It snowed in Boston this past weekend – a lot. We got more snow than we’ve seen in years, said the weather people. They were grinning as they said it. All of them. They’re sadistic.
I was too busy playing the Plantation Course at Kapalua to notice or care how much it was snowing in Boston, though. I hit a few good drives and my approach shots were pretty stellar, but my long irons and my putter got the best of me: I shot a 97.
I wasn’t actually in Hawaii but by the end of the round, I was sweating as if Maui’s silky-warm air had found its way into my every pore. I was in my living room swinging my own golf clubs, hitting a foam practice ball off a high-tech mat connected to my computer.
Dancin’ Dogg’s $400 OptiShot Infrared Golf Simulator is priced just high enough that you expect it to be more than a gimmicky motion controller, but low enough that it’s easy to make your peace with its shortcomings. The system is made of a 14-inch-long by 10-inch-wide platform of artificial turf containing a tee area flanked by a row of infrared sensors on either end.
The platform connects to your PC with a 10-foot USB cable and measures your club head speed, face angle and swing path in real time. You can hit the included foam practice balls, real golf balls or nothing at all. All the compute-y stuff makes the platform about an inch and a quarter thick, so you’ll want to stand on something close to that thickness to compensate. Dancin’ Dogg sells optional mats, but they’re almost comically expensive – I stood on a thick rug and positioned the platform next to it on the hardwood floor, which worked fine.
In my testing, I found hitting the foam balls to be far more enjoyable than swinging at nothing, as the trajectory and pop of the foam balls helps your brain register whether you’ve hit a shot squarely or not. I didn’t get a chance to hit real golf balls in my living room, unfortunately, because I’m married and would like to stay married.
The OptiShot software lets you practice on a driving range or play one of 11 real-life courses (most of the names are altered to avoid legal issues), with 14 additional courses that can be purchased for a whopping $50 apiece. The software’s interface can be a bit rough around the edges in certain parts, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by the visual quality of the courses and how fluidly the in-game animations portrayed my real-life shots.
Getting the most out of the system requires a bit of work up front. You’ll want to edit your virtual golf bag to reflect the contents of your actual bag, which you can do by tweaking the shaft length, loft, offset and average distances for each club. I initially had a hell of a time getting my irons to go the correct distances – my swing speed always seemed to register lower than it actually was – but I was able to manually set each iron to register at 125% power, which got my distances back on track. I didn’t have any trouble with my driver, 3-wood or hybrid 3-iron.
Putting is something of an afterthought. You can set the game to auto-putt for you or bless you with a gimme within a certain range of the cup. I still putted on every hole, but I found the green speeds to be unrealistically fast, even when cranked down to the slowest level (you can change the green and fairway speeds in the settings). While I could see regular use of this system improving my driving and iron play over time, I’m not convinced my putting would improve. As for chipping and pitching, I was almost certain the OptiShot wouldn’t be able to accurately detect anything less than a full swing, but I’ve been pretty pleased with how well it’s been able to handle shots from within 50 yards of the green.
All things considered, I like the OptiShot very much. The system is creepy in a good way. It knows I slice my drives if I swing too hard. It knows I can’t hit my sand wedge straight. It knows I pull my hybrid. It knows I decelerate when I’m pitching from 30 yards out. That 97 I shot at the Plantation Course is pretty close to what I’d shoot at the Plantation Course in real life if I ever got to play it.
At $400, it’s enough of an investment that you’ll probably want to try it out yourself first, but it works well enough that it’s got me half-wishing I had a big house in the suburbs with a spacious rumpus room so I could hit the links all winter long.