The island green of the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass, is golf’s paean to the Hippodromes of ancient Rome: a sporting arena built very much to sate the sadistic pleasure of the gallery. It’s here that modern day gladiators, wielding clubs rather than weapons, are pitted against a deceptively puny-looking beast—the puny 132-yard par-3—that relies not on brutal length, or unplayable rough, but optics and treachery to befuddle even the greatest players. How the field fares against this hole, has historically defined who emerges as ‘The Player,’ at the PGA Tour’s Player’s Championship.
Now professional golf, at least in America, is a far cry from the genteel affair you’ll find on the European Tour, at least as far as appearances go. And that applies to the players, the commentators, and most of all, the gallery which can be quite strident with its rahs and boos. When it comes to the 17th at the TPC, people crowd to witness, not as much the good shots as the ones that end up in the drink—talk about pressure. The pros, already quivering at the knees facing their bete noire—as it transpired on the first day of this years’s Player’s Championship with 35 balls in the drink—often lose that battle. How, I wondered, watching the first day’s carnage last week, do amateurs fare on this hole? A quick online search gave some indication: 120,000 balls, on average, end up in a watery grave at the 17th hole every year. Let that sink in.
Keen to test my questionable abilities on this hole, and with no trip to America on the cards, I decided to do the next best thing—play the hole on a golf simulator. “Not just any simulator,” I was informed by Rahul Bhattacharya, MD & CEO of Microgravity Ventures—a startup that’s set up a new gaming and entertainment centre in Gurgaon. “It’s got a curved screen, is certified by the (US) PGA Tour, and offers the most realistic golf simulation experience that you can have,” he declared. Bhattacharya, an ex-corporate, decided after decades of toiling for other people’s dreams, to stop playing it safe, and dive into the capital-intensive arena of e-sports. And since he’s a golfer, Microgravity’s futuristic playground—replete with all kinds of virtual stadia where you can drive race cars, take rollercoaster rides, and participate in all kinds of multiplayer games that involve shooting zombies among other undesirables—also includes a simulator for the most brutal sport of all—golf.
As I warmed up on the ‘range,’ it became clear that this—a simulator made by the well-known simulator manufacturer, aboutGolf— was cutting-edge. Most old simulators used infrared or optical sensors while launch monitors use radar—both considered somewhat antiquated today The simulator at Microgravity, curved screen et al, immediately felt, for lack of a less cliched word, real. As I hit balls, the multiple high-speed cameras created realistic flight physics, and gave me feedback on club speed, ball velocity, spin, attack angle, and distance. A disclaimer is needed here: I’m not sure that being confronted with this information does much for the confidence of players like myself—there is a way to cheat the system however: just shank, and the machine doesn’t pick up anything. Unable to watch the terrifying spectacle of a rank amateur shanking balls all over the place, and dangerously close to his expensive set-up, Bhattacharya excused himself and left me to my devices.
This was Saturday night last week, and I switched over to the live telecast just in time to see Justin Thomas begin his weekend charge: four birdies on the first holes to get within three of lead after starting seven shots back. Thomas is an exceptional player, not least because of the dramatic moves in his swing that allow him to keep up with the longer hitters despite his relatively short stature. The highlight of his eight-under 64 was the second at the Par-5 16th from just over 200 yards which he nearly holed, and unlike the first round where he’d stumbled to a double-bogey five on the 17th hole, Thomas safely negotiated a cross-wind and the firm green for a par. Inspired, I pulled up the hole (you can choose to play specific holes on different courses on this simulator) and decided to have a go, albeit after making strategic changes to suit my game. It was a pretty immersive experience, the graphics more lifelike than any I’d seen before on a simulator. The terrain is highly detailed, the tee box signs can be read and even the flags flutter in the direction of the wind. I switched wind conditions to ‘calm,’ and made the green as receptive as possible—perfect, as it were, for a full pitching wedge to land on the upper tier and funnel back to the hole. It didn’t quite work out that way, nor did the mulligan (which again you can choose to give yourself), and the fifth from the drop zone finally held up against the edge. Putting on this simulator is the real deal, something that is sorely lacking on the older ones I’d played on. I’m not going to bore you with details of how many times I played this hole, and the forgettable outcomes: suffice to say that the 17th at the TPC Sawgrass is a monster, whether you play it in the real world, or virtually.
Pertinently, this failure didn’t furrow my brow or darken my mood. For all it’s realism, it wasn’t a real ball that rolled off the island green: the ball I hit lay at my feet after rolling back from the screen. I don’t know what that’s about; perhaps a throwback to the terror of losing a precious ball back in the 1990s when those were precious commodities. Millennials might laugh, but that was not a loss to be trifled with. Those of us of that vintage will feel a softer blow on a simulator, the score notwithstanding. And there’s a smug satisfaction at being able to control the weather; golf is hard enough, and it’s cruel to have bad weather foul up the joy of a well-orchestrated bunk from work. It might be virtual, but the joys are real. Maybe one day I’ll be able to program my golfing mind like AI: input millions of videos of well-hit shots that I’ll be able to execute automatically. Until then, I’m sold on the simulator.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game