When the only golf course you’ve ever played is the normal kind — with slopes and grass and sandpits — it can be unnerving to swing a driver as hard as you can when your intended target is a wall 15 feet away from the tee.
At least it was for Amy Venuto, who tried indoor golfing for the first time at Golf & Social in Fishtown on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Instead of arcing effortlessly into the sky, her golf ball smacked gracelessly into the sheet of fabric hanging over the wall and fell to the ground. But the projected image on the screen showed a virtual golf ball soaring across the fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links in California — widely regarded as one of the best and most beautiful courses in the country.
“This thing isn’t forgiving,” Venuto said, watching the ball land in a clump of weeds. Her stats flashed across the screen, breaking down her speed, distance, backspin, and launch angle instantaneously. “I knew it was a bad shot, but it also knew it was a bad shot.”
Golf simulators have been around since the 1970s, mostly in the form of video and computer games — some may remember Microsoft Golf circa Windows 95 — but improved technology has made them more affordable and accessible. Those advances have given rise to indoor golf centers, where you can hit the links at some of world’s most famous courses for a fraction of the price, without leaving the city.
In the past decade, several indoor golf centers have come to the Philadelphia area, including Golf & Social, which opened in November 2017. More are popping up. Last month, Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Indoor Racetrack opened a Topgolf Swing Suite to complement its sports betting. NYC-based indoor golf venue Five Iron plans to open a Center City location this summer.
In winter especially, avid golfers gravitate to these centers, where they can perfect their backswing and hone their putting technique. They give experienced players control over conditions — you can change the wind speed and weather on the course to your liking — as well as easy access to mid-game wings and beer.
Chris Albrecht manages Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino’s Topgolf Swing Suite, which offers players 80 courses to choose from. While some patrons are there to maintain their form during the cold season, he said, many are less purposeful.
“A lot of people who have played it so far are looking for a social experience,” Albrecht said. “They want to hang out and eat some food, maybe pick up a club and swing away.”
“We have lots of regulars and definitely a midday crowd,” said Golf & Social owner Richard Troost. “Many of them don’t have time to go out of the city to play on a real course. To do that, you have to drive at least 30 minutes out of the city and then playing 18 holes, that’s going to take at least five to six hours.”
While whacking a golf ball into fabric sheet in Fishtown or Chester is not nearly as magical as actually golfing the legendary Old Course at St. Andrew’s, you avoid the hassle (and cost) of checking your clubs for a flight to Scotland. Moreover, the entry fee at world-class courses like North Carolina’s Pinehurst #2 or Oregon’s Pacific Dunes can be $300 or higher, not including caddie fees, and the wait to play can stretch to more than a year.
Harrah’s Topgolf rate is $50 for an hour and $25 for 30 minutes. Golf & Social’s current price is $49 per hour to use one of the four customized simulators, which cost $50,000 each. They use radar technology to read a golfer’s motions to determine the trajectory and speed of each shot.
It usually takes about an hour to play 18 holes, Troost said, so a party of four might reserve four hours on the simulator. Most golfers bring their own clubs, but the facility does offer a selection of basic clubs for beginners.
Far from a sprawling golf course, Golf & Social is more like a nightclub. The windowless space and dim lighting make it easy for golfers to see their virtual games. Glowing pillars separate one golfing area from another. Players tee off from artificial turf, into high-resolution projections that show virtual blades of grass waving in the breeze.
On a Saturday afternoon, muted televisions showed Philly sports games. A handful of people relaxed at high-top tables or on black leather couches while waiting for a simulator — reservations are strongly recommended, especially on weekends — as R & B hits blasted from the speakers.
It took Venuto a couple swings on the virtual driving range but she quickly adjusted to the simulator. She played for about 30 minutes, using her experiences on real golf courses to inform her decisions about which club to use in what situation.
The key to indoor golfing is figuring out how to aim the ball straight. Master that motion and the ball will go where you want it to every time, Troost said. Seasoned golfers have a relatively easy time making the transition, and kids and novice golfers pick it up fast, too. (Of course, for those that learn how to play golf indoors first, playing on a regular outdoor course will likely be more challenging.)
“This is great,” Venuto said as the simulator placed her at the exact spot where her ball landed just seconds after a 150-yard drive from the tee box. “You don’t have to get into a golf cart and drive around, looking for exactly where the ball landed, for 10 minutes.”
Venuto, who lives in Center City, usually plays golf with her father on weekends during spring, summer, and fall. She started playing when she was 11 and joined the women’s golf team at Muhlenberg College. After getting used to the simulator, she said she would definitely consider coming back and shelling out $49 to work on her game during the winter.
“I don’t often get to see my stats broken down like that,” she said of the simulator’s feedback on her performance. “It’s insanely accurate. On the course, you don’t usually know the exact numbers, so you’re just estimating.”
Golf & Social, 1080 N. Delaware Ave., $49 per hour 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 856-267-5437, golfandsocial.com
Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Indoor Racetrack, 777 Harrah’s Blvd., Chester, $25 for 30 minutes, $50 per hour, 24/7, 484-490-1800, caesars.com
Golf Science Center, 211 N. 13th St., $40 per hour on weekdays, $50 per hour on weekends, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, 215-279-7835, golfsciencecenter.com
Umbria Golf Center, 7200 Umbria St., $40 per hour 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, $45 per hour 5 to 10 p.m. on weekdays and all day weekends, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, 215-483-8566, umbriagolfcenter.com
Big Swing Golf Center, 312 Salina Rd., Sewell, N.J., $30 per hour for general public, $25 per hour for seniors and students, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, 856-553-6723, bigswinggolfcenter.com
Play-a-Round Golf, 56 Greenfield Ave., Ardmore; 245 Lancaster Ave., Malvern, $45 per hour weekdays, $50 per hour weekends, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, playaroundgolf.net