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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024

Who’s Your Caddy? Golf Simulator Mixes Work, Play

Jenn Harris approaches the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, golf club in hand. With an aggressive swing she gives the ball a whap. The sharp noise of the contact echoes off the ceiling and the walls beside her. On the screen ahead of her, a brightly colored, computer-generated line shows the trajectory of the ball through the air of the iconic course.

Far away on the screen, the simulated ball rolls to a stop. “230,” Harris says. “Not bad.”

Harris is demonstrating a high-end, model S8 simulator from Rancho Bernardo-based Full Swing Golf. With the manufacturer’s help, she has mounted the simulator in a long trailer she has leased, equipped the trailer’s remaining space with other amenities, and opened a business of her own called Street Swings.

The Normal Heights resident is now trying to persuade potential customers to let her bring a golf game to them. People are short on time, she says, and companies need team-building activities. With the simulator, Street Swings can turn an asphalt parking lot into a golf course, and a perk for employees or management. Don’t know the game? Not a problem. Lessons can be part of the package.

Getting Women in the Game

Harris, 32, is a golf enthusiast who has found a niche in teaching the sport to others — particularly women. Street Swings is an outgrowth of Harris’ other business, High Heel Golfer, which she founded in 2011.

High Heel Golfer gets groups of women together on a real-life golf course to get acquainted with the game, and with each other over some wine. Learning the rules and the etiquette of golf — including aspects such as the proper pace of play — is a way for the uninitiated to get comfortable with the golf course. Having gained that familiarity, women can take advantage of a powerful networking opportunity that all too often is reserved for clusters of men.

Conversations with women in business convinced Harris that the market was more likely to choose an on-site simulator experience over an off-site golf game, which involves more time and travel.

Ibis World reported nearly flat revenue growth (1.2 percent) in the golf course and country club sector between 2011 and 2016. Activities with less time commitment — driving ranges and family fun centers — showed better growth (4.5 percent) during the same period. Also enjoying growth is Topgolf, a chain of computer-connected driving ranges and eateries which has grown from 24 venues in February 2016 to a current 31. Carlsbad-based Callaway Golf Co. (NYSE: ELY) is an investor in Topgolf.

A Technological Twist

The Full Swing simulator costs $50,000 and is almost always installed in buildings. Harris said a partnership with Full Swing lets her go on the road. The partners are still negotiating terms of their relationship.

The simulator uses infrared technology and two specialized, high-speed cameras to get a direction of the speeding ball and, in a split-second, determine how it would fly through space and plop down on the ground. The technology is able to determine club head speed, path and face angle, as well as how the ball is spinning.

The end phase — the putt — is harder to replicate on a simulator, Harris said, adding that Full Swing is the only manufacturer that attempts a video version. For the Full Swing simulator, hitting the ball within 6 feet of a hole is as good as getting it in.

If a player prefers, the technology lets him or her make the next shot at an entirely different golf course, maybe on a different continent. The simulator has 93 courses, including Torrey Pines, Aviara and St. Andrews, as well as some nontraditional options, such as a cross between golf and blackjack. Sometimes customers prefer to play the same course that the pros are playing during the latest stop on the PGA tour.

A golf game can take as little as 30 minutes for a single player and 40 minutes for a twosome.

Pickup Truck Instead of a Cart

The simulators can’t replicate everything. There is no fresh breeze, none of the smell of a golf course that comes with ocean views. But the simulator offers remarkable fidelity in other ways. Harris noted she made the same mistake on the simulator’s version of Pebble Beach hole No. 8 as she made on the actual iconic course.

The setup Harris takes on the road also includes a 12-by-18-foot putting green — which is not run on a simulator. Part of the trailer is set aside for a VIP photo booth and a lounge with a big screen TV.

Harris plans to charge $1,500 to $8,000 per day, depending on a client company’s size and hours of play.

Harris has an undergraduate degree in psychology. That and a love for golf influence her coaching style. In a previous life, she counseled heroin addicts at Duke University.

That was difficult, though entrepreneurship brings its own surprises. Harris had to quickly learn how to maneuver an 8-ton trailer into position using a heavy pickup truck. The bill for leasing her trailer, by the way, is $2,500 per month.

Maximizing Efficiency

For her High Heel Golfer business, Harris was able to get some work from a Qualcomm Inc.-affiliated group called QWISE (Qualcomm Women in Science and Engineering). Harris recently approached Qualcomm about Street Swings, and learned that the corporation was interested in something a little different: a simulator for the baseball-like sport of cricket, apparently for employees who feel a little homesick.

Harris, for her part, is considering more golf simulators. She hopes to get a double golf simulator truck on the road in May. She is also working to streamline set-up time. For now it takes two people two hours to get the simulator ready; Harris is aiming for one person and one hour.

“I’d love to scale it, build multiple trailers,” she said.

Whether one of them will contain a cricket simulator is anyone’s guess.


CEO: Jenn Harris

Revenue: $3,000 since inception

No. of local employees: Six part-time employees

Investors: Harris and her father, Joe Harris

Headquarters: San Diego

Year founded: 2016

Company description: Operator of mobile golf simulator, which also provides lessons


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