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Flying high on the high street - Urban Golf in London
Dominic Pedler reports on the rise of an 'alternative' golfing concept

FOLLOWING THE SUCCESS OF THEIR INDOOR GOLF FORMULA COMBINING THE LATEST SIMULATORS WITH CUTTING-EDGE INSTRUCTION AND CLUB FITTING, URBAN GOLF OPENS THEIR THIRD LONDON BRANCH, THIS TIME IN FASHIONABLE KENSINGTON.

Part I: Flying high on the high street - Urban Golf in London
Part II: Beach in the City - Urban Golf in London

They Used To Play On Grass was Terry Venables’ futuristic football novel on how the parallel development of synthetic surfaces and playing tactics would alter our perception of the game. In 2010, the title should be the motto of Urban Golf whose ambitious vision of indoor golf played on stunning, state-of-the-art simulators has brought a new dimension to the game for a new generation of city dwellers.

The opening of their third branch last month, in stylish underground premises on Kensington High Street, confirms how golf can evolve in extraordinary ways given the right combination savvy operators and cutting-edge technology.

While ‘real’ golf clubs have been tackling the problems of sluggish participation rates, slow play and the worst weather for 30 years, Urban Golf has been refining their formula proven to appeal equally to complete novices making their first faltering steps; handicap golfers looking for a ‘virtual’ round after work; corporate groups planning ‘functions for all’ – and even tour pros seeking instant performance analysis.

Following the blueprint established at the Soho and Smithfield venues (which have been attracting some 500 customers per week) Urban’s W8 operation enjoys a discrete 9,000 sq ft architect-designed venue fitted with eight state-of-the-art simulators. Each booth comes complete with a giant 12ft x 11ft screen, control panels and the latest TaylorMade R9 golf clubs to create a private golfing world which members and casual visitors can hire on an hourly basis.

Along with a plush bar and synthetic practice putting greens, the venue also boasts a special custom fitting centre where Urban Golf’s team of experts analyse, teach and club fit using an array of high-res cameras and other high-tech devices and software. More on that later, but let’s first summarise the simulators that will prove the most immediate draw to the casual customer.

Those whose idea of the ultimate indoor golf experience is Tiger Woods 2010 on the Wii will be in for a shock. Here you hit real golf balls with a full swing from synthetic mats against digital screens sporting ultra-lifelike, HD digital images of the top golf courses from around the world. [For those unfamiliar with simulators, your golf ball becomes a ‘virtual’ ball as soon as it strikes the screen, continuing its flight and roll realistically on a projected image of the course as implied by the launch profile of your initial impact.]

It only takes a few holes to feel a satisfying sense of the Old Course at St Andrews, or Bay Hill, Oakland Hills, Valderrama or this June’s US Open venue, Pebble Beach – as Tom Cox did for his column this issue (see page 118) – even if your feet remain firmly planted in West London.

New courses are being added all the time, with TPC Sawgrass and Turnberry currently in the pipeline – while a recent addition is the Infamous 18 based on those crazy calendars of fantasy holes. This is a favourite of Urban’s corporate clients for the truly breathtaking aerial ‘fly by’ sequences taking in greens perched on Manhattan rooftops and fairways bordering Venezuela’s Iguassu Falls.

In their never-ending quest for realism, Urban Golf have worked closely with the leading golf simulator scientists as one of their most high-profile clients. The Kensington branch is duly kitted out with the new generation of US-made about Golf units whose latest camera-based, ball-tracking technology represents a vast improvement on the earlier radar-based generations. One huge development is how the high-speed photography of the 3Trak series now accurately measures sidespin to produce a far more realistic representation of your true ball flight rather than imputing the ball’s lateral dispersion purely on the face angle at impact.

“You can now shape the golf ball and know that the system will take account of, for example, the corrective spin of a deliberate fade,” explains Urban Golf’s head pro, James Day, as he fires a long iron left-to-right into the middle of the 18th fairway at St Andrews. “Our tests confirm that the accuracy is now such that you can be confident that the result of any shot is very similar to what you would get outdoors on the ‘real’ course.” Other more subtle refinements include the way that all mounds, hazards and objects on the virtual course are now scanned in 3D, ensuring that when your ball strikes an object (like the wall down the right of the Road Hole!) it rebounds more realistically, in the appropriate plane, compared with earlier versions.

