If you haven't tried it, don't knock it. If you have tried it -- well, maybe it depends on how many weekends you're cooped up because of rain or snow, and how eager you are to play golf.
It isn't golf by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, you can swing a club and strike a ball, and get a computerized grade for your efforts. But there are no lost balls, no mud, no gnats and no lightning, and you don't get caught in the rain. So without problems it can't be golf.
Well, there is one problem, especially if you're an impulse buyer: The game's in a sporting-goods store, and if you let your eyes stray to the stock, you may spend all your money and wind up without your screens fee -- $5.50 for 18 holes, $3 for nine.
And, actually, the Washington Golf Center in Arlington does not claim to offer a round of golf. It simply provides an opportunity to play one of its two "electronically operated golf courses." In plainer language they're indoor computerized driving ranges, where you can keep your swing from getting rusty during the winter by knocking a ball into a picture of a nationally known golf course.
Each "course" is a box-like affair with a nine-foot screen at one end and a teeing area at the open end. Sides and ceiling are enclosed in some sort of pliable material that keeps the ball from ricocheting off the walls... and the player's head.
You have a choice of Pebble Beach or Congressional, and there are plans to add Doral, Lucayan and a Japanese course. I selected Congressional to see how playing a picture would compare with the real thing.
To start play you press a button that lights up the screen with a photo of the No. 1 hole taken from the tee. All shots except putts are made from a short piece of artificial turf mounted in the floor about 17 feet from the center of the screen. A microphone under the tee works with a sensor behind the screen to measure the distance and direction of each shot.
You're supposed to play each shot with the club you'd use playing a real hole on the River Road layout. For a big tee shot you give it all you've got into the middle of the picture. You can forget about the drawing or fading the ball according to the terrain: The center of the screen gets best results.
When a ball strikes the ballistic nylon screen it makes a loud whacking noise -- about like a ball striking a ballistic nylon screen. A little white light simulates a golf ball sailing out and dropping in the fairway. As soon as the light stops, the picture flickers and flutters up to the position on the fairway (or boondocks) where your ball landed.
The yardage reached on a shot appears on the lower right-hand corner of the picture, and the distance to the green is shown at the lower left. From these measurements you select the club needed for the next shot.
If you miss the green (as I did) you get a new picture and distance. You can miss by being too wide, too short or too long. The remaining 20 yards or so is the most unrealistic part of the game. You may find it a bit uncomfortable knocking a short shot into a screen when you would like to have a chance to lay it close to a pin.
On the 220-yard No. 2 hole I hit a nice 4-wood shot, and the flickering film stopped on a close-up view of the flag captioned, "Putt from 10 feet." Once on the green, putts are made from various spots on the floor, marked 5, 10 or 20 feet. You putt from the distance shown on the picture.
After playing the first few holes I dispensed with the putting altogether -- not only because I'm the world's worst putter but because the hard floor covered with a rather thin carpet has no resemblance to the greens at Congressional.
Two people can play 18 holes in about an hour and a half. To be sure that a cubicle is available when you want it, you can call for a starting time. And if you're having trouble with your swing, Don Spieller, a capable young professional, may be able to help.
The Golfomat center in Arlington is the only one in the area just now, although Rockville had a facility several years ago. The owner, Charles Chay, is fully aware that more than a hundred golf courses in the metropolitan area are open year-round when weather permits, so he doesn't expect long waiting lines to keep him in business: His primary interest is in the large store filled with golf clothing and equipment.
Picture or no picture, an indoor golf facility needs help from the weatherman. Golf long waiting lines to keep him in business: their silly game, and when a course is playable, we'll be there. But if this winter should turn out to be like the past two, when all area courses were closed for several weeks because of the snow, a picture of Pebble Beach might look pretty good.