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Beach in the City - Urban Golf in London

You may not have the time (or the money) to play Pebble Beach in California. But don’t worry – you can do it in London. Tom Cox did just that

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

Is a round at any golf course worth nearly $500? I’m inclined to think not. That said, my feeling is that, if any course is worth such a fee, it might be Pebble Beach. As a rule, I’m a person who avoids those ‘Things To Do Before You Die’ lists, as I try not to live my life as if I’m on a mobile vertical death bed, and prefer not to see life as a series of big experiences-bynumbers, but I have to grudgingly admit that if I did keep one, then playing Pebble Beach would definitely have to be on it.

Between the ages of 13 and 15, I must have stood by the putting green at my home club a thousand times and tried to recreate Tom Watson’s chip-in from the kikuyu grass by the 17th at the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach. This now strikes me as a somewhat archaic bit of golfing fantasy. I was only seven when Watson won the tournament, with no interest in golf, so didn’t see a rerun of the chip until at least six years later. My true introduction to the course was in the 1992 US Open, a tournament lost by a player I didn’t care a whole lot about at the time (Colin Montgomerie) and won by one I cared a whole lot less about (Tom Kite). Yet a couple of viewings of the chip and a few pictures in golf magazines had been enough to plant Pebble firmly on a loop in my brain – enough to mean that, every time I played from the elevated tee at the tiny par-three 7th at Sherwood Forest Golf Club, I was also playing from the elevated tee at the even tinier par-three 7th at Pebble Beach, despite the fact that, other than on television, I had never ever seen anyone play the par-three 7th at Pebble Beach.

Of course, the golfer’s imagination doesn’t have to work anywhere near as hard these days. Those with a Sky subscription will see at least twice as much coverage of this year’s US Open at Pebble Beach as BBC viewers saw of the 1982 or 1992 tournaments. And you can actually play a very accurate simulation of Pebble at the new branch of Urban Golf in Kensington, simply by hitting a ball into a screen then watching it soar away into Californian skies of brilliant virtual blue.

I’ve been a huge fan of Urban Golf ever since the first UK branch opened five years ago. Unlike real golf, you don’t get cold or wet or have to look for your ball and, unlike my local driving range, you don’t get RSI from hitting it fat because the “mats” are actually a plank of wood covered by some astroturf so thin it would barely serve as a ballet dancer’s doormat. Admittedly, there were a few kinks to iron out on the first Urban Golf simulators. When my friend Simon, who’s 6’4”, and has a very upright swing, played there, he would hit the ceiling every time he took a drive, and the putting was a bit of a lottery, but both these aspects have been improved at the new branch, and the courses look about three times more realistic. In short, as a 13-year-old I would have been willing to pay to watch a VHS of the Pebble we see on the screen here, let alone play it.

Since I don’t fly, and do not have Clint Eastwood’s home phone number, Urban Pebble is about the nearest I can come to answering the question ‘Is any round of golf worth $495?’; a question that can only ultimately be answered by playing a round of golf that costs $495. It also suits one of my playing partners for the day, Golf International Editor Richard Simmons, who, having recently spent a week at Augusta, might have viewed the real Pebble as a little bit of a comedown. That said, neither of us is anywhere near at home here as the final member of our threeball, Urban Golf’s Director James Day, who breezes around the front nine in two under par, no doubt helped by the fact that his lustrous, floppy fringe is cut just to the perfect length to still be able to see the ball as he addresses it.

Even without having been to Real Pebble, this is one advantage I can confidently say Urban Pebble has over it: people here have much nicer hair. Besides James, there is also another employee known as The Kid who periodically visits our simulator and whose hair is so perfectly crimped and piled on top of his head it seems it could have only been carefully arranged there by a celebrity chef.

The place is sumptuously decorated, in a Victorian-meets-urban-chic sort of way, and in just the sign on the toilet door – ‘Nearest point of relief’ – one can find evidence of four times more of a sense of humour than possessed by the average American country club.

As we come to the par-three 17th, Richard and I are level at six over par. Even for two golfers, albeit out-of-practice ones, who’ve played to not far off scratch in their time, this seems like a good score for a first time on the simulator. I’m sure we would have to add a few shots on to that for the overawing atmosphere of Real Pebble, and the weather, which we have generously set to a preternatural calmness in order to be kind to ourselves.

Urban Pebble is definitely not easy. Much like the other 50-plus courses at Urban Golf Kensington, it provides a hard-hitting lesson in distance, its extremely accurate readings of my drives showing me that the ‘300 yards’ I sometimes convince myself that I have hit the ball off the tee is actually more like 260 yards, plus a bit of distortion caused by the tee markers being inched a few yards forward, friendly winds, and British fairway roll.

Further reality checks arrive as I fall foul of the cliff edges that cut in on the edge of so many of Pebble’s holes, particularly as we get closer to the back nine. I’m slightly disappointed at the lack of spectators on the 18th, which means nobody claps my drive as it soars over the corner of the Pacific, and, more importantly, means I cannot recreate the moment in the AT&T pro-am when Bill Murray swung a grandma into a greenside bunker.

I do get to recreate one famous Pebble moment, though: earlier, I hit my drive to almost my exact point in the rough on the par-five 6th from which Tiger Woods played his legendary 7-iron shot to the green in the 2000 US Open. I, however, use a 4-iron, not a 7, and hit it not on to the distant green but slap bang into the cliff edge in front of me – which is a bit lame, particularly considering that ‘thick rough’ at Urban Golf just means ‘more very nice, but every so slightly more coarse Astroturf’. On the upside, there’s no hunting around in the scrubby, sandy stuff for my ball. I just drop another down on Urban Golf’s sumptuously spongy mat and flip it up the virtual fairway as casually and stress-free as if I’m flipping a pancake.

Then I do something that even the most pampered and wealthy visitor to Real Pebble would probably not have the luxury of doing in the same situation: I turn round, and order a beer.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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