Golf goes downscale in South Korea

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.

“I can’t get out that often, because I don’t have the money to,” said 48-year-old Lee Ki-deuk, as he sat down in one of the VIP rooms at a screen golf center. He is a regular at the Olive Screen Golf Club, which — with 30 virtual golf rooms — claims to be the largest virtual golf center in the world.

Lee, who runs his own business, visits Olive at least once a week with three colleagues. Together, they play a full game, which includes time for a dinner that clients can order at the club.

“This has changed how we spend our time," Lee said. "Before, it would be a night for dinner and drinks, and then more drinks. Now, we don’t have time for those extra drinks."

Most of the other rooms at Olive were full with customers like Lee, who were seeking a little fun and exercise at the end of the workday.

“People who aren’t in the position to go out to golf courses a lot kind of see this as an alternative that they have,” said Lee Sangin, the director of Olive.

During the winter season, the peak time for indoor sports, 180 groups of golfers made their way to Olive each day, said Lee, who is a professional golfer. Those numbers are dipping slightly, as the seasons change. But Lee emphasized that all 30 of Olive's rooms remain fully booked in the evenings. 

“For us screen golf business owners, to be honest, we wish it were cold all year round,” Lee joked.

Read more GlobalPost Dispatches about sports in Asia:

Ice and hope in Seoul

Sports: Femurs and lies

Japan's sumo scandals