On this, my week off, I originally had planned to head south to play golf. But the necessity of taking a stress test and Mrs. GolfBlogger’s desire to repaint the bathroom derailed the scheme. So while the weather outside has hovered in the low 20s (Dang you Al Gore! Live up to your promises!), I’ve been sanding and scraping and priming and painting and trimming. Then, as I was taking a break from the sea of purple that now is my bathroom, I ran across an article on a new indoor golf range and simulator arcade at the Michigan State Fairgrounds.
Naturally, I had to give it a try.
The Next Shot Golf Range is just inside the main entrance of the Michigan State Fairgrounds off Woodward Avenue. Ask the gate attendant to point out the shop, or you’ll likely miss it.
First impressions are not good: the State Fair parking lot looks like the face of the moon, and the fairground buildings like an industrial wasteland. I began to wonder if I’d driven an hour only to be disappointed. I wasn’t. Inside, Next Shot is bright, clean and spacious. It’s a great place to spend a cold winter’s afternoon.
The facility includes a driving range, putting green and four golf simulators. There’s also a pro shop that currently is mostly empty; the clerk said that new stock was due in at any moment.
I started with a $7 bucket of balls at the range. The hitting area is short—perhaps 50 yards deep, and well protected by rear and overhanging nets. The lack of depth will be off-putting to some, but I found I didn’t mind because of the incredible quality of the hitting mats. They’re not mats at all, but a wide, continuous strip of wonderful-feeling simulated grass. The material gives just like a lush fairway (minus the divots); in fact, it feels an awful lot like the grass at Torrey Pines.
One note on the range: bring tees. The material allows you to insert a tee just as you would on a real course.
The putting green is a rather pedestrian carpeted platform. From conversations overheard between the owner and a contractor, however, that area is due to be upgraded with some pretty high quality astroturf (I saw samples).
The real stars of the facility, however, are the simulators, which run off the Microsoft LS system. You hit the ball at a projector image of a course; sensors detect ball direction, velocity and spin and translate that into ball flight. When the ball comes to rest, stats on the shot are briefly flashed, and then you are shown a view of the next shot.
The simulator bays are nicely done. There’s a bar height table and chairs outside for people to sit while waiting their turn. The hitting mat inside is of high quality material, and the entire floor is a nice industrial carpet. On the right side of the bay is a wood case that holds the computer, and an LCD touch screen that allows you to navigate the menus.
That touch screen is important, for that’s how you line up your shots. In the simulator, all shots are aimed at the center of the screen. To adjust your aim, you move the image left and right by dragging your finger across the touch screen. In the upper left of the screen is an elevation chart, and information on how much further it is to the hole. It actually works pretty well.
Three hitting surfaces are provided inside the bay. The largest area is a traditional hard driving range mat—murder on the elbows. Just beyond that is a thicker strip of artificial grass to represent fairways; good stuff. Finally, there was a strip of very long plastic grass blades to represent rough; another, painted white, represented sand (the pinkish area on the floor in the photo is the white sand).
To take a shot, you simply line up the computer screen, place a ball on the appropriate strip and swing away. The ball hits the screen with a thwack and the screen plays out your shot.
Putting is accomplished in much the same way as hitting. You’re shown the distance, and a couple of arrows indicating the direction of the break. After adjusting the aim on the touch screen, you putt right at the big screen. This has to be the trickiest part of playing a simulator, so the machines are set by default to offer up a gimme at six feet.
Next Shot offers a couple of dozen courses. I chose Oakland Hills—it’s a course that I’ve always wanted to play, and that is tantalizingly close to my home. (if there are any Oakland Hills members out there reading this, I would be forever grateful for a chance to play your home course).
The system is very slick, but I didn’t play well, shooting a 115 from the middle tees. I think that my main issues with the simulator were psychological. First, I felt confined in the bay. I was very conscious of not swinging as hard as I normally do (in spite of telling myself that it was ok). That resulted in some very weak shots. I also think that I flinched a bit in anticipation of the ball bouncing back at my head. And finally, a fascination with the computer screen had me looking up before I was finished with the swing.
My first nine were disastrous. I was hitting very weak shots, I couldn’t figure out the putting speed, and my aim was off. I overcame much of this by the back nine. My shots were back to within ten yards of what I expected, and I could at least get the putts within 6 feet for the gimmie. I had a two birdies, one of which I holed out on a pitch from the fairway.
I made some adjustments as the round progressed. First, I had to work hard to forget that I was in a box with a screen and likely to get hit by a rebound. When I bore down and ignored the confinement, my shots played well. If I were to play a simulator on a regular basis, I think that it would get easier to do this.
It was also a bit before I realized that because the fairway and rough hitting mats were further to the right than the driving mat, I had to adjust the screen accordingly.
Another issue: high wedge shots don’t register very well. I hit several that didn’t show any movement at all. From what I can tell of the mechanism, the ball has to cross two rows of sensors. If you hit a very steep shot, the ball can cross the first, but not the second before hitting the ceiling. That meant that I was sometimes pitching when I normally would be hitting a wedge.
One shot that I use all the time that didn’t work at all on the simulator was putting from the fairway with a three wood.
In all, it was a very enjoyable afternoon. If it wasn’t more than an hour away, I’d do it more often.