The business is the realized dream of golf enthusiast Jeff Sproat, a retired software executive and entrepreneur who founded the company with his wife, Brenda, a retired telecommunications sales manager. Set in a shopping center storefront on North Dale Mabry Highway, the business opened in September. It provides a club-like atmosphere, serving beer and wine from a small bar.
Four massive screens dominate the interior, where visitors can sit at tables and watch the golfers tee off, or follow a football game on a TV. Patrons can play nine or 18 holes on more than 50 virtual courses from across the globe, teeing up before one of the 10-by-16-foot screens. Or they can zero in on one hole.
The player can putt or hit the ball full force and watch it fly, while the simulator charts its distance and analyzes the ball’s speed, launch angle and swing path as the player perfects his game. Players can also compete in leagues.
When Jeff Sproat whacks the ball onto the Amen Corner of the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the annual Masters Tournament, it strikes the screen with force. The ball appears to travel hundreds of feet, but in the tap room, it falls harmlessly at the foot of the screen.
Indoor golf is rare in Florida, says Sproat, an Ohio native. “There are more [facilities] up north because of the winter, when golfers are craving the ability to play. But I believe the South is a great market for it, especially in Florida.”
Sprout got the idea for the business when he saw the simulators at a practice facility after a particularly sweltering round.
Scorching Gulf Coast summers make indoor golf a welcome refuge, while in winter, as northern snowbirds flock to Florida courses, the crowds make outdoor access more difficult, Sproat says. Those factors make for a great potential market in a state where golf is a leading industry.
According to a study by the University of Florida, the direct economic impact of the state’s golf industry in 2007 was $7.5 billion, with a combined direct and indirect impact of $13.8 billion. Golf facility operations made up the largest single share, $3.4 billion.
At their small business, the Sproats invested $200,000 in the four simulators, each a GolfBlaster3D, high-definition model. They declined to disclose the cost of the facility’s build-out or rent. Players pay $35 an hour to use a simulator, and several players can split the cost.
The entire facility can be rented for $200 an hour, says Sproat. “They can use any of the options on a simulator and they can also use the screens for a TV if they want—for instance, for a football game like the Super Bowl.”
A golfer who’s had a rough day at work can switch to a demolition program and choose whether to smash a window in an abandoned factory or a house. When the ball hits, speakers blast the sound of shattering glass as shards fly onscreen.
While many of the golfers are men, the company is forming a league for women to accommodate their growing interest. And Brenda Sproat says she is also surprised at the interest in golf shown by teens in high school. The facility hosts junior clinics with kids as young as 5.
Although the business is just months old, traffic has increased so steadily that the Sproats plan to expand in 2013, adding a franchise location.
Virtual golf isn’t intended to replace outdoor golf, but it can be habit-forming for players, says Brenda Sproat. “I’ve had men come in and say they love this, because they can come in after work, play a round of golf and go home,” she says. “There’s no evidence they’ve been on the golf course—no hat head, no sunburn.”