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Sunday, June 15, 2008

WEEK 3

Get into golf's virtual swing

Bar for the course: Drinking and driving becomes high-tech fairway fun


Staff writer

Considering that people can be prosecuted for driving a car under the influence of alcohol, what about those who go hitting golf balls while imbibing? Perhaps it's just a matter of time before "drink-driving" by golfers becomes the latest buzzword on the greens and fairways in safety-conscious Japan.

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Tee time: A Shirokane Club "caddy" applauds a patron's drive down the golf bar's virtual fairway. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Certainly, such concerns are virtually bound to arise sooner or later due to the growing popularity of "golf bars," where drinks are served while customers are turning into Tigers or Tigresses — as well as in their pre-round rounds and during their "19th-hole" unwinding.

Golf simulators have been with us since the 1970s, but the latest, state-of-the-art versions are able to create a virtual 3-D golf-playing environment that is closer to reality than ever before — and in some ways superior.

This became clear one recent afternoon when this golf-greenhorn correspondent ventured in search of a new experience into the Shirokane Club, one such establishment that is nestled in the eponymous high-class residential area of Tokyo's Minato Ward.

While I waited in the lounge where there were enough leather sofas to seat 24 people, I noticed a bar at one end of the room with an awesome range of drinks. Not unusual, you might think, for a regular watering hole — but here the punters also have free rein to bash golf balls around, so there are safety issues to consider.

Talking of which, the mellow background music was occasionally interrupted by short, loud thuds, which could have beenmistaken for a warped mutation of techno music.

These sounds, it turned out, were coming from the other side of a huge pane of (unbreakable) glass that separated us loungers from a middle-aged businessman in suit and tie who was facing a 4.1 × 3.2-meter color screen made of shock-absorbing material at which he was repeatedly driving golf balls. With every swing, a huge "wham!" as the ball crashed against the screen.

I had to find out for myself what would move an aspiring golfer to play indoors at this kind of club course, rather than enjoying his or her rounds in the open air.

Ikue Fukuchi, the manager, showed me to the VIP room, which was sealed off from the rest of the club: a fact that I later rejoiced in, as it meant nobody could witness my embarrassing performance.

Wearing golf shoes the club lends out for free, I climbed gingerly up onto the slightly elevated "tee" in preparation for the first-ever golf swing in my life — and certainly not a "drive" I was about to embark on with any level of alcohol in my system, though nerves most definitely made me a little wobbly. Since the "caddies" who normally operate the controls and give players tips on style don't start working until 6 p.m., Fukuchi was going to be mine for the duration — in her case, no doubt, the "enduration."

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Par bar: Between strokes, the Shirokane Club has plenty to tipple your fancy. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"You can choose the course that you want to play on, sir. Take your pick from two in Japan and 47 abroad, including Pebble Beach in the United States and St. Andrews in Scotland. And you can play whichever hole you want," she said while standing behind the console from where she would determine the weather conditions I would have to contend with.

Being from Britain myself — where the first game of golf is on record as having been played some 550 years ago — St. Andrews in Scotland, home of the revered Royal & Ancient Golf Club, seemed like the natural choice. I left it up to Fukuchi to choose the hole.

Not having a clue how to handle my ultra-light titanium driver, I decided to "wing my swing" as my British compatriots might say, meaning bluff my way through with no knowledge of what I was doing.

So, with feet placed shoulder-width apart, I hunched over the ball and psyched myself up for what would hopefully be a 200-yard drive into the far distance down the fairway.

The resulting "bam" as my club and the ball rather surprisingly made contact sent the latter hurtling forward toward the screen. There, after hitting the screen, it continued its "virtual" trajectory before eventually coming to a halt. Total distance covered: 11 yards! A pitiful distance that this high-tech system did not even deem worthy of awarding any of its pre-recorded applause or shouts of "nice shot!"

Meanwhile, cameras positioned at the front and side had captured my swing from two different angles. Fukuchi used this recording, which she slowed down, to give me an in-depth explanation of how I could improve my action.

"This feature is very popular with our customers, who love it because they can see their posture and make improvements on it," Fukuchi said. During the day, a professional golfer uses the recorded moving images to give golf lessons.

Two sensors also record the speed, direction and spin of the ball — with all this data duly appearing on the screen.

On the second time around, due to the slight slope on which my ball had landed, the platform I was standing automatically tilted to mirror the gradient. Despite being completely sober, I barely managed to maintain my balance. How, I thought, would someone who'd had a few drinks be able to cope?

How, indeed? My second shot covered even less distance than the first (though its precise transcendence at this moment escapes me).

As with the game's outdoor variant, though, the weather can also vary on this virtual-reality course from sunny to rainy. But given the option of choosing their climatic conditions, most players choose sunny. However, I wanted to test myself against the elements — and so I chose rain. And so, when the virtual heavens opened, electronic rain pelted the screen and the sound of a downpour gushed out of the speakers. As I was to soon find out, the ball moved slower when it rolled on the "wet" grass. A succession of shots brought me closer to the putting green, and just as I was rejoicing in the fact that I might complete the hole, the system reset to the beginning because I had gone way over the permissible limit for the number of strokes for the hole!

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Poise, presence and an admiring spectator: All the factors for a successful round were there — the only thing your correspondent lacked was ability. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Despite such unkind "faults," this virtual system by Golfzon, a South Korea-based company, has sold about 100 units in Japan to date, and some 3,500 units in its homeland. Shirokane Club has four units, each of which costs up to ¥8 million.

Since opening in May 2007, the club has built up a membership of about 2,500, 70 percent male — all of who can avail themselves of top-notch food delivered from nearby Korean, Italian and sushi restaurants.

A 45-year-old businessman practicing in one of the adjacent rooms with a young female companion told me that this was his fourth time at the club. "I've been playing golf for 20 years, and I've been a member here for six months," he said. "This is my fourth visit to the club, and I love it here, as I can play golf whatever the weather is outside," he enthused, while declining to give his name. "I don't know if my swing has improved since I joined the club, but at least I can see how I look."

Another major benefit of playing at the club is the cost.

If you play during the day, a regular room, regardless of the number of people playing, costs ¥6,300 per hour (VIP room: ¥10,500), though the rates double after 6 p.m. This means that a few hours' golf costs just a few thousand yen — way, way less than at an outdoor course.

As many of the club's nocturnal clientele arrive after drinking in nearby Roppongi or Ginza, "caddies" are stationed in each room to make sure that there are no problems. They also take orders for drinks or food, man the controls and ensure that other players in the room are all sitting safely out of the way before the next competitor takes a swing.

In an environment like this, you might expect the caddies to all be built like nightclub bouncers — but surprisingly, all of them are women.

On my way out, I bumped into one of these caddies, who was just about to start work. She was a young, dainty-looking woman dressed in a simple navy-blue dress and wearing a sun visor.

"Good luck!" I said.

She just nodded and gave me a self-confident look that suggested her evening's rounds would be no more — nor less — than par for the course.



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