While the world's top golfers are playing at Augusta National this week, dozens of Anchorage golfers have been gearing up for spring by playing Oakland Hills Country Club, sort of.
At Full Swing Golf of Alaska, home of Anchorage's only indoor golf leagues, golfers fire shots into large screens displaying video images of real golf courses from around the world. Lasers read the spin on the flying golf ball and then simulate the ball's flight on the screen.
"It's just like any other golf," said Pete Johanknecht, a regular in the Full Swing golf leagues. "You're competing against yourself to get better."
Johanknecht, a 6-handicap golfer on real courses, said practicing indoors can be helpful, but admits to enjoying the social atmosphere at Full Swing as much or more than the practice.
"It's a great place to be," he said. "This is one place where the women never call."
There are 40 courses to choose from in Full Swing's database, which easily provides new venues for all 24 weeks of league competition. One week golfers blast drives down the fairways of Riviera Country Club, another week they launch approaches toward the greens of Bay Hill.
"It's pretty neat when you can play Pinehurst, Pebble Beach, the courses you see on TV," said Steve Louk, who is on the verge of capturing his second straight Tuesday Night league title when play concludes next week.
When possible, the Full Swing staff tries to schedule the league to play the same course the PGA Tour players are competing on, but it's only possible a handful of times.
"They wish they could do that every week," said Full Swing golf pro Brandon Kaiser.
Seven available screens at Full Swing accommodate 28 golfers each night. The Tuesday Night league includes 14 teams of two, and a league for individuals takes place Wednesdays and Thursdays. Prizes are awarded at the end of the season, but winning isn't the primary reason most get drawn to league play.
"The camaraderie is the main thing," Louk said. "You can heckle people you wouldn't say anything to outside. The problem is they heckle you back."
With each screen separated by a slim partition, the indoor-golf scene is similar to one seen in bowling alleys. Golfers usually retreat to a chair after each turn, or sometimes roam from screen to screen to see how others are doing.
The usual rules of etiquette valued in the outdoor game haven't entirely made their way indoors, where golfers are not too bashful to talk while another is in the middle of a swing. The noise doesn't seem to have much of a negative effect, however -- many golfers carry a lower handicap indoors than out.
Louk said he plays about 40 real rounds to the tune of a 12 handicap in the summer, but his handicap drops to a 6 indoors. His teammate Joe Orley also shaves six strokes off his handicap inside, dropping from 8 to 2.
While digital trees and shrubbery can still obstruct shots indoors, there are some distinct scoring advantages. Each shot is hit off a clean lie on a hitting mat, even if the ball rests in the rough or a sand trap on screen. The Tuesday Night league allows everyone to take eight-foot gimmes, so there is no stressing over short putts.
"The short game is quite a bit different in here," said Louk. "And I lose less golf balls in here."
Orley doesn't think the indoor game does much to actually improve his game for the summer months, but it keeps him loose and prepared for the real thing.
"The whole point of doing it is to keep a swing and have fun," Orley said.
As the snow melts a little more around Anchorage each day, there are a lot of golfers dying to get outside and play. Louk said the weekly indoor game does more to enhance that desire than satisfy it.
"Because you are playing all the time, thinking about it all the time," he said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News