One in a weekly series of stories about golf gear to run each Wednesday.
Golf still has room to grow in America.
I’m not kidding. Golf simulators never have been more sophisticated, and their popularity is growing. Screen golf, as simulator golf is called, is huge in South Korea, where screen golfers outnumber outdoor golfers, and it’s starting to gain traction in the U.S.
My local health club in suburban Pittsburgh recently completed a major renovation. One of the big changes involved the installation of two golf simulators and a small putting green.
Golf simulators are fun. I enjoyed an extensive trial at a Golfzon simulator during the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., and I was impressed. When I played a shot from a simulator bunker, I hit a ball off some odd, whitish brushes. It felt exactly like splashing out a sand shot, which surprised the you-know-what out of me.
The problem you and I have with simulators is the price. To have a quality one installed at home costs $40,000 or more. My health club is charging $30 an hour to use the simulator. When I’m chipping ice off my windshield in January, that’s going to seem like a pretty good deal.
But what if you could have your own simulator at home without the giant expense?
Enter Coach Labs and its Gen i2 ball. Like a smartphone, the Gen i2 is a smart ball. Its sensors are embedded inside the ball, and once paired with a phone or tablet using a free app, it provides shot-tracking action and other tour-level data including ball speed, clubhead speed and spin rate.
That data can help a golfer self-correct or help a teaching professional quickly pinpoint what’s wrong.
“This looks and feels like a normal golf ball, only it’s smarter,” said Jason Koo, Coach Labs’ chief executive officer. “Our free app gives you instant feedback and coaching. You can putt, chip, pitch and drive the ball and get valuable data for every part of your game.”
Maybe it’s a bit of a reach to call a ball a simulator, but it’s a smart marketing concept to explain the ball to potential buyers. The cost is reasonable: $149 for a Gen i2 starter kit or $250 for a full Gen i2 simulator kit that includes the Gen i2 ball, multi-terrain mat, club and body sensors, and pop-up net from www.CoachLabs.com. The net and mat can be set up in less than a minute, and an 18-hole simulated round can be completed in less than an hour. Replacement balls cost $99 for a two-pack.
There is also the competition angle. A golfer can play against a friend in person or against another golfer online somewhere in the world.
In South Korea, beginning golfers start out playing screen golf, build their swings and get a feel for the game before they ever step onto a real course. Simulators offer a way for novices to pick up golf faster and not feel pressured or intimidated by better golfers at a real course, especially if they’re not able to keep up with the pace of play. That’s just what golf in the U.S. needs to develop players, and the Gen i2 potentially could play a role in that objective.
“The Gen i2 is going to shorten the transition time from the range to the golf course,” said Tim Leible, a PGA professional and director of instruction at Coach Labs. “Getting launch-monitor data, knowing your exact distance and learning which club to use in every situation and identifying your strengths and weakness will change the game of golf.”
Golfers can play courses on their screens or just hit balls on a simulated range and work on their swings, possibly with an instructor. As long as the ceiling is high enough, the Gen i2 can be used anywhere indoors or at home or the office, but the latter might prove dicey. The boss will hear those loud thwacks and come over to investigate why you’re not working.
Weather is not an issue for indoor golfers. “In Florida, I played only about four rounds this year because it was so gosh-dang hot and humid,” Koo said. “Indoor golf is not about the weather.”
Of course, like real golf, the Gen i2 balls don’t last forever. Koo said the cover of the Gen i2 balls will wear out after 300 hits or so, while the battery should last 400 hits.
The Gen i2 ball is supposed to perform close to a top-line quality ball. I haven’t hit one yet, so I can’t verify that claim. I am intrigued by one option it has: a find-the-ball app, which always has been sort of a Holy Grail for golf balls. When used outdoors, the Gen i2 can be tracked to its location and found, thanks to an app. Although if you hit it into a lake, you’re out of luck.
The find-the-ball option might turn out to be the most important advancement made by the Gen i2, particularly in later generations of the product if the durability is improved and the price comes down.
“We did some testing on how people want to use it, outdoors versus indoors,” Koo said. “We thought the outdoor version would outsell the indoor version because it’s cheaper, but the indoor version sold better by a 2-to-1 margin.
“It tells us that people are looking to play golf in a different way. A four- or five-hour round is too much. With the Gen i2, you can play one hole or as many holes as you have time for.”
Golf may have a future in the Great Indoors.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle