‘Tech’ No Chances: Indoor Golf Technology in the Pacific Northwest

December 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured Articles, Highlights

By Tony Dear

GolfTEC learning Bay. Photo courtesy of GolfTEC

GolfTEC learning Bay. Photo courtesy of GolfTEC

You may be anti-technology, or comfortable with the basic, unsophisticated way you have learned and played the game all your golfing life. But by denying yourself use of technologically-advanced machines and software – machines and software found at numerous facilities around Puget Sound and Washington State – the chances are good your game won’t improve nearly as fast as it could. And you probably won’t have as much fun.

Tim Buffington says he hasn’t played golf for about a month, but adds the last time he did go out – at Meadow Springs CC in Richland – he eagled the Par 5 1st and wound up with a three-under 69. His handicap has dropped from eight to an incredible +.7 since the end of 2010. He is 53-years-old and, as the owner of three car dealerships in the Tri-Cities, not exactly blessed with an excess of spare time.

Rod Case describes himself as an ‘old fart’ and says that after 50 years’ of hitting 225-yard drives 50 yards to the right, he managed a round this summer in which he found 13 of the 14 fairways and seven greens in regulation – more than he has for many years.

Seventy-two-year-old Rod Fitzgerald estimates he has taken somewhere between 10 and 15 shots off his game in the last few months and that, for the first time in his life, he now owns what looks and feels like a ‘proper golf swing’.

Each man says he is enjoying the game more than ever.

So what do they have in common? How is this trio of diehard golfers achieving such impressive results?

All three are clients of GolfTEC – a Denver, Colo.-based company that employs over 350 PGA professionals in over 140 indoor teaching facilities throughout the U.S. As the name suggests, the GolfTEC method utilizes technologically-advanced software and equipment to capture the golfer’s swing (waist and shoulder sensors, front and side video, biofeedback tones that help students learn to time their swing better), before the highly qualified instructors come in, interpreting the visual and numeric information, comparing the info against one or more of the 150 Tour pros’ swings, and laying out a plan and suggesting drills students can practice in the studio’s hitting bays. Video of every lesson is recorded and students can retrieve their complete library should they wish to recall a certain session.

“They can always pull their lessons up on anything with Internet access anywhere, anytime,” says Brett Allen, owner of four Puget Sound GolfTEC franchise locations – Bellevue, South Lake Union, Southcenter, and Lynnwood. “We call it their player performance center.”

Buffington sees Brett Wilkinson, John LeDoux, and Eric Hambleton in the Bellevue studio. Case benefits from Jordan Cooper’s expertise in Southcenter, while Fitzgerald credits his improvement to Nate Johnson at South Lake Union. They are just three of the 175 or so golfers Allen says each of his 11 Seattle-area instructors see in a typical year.

“In total, we teach about 2,000 golfers every year,” adds Allen, a career businessman and entrepreneur and Seattle University MBA. “So far this year, we have given over 13,200 lessons, and since we opened in the Seattle market seven years ago, we have given almost 47,000 lessons. We have a 95 percent success rate with our golfers lowering their scores.”

This enviable success is only part of the reason our three case studies chose to go to GolfTEC, however.

The other hugely important factor in their decision to go and remain loyal to the company was the personnel. Buffington, a self-confessed perfectionist and Type-A personality, says he was very impressed by the state-of-the-art equipment but also the attitude of the instructors.

“They genuinely cared about my progress,” he says. “And when I take my daughter who’s a beginner, they can’t be more gracious.”

Case says the personnel in Southcenter was the deciding factor for him. “The equipment was certainly as good as, if not better, than other places I looked at, and the prices were about the same,” he adds. “Location was important too, but really it came down to the people.”

Fitzgerald sounds the same gong. “The equipment is impressive, but the real difference is the instruction that goes with it. I work exclusively with Nate, but all the GolfTEC guys are top-notch.”

This is a pretty resounding endorsement for the hi-tech approach to golf instruction, but we all learn in different ways and GolfTEC’s bells and whistles might not be for everybody. For many right-brained people, the video, sensors, bright lights, stats, and in-depth analysis can all be a bit overwhelming. And while your swing will surely improve at a place like GolfTEC, there is no guarantee that will turn you into a better golfer.

Ask any Tour pro about the importance of a good short game, and then ask Tiger Woods specifically about what a strong mind, good course management, and determination – things GolfTEC might not necessarily touch on – have done for him (you might not get access to Woods, but you know what we mean).

“While I certainly do believe the hi-tech approach is suitable for many golfers, and that students being able to see themselves on video can be very beneficial, I also know the golf swing isn’t everything and that, when learning, many people prefer a more ‘old-fashioned’ method of hitting balls on the range with the pro looking on,” says Phil Gaggero, PGA head professional at Shuksan GC in Whatcom County.

Many golfers just want to keep it simple, he adds, simply working on fundamentals and swinging the clubhead. “They might not want to know what their right elbow or left knee are doing,” he says. “Plus, they might not learn the secret in the dirt that Ben Hogan talked about. Being able to see your divot pattern and the actual flight of the ball are important.”

Provided they work with a professional who also believes in a more straightforward, unfussy approach to teaching, those golfers will improve too, Gaggero insists, and avoid the paralysis by analysis many experience after being overloaded with information.

While this is undoubtedly true, Buffington, Case and Fitzgerald will all tell you they have each taken their last ‘old-fashioned’ lesson. “I absolutely will not be returning to an outdoor range for a lesson,” says Buffington in no uncertain terms. “I wasted a lot of time and money on useless lessons at the range. My definition of GolfTEC is ‘golf lessons on steroids.’” Fitzgerald is equally unequivocal. “No, I won’t go back to the old style,” he says. “The invaluable feedback just isn’t there at the range. Besides, the weather this time of year is not conducive to outdoor lessons, and at GolfTEC that just isn’t a problem. There, I can work on my golf all year round. Likewise Case can’t see any advantage is reverting to the old way.

“With a Pro at the range, you may get good instruction but after the lesson you are kind of on your own to practice and implement what they showed you,” he says. “Maybe it is just me, but I’ve found that I can’t change a flaw in my swing with an hour lesson. It takes many practice sessions of repeatedly trying to make the change become a habit. At GolfTEC the improvement happens a lot quicker for me.”

Randy Potter, a Gonzaga University graduate from Othello, Wash., opened his GolfTEC franchise in Spokane in January of this year. Like Allen, he uses Foresight GC2 simulators and GolfTEC’s proprietary g-swing technology in all his lessons. “The g-SWING system utilizes waist and shoulder sensors that accurately capture your body positions from setup to finish,” he says. “We can actually track the student’s range of motion in their shoulder turn, shoulder tilt, shoulder bend, hip turn, hip tilt and hip bend throughout the entire swing.”

Swing Doctors in Kirkland is another very popular indoor golf studio specializing in instruction. Owned by PGA member Joe Brown, Swing Doctors has been open for ten years and has two Double Eagle simulators, a Vector launch monitor and VI software for swing analysis. There are three instructors, and Brown says he teaches somewhere between 500 and 750 people every year. “We get pretty busy in here,” he says. “People like having the opportunity to get out of the weather and work on their golf game.”

Another highly acclaimed venue for instruction and club-fitting is Gregg Rogers’ Golf Performance Center in Bellevue. Rogers himself has given over 50,000 lessons in a 30-year career, and is one of America’s most sought after club-fitters. His associates John Kim, Erich Bubbel, and Tanner Clarke are fairly recent additions to the staff. The Golf Performance Center, established in 2007, offers its students the Trackman Launch Monitor as well as GEARS which captures 3D body motion and club-tracking at 360 frames a second.

Swing analysis and game-improvement are only one use for the hi-tech equipment used at indoor golf centers, however. Two other popular applications are recreation and club-fitting, and there are a number of facilities in the Puget Sound area and elsewhere in the state that offer one or both.

Golf at the Clubhouse

Clubhouse Golf Center, Alderwood, WA.

After several years in the video game industry working for Microsoft and a number of start-up companies, Steve Levy finally escaped the rate race earlier this year and, after months of hard work setting up his facility, opened the 5,100sqft Clubhouse Golf Center in Lynnwood, along with his wife Terra.

Levy stresses the Clubhouse is all about fun, with a capital F. He has six Full Swing simulators (one set up as a driving range) with E6 software offering play on 44 courses including the Old Course at St. Andrews, Pinehurst No. 2, Bethpage Black, Prairie Dunes, Kiawah Island and the most popular of them all, Pebble Beach on which, he Levy estimates, 65 percent of guests spend their allotted time.

The Clubhouse has only been open just over three weeks, but Levy says word of mouth is traveling fast. “During the week, we might get 20 people through a day and you can just walk up,” he says. “But at weekends we’re packed solid, and it’s tee-time only. You have to book in advance.”

In addition to the golf, the Clubhouse lives up to its name with a bar and food menu – perfect for husbands whose wives are shopping in the nearby Alderwood Mall. “We also seem to be popular for date nights,” says Levy. “While the guys are playing golf, the girls will be enjoying a cocktail at the bar.”

