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Indoor Golf on the Small Screen

Not all that long ago, a ready escape from the unmitigated madness of golf was as close as the nearest computer.

For the frustrated, infuriated golfer, relief lay in the boundless world of virtual reality: from the comfort of home, complete with a frosty libation, players could point and click their way to golf glory with nary a thought about how to hit the ball.

Stuck on swing plane or stack-and-tilt? Think PC or PlayStation instead. Swap the X-factor for the XBox.

In the good-old-days world of Links LS or Jack Nicklaus 4: Golden Bear Challenge or Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2000, all that stood between you and your ultimate on-course fantasy was that low-paying day job or a pesky need to take a shower every once in a while.

Ten or 15 years later, however, virtual-reality golf has taken an alarming turn away from virtual, and is veering distressingly close to real.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11: Now featuring true-to-life clubhead sizes!

Take, for instance, Nintendo’s revolutionary motion-capture Wii console, a brilliant and affordable bit of gaming engineering that uses gyroscopic technology to map and translate the motions of a player, integrating them into the on-screen action.

The 2011 iteration of the aforementioned Woods game, the current giant of the genre, has grown so sophisticated that the game’s tragedies are as easy to emulate as its triumphs. Just like in real life, Wii players can look down at a virtual ball on a virtual fairway, take a virtual swing, and – instead of blasting the ball 286 virtual yards to within three virtual feet of a virtual pin – whiff it completely.

Take it from me: the whiff might be virtual, but the pain is very, very real.

Now comes word of another high-tech toy for the Wii, David Leadbetter’s “My Personal Golf Trainer,” from Data Design Interactive. This $99 US piece of software uses the Wii controller and the Balance Board – the same technology that’s designed to allow you to pretend to beat the pros – to show you just how bad a golfer you are in real life.

The program, based on Leadbetter’s “Seven Steps to a Better Golf Swing” program, uses the Wii’s built-in motion-capture technology to analyze a user’s golf swing, identify faults and offer up appropriate instructional videos and drills for improvement. It doesn’t replace having an instructor watching you hit balls, of course, but if you swing a Wii Remote anything like you do a golf club, there’s a good chance that any sort of instruction would be a help.

Now, experience all the frustrations of a real golf lesson -- right there in your own living room

“My Personal Golf Trainer” bills itself as the perfect tool to monitor grip, posture, alignment, ball position, coil, swing shape and tempo. Instructional videos and drills within each of these seven basics allow players to improve their swing step-by-step. They will graduate from training mode to the practice range and then play a full 18-hole game.

“What you get from ‘My Personal Golf Trainer,’ more than anything else, is feedback,” Leadbetter says in the game’s promotional materials.

“One of the big problems in golf is that what we feel we do and what we actually do are two different things. With ‘My Personal Golf Trainer’ in hand, you are getting instant feedback and you know whether you are doing it right or wrong.”

For the more hardcore golfer, and those who have room in their homes to swing an actual golf club with full-swing force, comes an even more elaborate system, one designed to actually measure your swing parameters when trying to hit the ball.

The Optishot Infrared Golf Simulator from Michigan-based Dancin’ Dogg Golf is about as close to genuine, in-home simulation as you’re going to find for less than many thousands of dollars. At just $400 US, the system is a compact, portable USB-equipped range mat with built-in infrared sensors that read swing characteristics in real time.

One of the gorgeous vistas available from Optishot. Look familiar?

Tee up a real ball, one of the included foam balls, or no ball at all, and the system translates the raw data — clubhead speed, face angle, swing path — into a simulated ball flight on the screen of your PC (sorry, Mac users — you’re out of luck, at least for the moment; don’t bother trying to run it on a Windows partition, either; I tried).

It’s a bit finicky at times; light conditions need to be fairly muted and specific for best performance, and it goes without saying that the faster and more powerful the computer, the better it runs. But even if you’re not going to use it to “play” golf, it’s a standout way to keep your swing in fighting trim, even if it’s just a matter of keeping track of your swing stats.

And if you do want to play, there are a host of courses to choose from, generically named layouts designed to emulate famous facilities like Pebble Beach, the Old Course and Augusta National, among others.

Essentially, the Optishot system brings the best parts of computer golf and golf simulators together in an affordable and adaptable package that really does make having a golf simulator in your home a practical reality, even if you’re not one of the stars of Entourage.

But let’s face it — one of the best things about video-game golf is that it’s got nothing to do with the real thing.

Anyone who plays golf for real knows that at any given point in the round, even the rankest of amateurs can stumble, oblivious, onto an equal footing — even for just a single swing — with the greatest players in the world. Those fleeting moments are where the game’s charms truly live, brief intersections between golf’s twin worlds of fantasy and reality. On the golf course, every so often, reality occasionally gives way to fantasy.

One thing Optishot can't do is show you your swing planes and paths quite like this. Instruction junkies, beware!

When it comes to living-room rounds, however, there’s an inherent danger when things work the other way, and the ugly truth poisons the dreamscape of phoney ability that video games allow us to create.

A Wii controller is a magic wand that allows the despairing golfer to hole out from the fairway three times in a single round, win a major PGA Tour event by shooting 57 on Sunday, and take large sums of money away from Stuart Appleby in a friendly par-3 challenge.

It should not be a portal to grief and medocrity, which it surely becomes when it showcases to no less of an authority than David Leadbetter just how disastrous your golf swing really is.

Don’t we endure humiliation enough on the golf course to be entitled to avoid it in our living rooms, where surely the stigma of a grown man playing video games is shame enough?

Whether it was related to his off-course troubles or not, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2011 was the first to feature a player other than the man himself on the cover. This year, developer EA Sports decided to let up-and-coming fan favourite Rory McIlroy share the spotlight, ostensibly to illustrate the game’s new Ryder Cup mode.

Woods — this year’s poster boy for golfers lost in the mental wilderness — looks like he desperately needs a reminder of what it’s like to exert total control over the golf ball, to make every putt he looks at and flush every full swing.

Ironically, even his own video game is making that harder than ever for him to do.

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

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