As anyone who has ventured onto a course is sure to know, golf can be--and on a busy weekend usually is--a humbling game. Unlike practitioners of other sports, the golfer has no one but himself to blame. The little white ball sits helplessly on a tee, and whatever happens or does not happen to it is completely the fault of whoever cranks the club. There are no spitballs, bad calls, or goof-ups by teammates to mitigate the humiliation.
I picked up the game, which then seemed silly to me (Why chase a little white pill all over the landscape?) upwards of half a century ago to have something to do with my father-in-law besides talking baseball, which I’d lost interest in when the Dodgers abandoned Ebbets Field. Despite my miserable initial performance at the Dyker Beach course in Brooklyn, a 14 on the first hole I ever played en route to a score of 147, not including mulligans and gimmes, I immediately got hooked--it only takes one or two good shots--and have been a happy if lackluster hacker ever since. So it was a disappointment when, on the far side of 75, because of my back and other problems, I could no longer get out on the course.
What to do?
Last Christmas I watched my daughter’s kids, Ben, 10, and Kate, 7, playing a brisk game of tennis using their television screen and the Wii game package Santa had brought. My experience with virtual games was limited to penny-arcade ventures when I myself was a kid, and I vividly remember a marble-sized, metal ball being pitched and swinging a bat with the push of a button in an arcade on Surf Avenue in glorious Coney Island. But the Wii was even more intriguing. Perhaps I could play some sort of virtual golf on my Mac desktop at home? Google took me to several sites, one which gave direction in Japanese, but I quickly happened upon GL Golf, and downloaded a free demo and ultimately a package with thirty virtual courses, including the old course at St. Andrews, Augusta National, and Torrey Pines South.
How does virtual golf compare with the real thing?
Instead of humbling me, online golf pumps up my ego. At my local course my best drive on a good day, downhill and with the wind behind me, might go all of 200 yards. Online I can easily drive the ball an additional hundred yards! And on screen the shot always goes precisely where I aim it, rather than into the woods or onto an adjacent fairway as so often happened at the club. At the push of a button I can draw or fade the shot, apply backspin or extra loft, feats that were dubious or impossible for me on the course. Instead of sinking two of ten eight-foot putts, I now sink almost all of them! Rather than scoring in the high nineties or worse, I finish with sub-par rounds like the pros on television. In fact, I recently humbled the famous old course at St. Andrews in Scotland by finishing with a stunning 14 under par! It’s a different game when you can drive the ball 300 yards or more!
But is it anything like the challenge of real golf?
Of course it is! Just because Tiger Woods can drive the ball more than 300 yards doesn’t men the game no longer challenges him. Despite the added distance and the much more predictable flight of the ball, I find myself still watching anxiously while it descends gracefully, at times landing in the rough short of the green or in a bunker. Many of my online courses seem to have more water than grass on them, and I’ve gotten used to the splash and the plop of an errant shot; and if I cut the corner of a dogleg too close, I get to hear the crack of the ball against a tree and wonder just how bad a lie I’ll have for my next shot. As in real golf, I have to read the greens, some of which are surprisingly tricky. Most interesting, I find, is the three-dimensional quality of the virtual landscape, especially on courses with cliffs, deep troughs, and hills. I frequently find myself wondering, Can I hit over that clump of trees? Will the slant of the fairway throw the ball into the rough or the water? Should I play a longer club because of the wind or because the green is elevated? Should I go for the green or play it safe?
For anyone who can’t get out to a course, virtual golf provides many golf-specific pleasures. When I hit a five iron 200 yards straight at the flag, and the little white ball carries the bunker, lands nicely on the green, bounces, rolls to within a foot of the cup, and the virtual crowd goes Ooh, I feel like Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods at the Masters--almost.