was assigned to. They were on the 14th hole at a virtual Pebble Beach, one of the myriad (and most popular) courses sim golfers can choose.
My tee time came and went with them still playing away. Apparently pace of play is as much a virtual issue as a real one.
But that was perfectly fine. The delay gave me a chance to have some lunch (Golfzon’s kitchen serves a better meal than most halfway houses) and chat with a couple Golfzon reps, Canadian operations marketing man William Kim and Mike Jack, assistant manager of direct sales.
They filled me in on Golfzon, a South Korean-based company that is attempting to become to global leader in sim golf.
Kim said the company formed in 2000 as a lower-priced alternative to the real thing, especially in Asia where a shortage of courses translates into sky-high green fees. Four facilities in the Toronto-area are the company’s Canadian beachhead.
Kim explained that Golfzon isn’t aiming to replace or be better than real golf, but it doesn’t accept being inferior either. "We don't see ourselves as a backseat," he said. "You play, it's just different."
Jack also took me through how the simulators work. They’re sophisticated machinery. (The simulator I used cost $75,000.) This isn’t just hitting a ball off a square of fake grass and seeing it “land” on a screen.
Golfzon’s technology (it makes the software and hardware) covers the usual features you’d expect to see in sim golf: choice of virtual courses, ball flight, data, cameras, different grass surfaces. But it includes a few things that caught me by surprise, especially a virtual wind and a tilting tee box to approximate uneven lies.
Each player can also pick one of three degrees of difficulty. The beginner’s setting reduces the side spin on errant slices and hooks (keeping the ball more in play) and adds bonus distance to well-struck shots; the amateur setting offers slight correction of ball flight; and the championship setting is straight-up golf played on a course’s maximum yardage. Seems like a great idea to me, giving players of varying abilities a chance to play on an equal footing.
It’s also pretty cool that players can compete with not only the group they’re in but also in organized tournaments (complete with leader boards) and create a profile that logs scores, distances and tendencies. Kim says the company’s next frontier is using the simulators more for teaching and training.
You can learn more about the company's Canadian operations and its technology at ca.golfzon.com. If you're like most people, and you just want to know about which courses you can play, an extensive list is on the website.
I went out of the box and played a South Korean course I had never heard of: the Lake course at Tameus Golf and Village. No particular reason, other than it seemed like a scenic and playable track and it's in the company's home country.
Getting back to my original question ... the answer is yes, mostly.
With the exception of putting, which takes a bit of imagination and mental adjustment, the rest of sim golf is just like the real thing. Bad shots went badly, good shots found the fairways and greens. I played my normal game: intermittent flashes of competence mingled with head-shaking meltdowns. I shot 95, three strokes higher than my real-course average (and those three strokes can be easily explained by the five-putt I had on the third green, before I caught on to the putting).
What I'll remember most was the four I made on the par-five ninth hole, and not just because it was my lone birdie and I hit my approach to an inch. As the ball tracked to the hole, I felt the same kind of excitement as I would on a real course. To me, that's the bottom line. A golf rush is a golf rush. Doesn't matter where it happens. So my conclusion: Indoors is just as good.
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
Golf domes dot the suburban landscape but you rarely see them in a city core. There’s an exception at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus.
Along busy Bloor Street, just down the road from the distinctive Royal Ontario Museum and the glamorous Yorkville shopping strip, the university has erected a big bubble on the field of its Varsity Stadium.
Inside, two-thirds of the dome’s floor space is dedicated to a driving range. (The rest of the space, behind a separation net, is a soccer and Frisbee pitch.) The university owns the dome but the range is run by Angus Glen Golf Club, the popular 36-hole facility in suburban Markham.
The affable Angus Glen pro Brian Mason is on duty through the week, teaching individual and group lessons, or just walking down the line of a dozen bays to chat with the winter whackers.
The appeal of the dome is obvious to anyone living in the 416 area code – location, location, location. The dome is centrally located and easy enough to get to, just steps from the St. George subway station.
Angus Glen has held its “winter academy” at the dome for five years. While most of the golfers who use the space are university staff and students, it is open to the public. Each visit is $24 (for an hour), or a season membership is $250.
From the outside of the dome, it’s pretty much impossible to know there’s a range within. Angus Glen once put up large vinyl signs on the exterior to announce its academies, but they were quickly stolen. (The downside of being so urban.) So it’s a true hidden gem.
I’ve been going for a few years, dropping in on my way to work or on my lunch hour.
I find it’s indispensable for short game practice. Domes, by nature, aren’t the greatest place to crack drivers (the ball has barely left the club face before it slams into the back wall) but irons and wedges are just fine. I see enough of the ball flight.
Mason is a short-game wizard so I try to hit him up for quick tips every time he passes my bay. If only I could get by body to do what my ears hear Mason saying.
The dome stays open through the first week of April. By then, one would hope, it’ll be time to resume play outside, taking all that winter dome knowledge to the first tee.