News & Opinion

Allure of winter golf warms the heart

Screen golf can fill a big void for frigid Northerners in January, but the prospect of a weekend warmup puts the virtual game on ice … if only for a few days

WEXFORD, Pa. – I forget why global warming is bad. Because I may play golf this weekend. Outdoors. In Pittsburgh. In January.

That’s crazy. January is normally the kickoff to Winter Hell here, and that traditionally extends through the numbing misery known as February. Normally I’m wielding a snow shovel, an ice chopper and carrying bags of calcium chloride. But this weekend, I’ll be wielding my off-balance, off-season swing and carrying a bag with golf clubs.

Gary Van Sickle finds himself virtually transported from a western Pennsylvania winter to Bighorn Golf Club’s Mountains Course in Palm Desert, Calif., via the E6 TruGolf Simulator at Oxford Athletic Club in Wexford, Pa.

Playing golf in January here isn’t even realistic enough to be on a bucket list. This is a rare chance I can’t pass up.

All right, I’m kidding about the global-warming part. I know why it’s bad. Our ice caps melt, TPC Sawgrass and Harbour Town end up under water, the world turns into chaos – dogs and cats living together! – and life as we know it ends with a gurgle. It’s not unlike a bad sci-fi movie, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” in which simultaneous atomic tests on the North and South poles bump the planet into an orbit that sends Earth heading closer to the Sun, a prospect that can’t end well. Ditto, global warming.

Life is tough for us Frostbacks, golfers who live in Northern climes. We have two seasons of golf: the outdoor season in the spring, summer and fall, and the indoor season.

I already was well into the indoor season before this coming warm spell came to my attention. The temperature dropped to about 15 degrees overnight in Pittsburgh but was supposed to climb into the low 40s Thursday, followed by daily highs of 54, 65 and 49 on the weekend, then three more days in the low 50s. A little rain might be involved, but I’ve got rain suits for that.

Monday, I hit balls and used the putting green in the Robert Morris University golf dome. It’s 100 yards across and is one of the largest golf domes in North America.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I played golf on a simulator at a local health club, bringing Mauna Kea and Greenbrier’s Old White Course to their respective digital knees. Yeah, as if …

Hitting balls into a net gets old in a hurry. Like, within minutes. It is as much fun as watching Congress. Years ago, that was the only option for winter golf if you couldn’t afford to fly North Central or Ozark or Eastern Air Lines to someplace without tundra.

Suddenly, I’ve got more options than ever. I’m lucky to have that golf dome 20 minutes away. If I were a multimillionaire, I’d build a chain of those in the Midwest to serve golfers who otherwise were in withdrawal during the winter.

A Topgolf facility opened in Pittsburgh more than a year ago. Though I’m not a fan, I’d still rather hit balls outdoors whenever possible, and Topgolf offers heated bays plus food and drink service. At $35 or so an hour, it’s expensive range practice but definitely worth it. Topgolf will get some business from me this winter.

Simulator golf is growing on me. I like using the practice-range area, where I get data (that seems sorta-in-the-neighborhood accurate) about my ball flight and carry distance. Playing holes on a course, maybe even a famous one such as Oakmont or Pinehurst No. 2, is even better because instead of just tediously hitting eight 6-irons in a row like on a range, you try to shoot a score on each hole. You drive, you hit an approach shot, maybe you have to chip, and then you putt.

Putting is the least realistic part of simulator golf but it’s not all bad. The simulator automatically reads the putt for you. It’s up to you to stroke the ball on line and judge the feel for the distance of your putt. So, it, too, is good practice.

The simulator charge is $30 per hour. I easily can play 18 holes by myself in 45 minutes or less. A twosome can finish 18 in 75 minutes if they know what they’re doing.

A new option is opening soon not far from my health club. It’s called XGolf. This concept may be part of golf’s future. It’s a facility filled with multiple simulators and, like Topgolf, catered with food and beverages.

Simulator golf is called screen golf in South Korea, and it’s hugely popular in that country. There reportedly are 3 million screen golfers, and from what I’ve heard, it’s like part of America used to be back in the 1970s and ’80s. South Koreans get off work at 5 o’clock, head straight to the golf course – the simulator – to play in a league and knock back a bunch of beers.

What South Korea figured out that the U.S. hasn’t yet is that screen golf is a great way to grow golfers. Beginners can take lessons and play screen golf and not be in the way of more skilled golfers, as they might be on a real course. Thus, they aren’t intimidated or feel unwelcomed. They learn at their own pace, and when they reach a certain level of proficiency, they advance to real golf outdoors and are better prepared for its challenges.

I don’t know much about XGolf yet, but its website promises leagues and competition and lessons. I will check it out once it opens. I’m a big believer that simulator golf could explode in the U.S. if done well, priced correctly and marketed. It offers the same key, hard-to-find ingredient that Topgolf does: family entertainment. It also offers diehard golfers a place to find our swings in the throes of winter.

That’s not this weekend in Pittsburgh. I’ll be outside, teeing it up on real, mostly-thawed grass, and enjoying the unusually balmy elements.

Sorry, Al Gore, but I can’t help smiling about global warming … so far.