Have you ever thought about trying a golf simulator? Until recently, unless you lived in a big city you probably didn’t have the opportunity. But times are changing.

In Davenport, Iowa, the average winter high temperatures are…cold. You’re looking at mid-20s to low 30s for at least three months every winter.

It’s not exactly ideal golf weather, especially when occasional snows blanket the course at Crow Valley Golf Club in Davenport. Yet many of the club’s members are golf-happy even in the depths of the cold months, largely because Crow Valley brought in a pair of golf simulators a year ago.

“I am not exaggerating,” said Crow Valley general manager Fred “Three” Carpenter. “We are literally booked seven days a week—on both simulators all day every day.”

The Rise of the Golf Simulator

The Crow Valley experience is not isolated. Over the past decade, golf simulators have jumped in popularity. These marvels have been around a long time, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become so prevalent—and so accurate—that we essentially find ourselves living in a golf simulator world. In fact, industry insiders estimate that “off-course” golf attracted more than 12 million players in 2021.

Many golf clubs, particularly those in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, ordered simulators during the early stages of the pandemic. If you’ve never used a golf simulator, they realistically recreate the concept of moving a golf ball around a course, keeping members swinging while they’re warm and comfortable inside. In many big cities, you can even go to simulator “ranges,” which allow golfers to walk down the street from the office and “play” nine holes during lunch. New York City alone has a thriving simulator community.

New Technological Advancements Are Changing the Simulator Game

Advancements in technology have moved the simulation game from barely visible screens to super-realistic re-creations of courses from around the world. It’s even possible to “play” many of the more popular courses in the United States, including Pebble Beach, Augusta National, and Torrey Pines. All it takes is a flip of a switch from the tee box “mat” in front of your screen—no exclusive club membership or lottery bid necessary.

The simulation technology follows your ball from tee to hole. Along the way, it records every great drive and every shanked 6 iron while providing yardage numbers, trajectory results, and, depending on the sophistication of the model, a wealth of other information recreational golfers may or may not want.

For those interested in bringing this magic into their homes, simulators are available—for a price. But be prepared to pay a pretty penny—they start at several hundred dollars and accelerate into the high five figures. The more you pay, the more you get, with top-of-the-line products promising screen views that will put you beside the ocean at Pebble Beach and swing technology that will send your crisp 9 iron shot to a gentle landing on the next par 3. 

Some simulators are so realistic you half expect a guy to pop out of the screen and hand you a beer.

golf simulator

Ready To Try It Out?

Before you turn the family den into a golf course, it’s a good idea to visit one of the many golf simulation locations across the country. Try to fit a simulator into a home space that’s too tight, and you might take out a chandelier—or worse, your nephew—while pulling your backswing.

Five Iron Golf has locations in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Las Vegas, and several other cities and offers golf simulators, lessons, and leagues. Its facilities also cater to non-golfers, with full bar service, food, shuffleboard, billiards, and wide-screen televisions.

Katie Fulton, one of the teaching pros at the Five Iron Golf location in downtown Baltimore, said the facility attracts “a complete mix” of players “from people who walk in and shoot 62 on TrackMan to people walking in in high heels who have never swung a golf club. Once a golfer hears about it, they want to try it, particularly in cold weather or when it’s really hot.”

And, Fulton says, the Five Iron facility design, which includes a restaurant, bar, and sitting areas, attracts people who want to hit golf balls but also enjoy hanging out with family and friends.

“We had a wedding reception here three weeks ago,” she said. “We had a couple of our [11] bays open for them to play, and in the rest of the bays we set up little stations for the reception.”

Providing a diversified experience including food and drink has also worked for Crow Valley, which, in addition to simulators, used the same space in its clubhouse to add a small restaurant area and bar, a space for shuffleboard, and 10 televisions.

Keeping Members Engaged and Finding New Audiences

“We took a dead space in our club and turned it into the most happening spot in the building,” Carpenter said. “Before, our winter programming was certainly diminished, but we’ve been able to add a very attractive amenity that keeps all of our members engaged.”

The simulators even work across age groups, Carpenter mentioned. “We’re seeing a ton of kids’ programming,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of parents with younger kids enjoying food in the area while they use the simulators as a family.”

The simulators were popular even during warm months when the golf course was busy, Carpenter said. “We have an investment group located near the course, and every couple of months they’ll invite clients over and sort of take over that whole space with food and drinks and the simulators,” he said. “In the evenings, people will come in and order dinner and play with the simulators. In a way, it’s sort of like bowling.

“And, of course, we get rainy days. On those days, the simulators fill up.”

It’s Just Like the Real Thing…Right?

Although the simulation technology is typically very realistic, some low-handicap players have complained that hitting balls off the mat is significantly different from their on-course experience. And it has been difficult to accurately duplicate on-course putting, although newer technology is bridging that gap, also.

“Even our really good players notice some difference, but they find it reasonably true,” Carpenter said. “Our golf pros here are all top-drawer players, and they utilize it quite regularly.”

Wondering if there’s a golf simulator in your city? Full Swing started in the simulator business in 1986 and calls itself the largest U.S.-based producer of multi-sport simulators. SkyTrak, Optishot, Par2Pro, TruGolf, FlightScope, aboutGolf, Golfzon and Foresight are among other simulator companies taking advantage of this popular new experience. 

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.