Big swing: Taking golf high-tech
Ashley Winch had always wanted to be a business owner, but nothing ever caught her eye.
But while waiting to tee off on busy golf courses in the Harrisburg area, Winch said, she was inspired to buy an indoor golf simulator as a way for her to golf all year.
Golf simulators have been around for decades. However, they are still fairly new to the majority of golfers today, especially in smaller cities like Harrisburg, Lancaster and York.
Some pro shops have small ones that are used mainly for help with club fittings and swing analysis, while others can be found mainly in private luxury homes.
Winch, 34, and a competitive golfer since age 12, said she thought other local golfers would welcome the addition of an indoor golf alternative for use on rainy days and offseason or late-night training before tournaments.
So the Midtown Harrisburg resident spent $90,000 to buy a fully interactive, high-definition simulator made by Full Swing Golf, a maker of golf simulators.
"I figured it would take five years for someone else to bring this product to Harrisburg, so I decided for my own sake I’d do it now instead," Winch said.
For San Diego-based Full Swing, the opening of Harrisburg Golf Simulator brings a big-city product to a smaller market, which the company hopes could lead to more sales. Many pro golfers, including Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, rely on the same Full Swing simulator for at-home practice sessions.
"We are lucky enough to be experiencing a huge boom in our business and absolutely want to be in in every city we can big or small," said Jason Fierro, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.
Good alternative, not replacement
Winch, an administrative assistant at The Healey Group, a financial planning firm, said she doesn’t see her simulator business as competition with local golf courses. Golf courses can handle hundreds of people per day, while the simulator, which is rented by the hour, can only accommodate a few groups each day.
"We do offer a valuable escape for golfers when it rains," she said.
But she also knows that golf course owners often face pressure to sell their land for new housing and mixed-used communities. She cited the closure of three courses in the Hershey and Harrisburg areas over the last five years. Those closures impacted her wait time on some courses, she said, and influenced her decision to start the simulator.
However, Winch isn’t wishing for more courses to close. Far from it, she said.
"Even though Harrisburg may experience more golf course closings, an indoor golf simulator only serves to enhance Harrisburg’s golf scene, not replace any aspects of it,” she said. "Because the feedback is identical to real life, it is easy to transition back to the outdoor golf course and every minute practicing in the high-level simulator has exponential results on the course."
The simulator uses real clubs and golf balls. It has a 17-foot widescreen display with infrared lasers and overhead high-speed cameras that can provide immediate feedback on every shot struck from the tee box.
"You can see what went wrong on every shot," said Jason Thomas, Winch’s best friend and a competitive amateur golfer. He runs the simulator.
Instead of four or five hours walking a course, most golfers can squeeze in a round on the simulator in less than an hour. Thomas has played a full round in less than 30 minutes.
For everyone, including other sports
But Harrisburg Golf Simulator isn’t just for seasoned golfers. The facility is available for golfers of any skill level to rent around the clock.
Because of the private setting, beginners don’t have to feel intimidated like they might on an outdoor course with other groups behind them. Plus, users don’t have to bring any equipment, and they can play their own music and use the lounge area for private entertaining.
"I think it’s going to be huge in this area,” said Tony Reigle, an avid golfer from Harrisburg, who has used the new simulator after seeing advertisements on Facebook. "In our market, winter can be tough and having somewhere available to play year-round is tremendous."
Reigle was attracted to the all-season availability, plus the price tag of the simulator.
It can rented by individuals for $40 per hour. Discounted rates are available for groups who want to get in a round of golf or practice specific skill games on one of 84 golf courses, including famous venues like Bay Hill, Bethpage Black, Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines. The simulator also includes some fictional courses.
"I’m in that range where my golf game is good enough to keep doing it, but I’m not willing to fly and pay hundreds of dollars to play on historic courses," Reigle said. "This is an opportunity to budget and still play these locations."
He and a group of buddies played world-famous Pebble Beach, where Reigle, 36, was able to par two of the holes on the front nine.
In addition to bragging rights for playing well on a professional course, he said the simulator has given him the flexibility to play evening rounds after work and family activities to better prepare for spring and summer golf tournaments.
In a normal golf season, Reigle said he will put down the clubs in October and not pick them up again until spring. With access to the simulator, he said he won’t have to relearn his swing every spring.
He also said it’s a place he feels comfortable bringing his 16-year-old son to practice without slowing down the pace of play on a real course.
"It’s an opportunity for him and I to go in and give him an opportunity to build up some confidence," Reigle said.
He believes the simulator will not just benefit the golfers, but people who want to train for other sports. The Harrisburg Golf Simulator has equipment and software programs for other training on other sports, including baseball, hockey, football and soccer, among others.
Winch also thought a high-end sports simulator could attract local business groups looking to escape for recreation or to host small networking events. She is marketing to those groups as well as people in need of alternative locations for private parties.
"I think people will see the value and leisure seekers will want to rent it,” Winch said. “It’s perfect for Harrisburg’s overachievers, looking to cram fun into an over-scheduled day.”
Winch said she hopes to see more simulators pop up and believes the technology will soon exist to link up systems for online competitions. The simulator already could be a good alternative for teams in need of a way to play tournaments under poor weather conditions.
"We could book for all-day clients to have tournaments and capture scores," she said. "It’s basically an indoor country club."