One gem of a feature is the concept of a Physics Handicap that allows different standards of golfer to play together without having to give or receive shots. The technology simply reads your launch conditions for each strike and improves them by a pre-determined amount: 25%, 50% or 70%, according to your choice of three settings. The middle setting, for example, reduces by half the sidespin on a typical ‘banana’ slice leaving you in the right rough instead of the OB it deserved!

It’s a reflection of how Urban’s indoor concept is tailored to all comers, starting with complete beginners who may face understandable trepidation at pitching up to play at a real golf course – or even a driving range. At the other end of the spectrum, on our visit last month we bumped into Aussie Tour Pro, James McLean, who regularly uses the VIP facilities in the Custom Fit Centre here as his practice facility while preparing for his comeback after injury. “It’s not just to escape the British weather, I can recreate any shot I want and the Max Out Launch Monitor gives me instant and accurate performance data on my ball speed, spin rate and trajectory,” he explained while firing balls towards an exotic waterfall on the huge 16ft x 9ft screen.

Yet, for all the technology and fancy visuals, Urban Golf is equally about offering a premium approach to golf instruction and equipment fitting. Their attention to detail is evident in their skills coaching programmes that take the emphasis off laborious repetition in favour of sessions tailored to a player’s strengths and spanning all areas of the game. “We structure our instruction to work with a golfer’s ‘baseline’ ability rather than pushing them to strive relentlessly for elusive technical excellence,” explains James Day.

And while they are surrounded by golfing gadgets and gizmos worthy of NASA, Urban’s experts stress that they only use them judiciously and where appropriate for the golfer concerned. “We don’t believe in either teaching or club fitting‘by numbers’,” explains Urban’s chief club fitter, Zane Navie, confirming that there is no substitute for human skills and experience when it comes to these areas. “Our philosophy is to educate and get a result for each individual customer. The technology is there simply to confirm and demonstrate that we are achieving that result.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be drawn into Urban’s exotic world of strain gauges (that capture your individual shaft bend profile); Moment of Inertia Matching (a process of building sets of clubs with a consistent feel in terms of effort); and a putting studio that will make you rethink the whole nature of the short game.

Urban debuted an early version of their V1 Putt Lab at Smithfield, a couple of years ago, but the 2010 upgrade in Kensington is set to surpass that with some eight, ultra high-spec cameras and software quantifying every aspect of your putting stroke. As we will cover in a forthcoming piece, the idea is to not only to guide you to the ideal flat-stick specs for your style of stroke but also to provide the ultimate putting education your game.

“The system helps us enlighten the customer on everything from his eye dominance and stroke path to developing the most appropriate pre-shot routine,” confirms Navie, as I browse some factory-exclusive Bettinardis and hand-made Yamadas.

Indeed, the variety of equipment brands on offer through Urban reminds us that here is an independent operator with no axe to grind as regards particular manufacturers. Their club fitting philosophy is purely to identify the most appropriate clubs for each golfer, a point which adds to the credibility of the process. And while Urban will supply and custom fit to the most exacting standards; they are quite prepared just to be consulted for recommendations and specifications for those golfers intent on purchasing equipment elsewhere. The Urban Golf concept clearly has broad appeal while every advance in technology is steadily converting the purists who sneer that simulator golf bears no relation to ‘the real thing’.

Well, increasingly it does. Navie himself recently prepared for an international tournament at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island by playing the spectacular ‘virtual version’ in Kensington a dozen times before setting off for South Carolina. “When I got out there and played the course it was as if I already knew it like the back of my hand!” he recounts. It seems grass is not quite yet redundant….

Urban Golf, 125 Kensington High Street, London, W8 (see also Soho and Smithfield branches)
Opening times: 10am-11pm, Monday to Saturday
Guide prices: Simulators £20-50 per hour depending on times.
Ring for membership packages.
Custom Fit centre from £70 per hour (allow 2 hours)
Contact: 020 7248 8600 - www.urbangolf.co.uk

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine











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