Levy adds that while Clubhouse is all about fun right now, he might branch out into other areas in the future. “You never say never. It’s possible we’ll introduce instruction and have a resident PGA pro at some point, maybe club-fitting too.”

Virtual Golf in Spokane, a 2,000ft studio owned by Richard Souza, is another Northwest indoor golf facility that focuses almost entirely on entertainment and recreation. Three TruGolf simulators provide access to 56 courses including most of those offered by the Full Swing simulators plus Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and even Royal Melbourne.

Virtual Golf Spokane. Photo courtesy Virtual Golf

Virtual Golf Spokane. Photo courtesy Virtual Golf

Swing Doctors’ simulators offer close to 100 courses for guests to play, and Hotel 1000 in downtown Seattle has two Full Swing simulators and over 50 courses to choose from. Players can order food and drink from the hotel’s BOKA restaurant, and kids can also play Wii Sport. About 1,000 people take advantage of this amenity every year.

In Bellingham, Joe Holdridge’s Indoor Golf Lab has three About Golf simulators, a Kudu launch monitor, and a Science and Motion putting lab to entice the 10,000 or so golfers that come through the door each year. Holdridge, a former PGA Head Professional at Old Del Monte on the Monterey Peninsula and Director of Instruction at Sudden Valley GC and Lake Padden GC in Bellingham, also gives about 1,000 lessons and club-fittings each year.

Joe’s Professional Golf Lab and Indoor Golf Center, which opened in 2006, is actually one of the few facilities in the Northwest that offers all three hi-tech functions – instruction, recreation and club-fitting.

The Flightscope Kudu launch monitor which measures launch angle, backspin rate, sidespin rate, face angle, lie angle, centerness of contact, swing speed, ball speed, load characteristics, swing tempo, swing path, hand size, height, strength, and more. “They give the fitter so much information and are so accurate,” says Holdridge. “We can fit each golfer to his/her exact specifications a process that was only available to Tour pros until recently. The custom set of clubs we build will be the best set of clubs you have ever purchased. They fit the real you and your real swing.”

Richard Wallace at Pro Golf Discount in Bellingham echoes Holdridge’s words saying that, with the numbers his store’s Foresight simulators generate, he and his team can ‘fine-tune clubs for every golfer’s specific needs. “Plus, it’s always sunny and 70 degrees at Pro Golf!” he adds.

Pro Golf Discount Pro Golf Theatre

Pro Golf Discount Pro Golf Theatre

The Bellevue headquartered company, born in 1977, has six Puget Sound locations and, says Wallace, has been offering its customers launch monitors for instruction and club-fitting for over ten years. “We don’t offer simulator play at the moment, but that is certainly something we are looking into and might offer in the future.

GolfTEC’s business is based predominantly on instruction, but it too offers custom club-fitting. “We use the Foresight simulators for lessons and club-fitting,” says Randy Potter. “Ad as well as Foresight, we use Swing Labs to create a completely unbiased equipment recommendation.”

It wasn’t all that long ago, golfers had to make do with on-range lessons from golf pros whose only training device might have been a heavy club or homemade T-square. Club-fitting was something only Ping did and then only using static measurements. And indoor recreational play on machines that simulated world-famous courses? Er, no.

There’s a hi-tech revolution going on out there, people. Has been for a decade now. You might be old-school in the way you like to learn and practice your game, but somehow, somewhere you should think about getting on board, and taking advantage of what technology can offer you.

www.golftec.com/learningcenters/seattle_golf_lesson.html
www.golftec.com/learningcenters/spokane_golf_lesson.html
www.swingdoctors.net
www.hotel1000seattle.com
www.clubhouse-golf.com
www.virtualgolfspokane.com
www.progolfseattle.com
www.joeprogolflab.com
www.grgolfperformance.com

Sidebar:

Swinomish Casino Callaway Performance Center

Swinomish Casino Callaway Performance Center

The Swinomish Callaway Performance Center located in the beautiful Swinomish Casino & Lodge in Anacortes, Wash. is a high-tech golf club and custom fitting facility. Callaway’s trained experts create a comfortable environment to allow golfers
to discover how the company’s equipment can improve their performance. This location is staffed by certified club specialists who have been trained to find the right clubs for every level of golfer, from beginners to professionals. Fittings take place indoors in a state-of-the-art fit bay. After the fitting, outside green practice is available so players can evaluate their game on the range atthe 18 hole Par 72 Swinomish Golf Links located on Fidalgo Island. Originally built with the pleasure of the golfer in mind, the links style course boasts elevations changes, open tree lined fairways and approachable greens. While the course can be challenging, it is playable for all skill levels. Explore it all at the newest and only Callaway Performance Center in the Northwest.