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Golf goes downscale in South Korea

Amid economic crisis, more are opting for a cheaper, and less realistic, version of the game.

SEOUL — Men strut down a brightly lit hallway in pressed suits and polished shoes, their golf bags slung over their shoulders. Within minutes their neckties are off, and an 18-hole game is in full swing.

Welcome to screen golf, one of the few industries that has seen skyrocketing growth during the current economic downturn. Its draw: a cheap price tag.

With temperatures rising, March is usually when golfers here begin to flock to outdoor country clubs. But industry officials say that the number of country club bookings is down 20 percent from this time last year.

“We’ve been hit hard by the economy, even though our club is close to Seoul and the prices (are) relatively cheap,” said an official from a public golf course an hour away from the country’s capital. He said course officials are considering lowering prices to draw more people.

Virtual golf centers have no such problem.

There are roughly 3,000 screen golf clubs across the country, which together draw more than 15 million people, according to estimates from 2008 made by the leading system manufacturing company in the country Golfzon.

Here's how the centers work: They have rooms equipped with wall-size screens that project images of real golf courses across the world. Players hit a real ball from a tuft of artificial grass on the ground towards the screen. A sensor does the math based on the angle and strength of impact, and the player "travels" on the course to wherever the ball supposedly dropped.

“It is in the rough,” a computerized woman’s voice politely announces whenever the ball falls outside the fairway into thick grass.

Teeing off on a virtual fairway will set you back 25,000 won to 35,000 won (between $18 and $25). By contrast, a regular game on a real golf course would cost almost 10 times that amount.

The high price of fresh-air golfing speaks to a course shortage in a nation of golfers. South Korea has almost as many golfers as the U.S. or Japan, but just a fraction of the number of country clubs.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/south-korea/090325/golf-goes-downscale-south-korea