Golf season in Full Swing

Simulator lets golfers play Pebble Beach in January

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2007


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  Ragan gets help setting up a game from Tammy Berdahl of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area. Photo by M. Scott Moon

John Ragan golfs last week on a Full Swing Golf simulator at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center. "This is quite a machine -- one of the better ones Ive played," Ragan said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jim and Carol Anderson were looking to prepare for a scramble on April 18 in Arizona.

One problem. The courses the duo play -- Kenai Golf Course and Birch Ridge Golf Course -- are still several feet of frozen solid ground topped by snow.

So the Andersons turned to the Full Swing Golf simulator at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center. Carol said she went to the simulator hoping to just get the feel of swinging a club again. She said she was surprised at how much fun she had.

“It’s like being out there golfing, and here it is wintertime,” said Anderson, who has played the game off and on for several years. “It’s just like being on the course. You can see where the ball went, and it mimics it so well. You can practically feel the breeze blowing.”

The simulator comes from a 2005 state legislative grant, according to Rachel Parra, the recreation director of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area.


Ragan gets help setting up a game from Tammy Berdahl of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We were looking to enhance our programs at the recreation center,” Parra said. “One of the target groups -- we already had a lot of programs for youths and teens -- was attracting more adults. We thought this would be a good way to do that.”

Parra said the rec center wanted to grab a simulator that would be as close to being on an actual course as possible. The center turned to Full Swing Golf, which Parra said is on the cutting edge as far as golf simulation goes.

According to Full Swing Golf’s Web site, the company has been building simulators for 20 years and now has 3,500 simulators in 67 countries. Clients who have received custom installations include the likes of Michael Jordan, Donald Trump, Curt Schilling and noted golf instructor Jim McLean.

The key to the simulator is the infrared tracking system. The tracking system uses 688 independent sensors, exactly 1 1/2 inches apart, to display the flight of each shot in real time. Because the simulator reacts to the ball, and not the clubhead, the ball does not need to be hit from a fixed point. This frees up the golfer to place the ball on different points of the multisurface hitting area. The Nikiski Rec Center has simulated fairway, rough and sand conditions.

Nikiski offers 42 courses and the Full Swing Golf system also has a practice setting with a driving range. Some of the famous courses offered are St. Andrews Links Old Course, Pinehurst No. 2 and Pebble Beach Golf Links.

All this sophistication does not come cheap. Parra said the simulator cost the Nikiski Rec Center about $49,000. She said getting a good simulator was important because it means repeat customers. With repeat customers, Parra said she hopes the simulator will pay for itself.

At Full Swing Golf of Alaska in Anchorage, employee Ray Reekie said there are seven Full Swing Golf simulators. He said the simulators are popular throughout the winter, especially as the new golf season starts up on television. He said Full Swing Golf is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and to get tee times on the weekends during high demand people call a week in advance.

Reekie also said the simulator is accurate enough that Moose Run professional Bryan Anderson will use it for lessons in the wintertime.

Tammy Berdahl, the recreation supervisor at the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, said the use of the simulator in Nikiski has varied. Some days will be full and some days will not see anybody play.

“I would like to see more use,” Berdahl said. “We just had someone in last week who didn’t know about it and just found out about it. It’s gotten consistent use every week.”

One of the regulars is Nikiski’s John Johnson, who has used the simulator once a week since it opened in early November. Johnson, a 19 or 20 handicap who does most of his golfing in Kenai, said the main benefit of the simulator is getting to hit a ball in order to keep his swing in shape.

“I think the yardage is pretty accurate, and also the hook and slice,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty doggone accurate as far as irons and driving. I find it enjoyable to play.”

Johnson, who said 18 holes takes him about an hour when he’s by himself, said the simulator gets less realistic the closer you get to the hole.

Cliff Vaught, who has been playing golf since the early 1990s and has a 13 handicap, has played the simulator six or eight times this winter. He agrees with Johnson that the simulator gets less realistic as the golfer gets closer to the hole. Vaught said the simulator is still very fun because of the holes the golfer gets to play.

“I don’t get a chance to go out and play Pebble Beach,” Vaught said. “That’s one of the advantages. I get to play all the different courses and see all the different holes.”

Vaught thinks the distances the ball travels can be exaggerated at times. He said he hits 250-yard drives on the simulator a lot more than he does on a real golf course.

Full Swing Golf of Alaska’s Reekie said that as golfers play the simulator more and more, they can figure out ways to cheat the system. Since the main way the system determines distance is speed, hitting a ball a lower angle will give more speed and thus more distance.

Reekie said he takes advantage of this to hit his 7-iron anywhere from 120 to 200 yards.

“Most of us that play a lot end up hitting a lower ball,” said Reekie, who plays in a winter league. “When we get outside, at first we have a problem getting the ball up in the air. It doesn’t take long to fix that. It’s better than going out and swinging for the first time after six or seven months.”

Bill Burtram, an 8 or 10 handicap who started playing golf in 1993, also has played the simulator six or eight times. The Kenai Golf Course regular has noticed limitations with the system, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing.

“It’s not like playing real golf, you know, but it’s pretty neat,” he said. “It passes the time away. When four of us go out there and play, we have a lot of fun.”

The former classroom that houses the simulator has a low ceiling. The height of the simulator had to be lowered by 2 feet in order to accommodate the low ceiling. Burtram said this means a player has to be careful not to strike the top of the simulator with a club.

Burtram, who was watching the Masters when talking about the simulator on Friday, shares the sentiments of all the simulator’s players when it comes to Alaska and golf.

“I just can’t wait to get on to the real thing,” he said.

Anderson also can’t wait to get on to the real thing, but she sees some more advantages to the simulator, noting that bad shots are never hard to find.

“A golf course without no-see-ums is nice,” she said.

The simulator is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The simulator costs $20 per hour on Monday through Thursday and $24 per hour on Friday and Saturday. Berdahl recommends calling ahead for a tee time. The number is 776-8800.

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