Golf the world

Play St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and Banff Springs without leaving home.

personal tech

Everyone knows you have to monitor kids when they're on the Internet, so insidious are its predators and so seductive its charms. But commercial real estate specialist David Falle was already well into adulthood when he stumbled into one particular corner of the web and ended up, he says, “quite addicted.” Adds Falle, with a rueful chuckle, “I'm afraid it really has become a bit of a problem.”

It was while surfing for a theatre system for a house he was building for himself and his wife, Susan, in 2004 that Falle, president of Cambridge, Ont.-based Karanda Properties Ltd., came across a company called Full Swing Golf. Based in San Diego, it makes fairway simulators that double as home theatres. Before he knew it, Falle was rearranging the dimensions of a room in his future basement to accommodate Full Swing's virtual-reality system, whose screen measures 10 feet in height and just over 12 across, and which requires another 20 feet or so of depth to accommodate a player, his flying ball and a ceiling-mounted projector.

Now, without leaving the comfort of his new home, Falle can swing his way through courses from Scotland's St. Andrews to California's Pebble Beach to Canada's very own Banff Springs. “It's just like the real thing,” marvels Falle. “You can hear the birds singing, the wind in the trees, the ball landing in the cup–that's my favourite sound, of course.”

Falle has landed not only on some remarkably life-like greens, but also on the leading edge of Full Swing's foray into private homes. According to salesman Jon Watters, the company's original vision was to sell its simulators chiefly to cruise ships, rec centres and entertainment complexes. In 1998, Full Swing sold only four or five of its systems to individual golfers across North America. But over the past year, that number has risen to about 150, representing roughly 40% of the company's business.

Full Swing makes its simulators with the help of Microsoft Links, a program created by meticulously photographing and filming the world's top golf courses. Players like Falle use their own clubs and ball, making their swings, chips and putts from one of four surfaces (fairway, rough, heavy rough and sand) in the tee-off zone. When their ball hits the screen, it falls to the ground–but appears to continue in real time, as a virtual ball takes over.

“We measure the velocity, the launch angle and the rotation, so we know how fast the ball's rising and its spin,” says Watters. The system then maps out the ball's path, and carries it through to landing, where the screen immediately takes the virtual golfer for his next shot. Instant replays from multiple angles are displayed, as are stats about distance travelled, ball speed and launch angle, as well as distance remaining to the hole.

Those who want a little extra intelligence can also call up data on such environmental variables as wind speed and direction, which changes randomly each time you play a course. There are visual clues as well: When the breeze shifts at the virtual Banff Springs, for instance, the flags on the course flap accordingly–although never enough to threaten the footing of the elk you see roaming the cliffs of the Rockies.

In the tradition of course fees in the real world, such teeing off doesn't come cheaply. Full Swing charges US$47,000 for its system, which includes a dozen courses' worth of software; installation runs another US$4,000. Extra course 12-packs (there are four in all) run US$2,000 each. But according to players like Falle, the “incredible realism” of the experience is worth every penny–even if it might get brutally real at times. “You can hear it perfectly when your ball lands in the water,” he sighs. “That splash is one sound I don't like very much.”