Golfing for geeks

Ever spent an afternoon at the driving range hitting microchip-embedded golf balls that can be tracked on a screen right next to your tee? Ever used a GPS-enabled cart out on the course to calculate your ball?s distance to the next green? Ever lost a ball, then whipped on special high-tech glasses that filter out foliage? Note to players still carrying paper scorecards: Golf has gone over to the geek side.

The number of devices and equipment submitted for approval by the U.S. Golf Association has more than quintupled from 20 years ago, to around 2,700. (More than 5,000 patents have been taken out on clubs alone since 1976.)

The golf-gear bounty includes GPS systems that can track scores, calculate yardage and display a course?s hard-to-see hazards. Retailers use computerized ?launch monitors? to help match players with properly fitting new clubs.

And enthusiasts can drop anywhere from $300 to six figures for fancy infrared golf simulators that bring their game indoors. To be sure, in this economy even the most enthusiastic duffers are going to balk at a lot of this. After all, the golf industry has tried before to dazzle players with everything from roller putters to bionic gloves ? many of which have flopped. But with sales down 5 percent last year and more pain on the horizon, the $3 billion golf-equipment industry is hoping high-tech gear will help keep business in swing.

The question for the weekend warrior is obvious: Which new toys make sense? Course Information Any golfer who has played the eighth hole at Pebble Beach, with its blind, uphill tee shot and fog-shrouded ?cliffs of doom,? knows the difficulty of gauging course distances. Enter the handheld GPS unit, which lets you download aerial, real-time views of tens of thousands of courses and calculate the distance between your ball and the next green ? or that hidden bunker.

Top models like SkyCaddie, GolfLogix and Sonocaddie run between $180 and $400, plus annual subscription fees of up to $50. Most offer the 3-D course images via satellite (Sonocaddie pings as many as 12, depending on the day?s cloud cover), while one firm, SkyGolf, sends experts to walk the courses with skilled golfers and surveying equipment. Problem is, most GPS gizmos can be off by as much as 10 yards.

The $400 Sonocaddie V300, for example, claims to be accurate 90 percent of the time ? within a 7-yard radius ?That?s probably as accurate as anyone can claim to be,? says Jim Dennesen, president of Sonocaddie?s distributor, Dennco. Still, experts say they?re the best option out there. Handhelds can almost always get closer to the ball than their cart-mounted GPS cousins, while the more accurate laser range finders can?t ?see? past the next hill or bank of trees.

And the reality? Few nonpros can calibrate their swing to within 10 yards anyway. Club Fitting In the eternal quest for a lower handicap, many players shell out several hundred to several thousand dollars for the latest ?weaponry? of the game: a new set of clubs. So it?s no wonder that more count on high-tech club fitting to insure the right match. In the past, club salesmen used ?measurements? like scuff marks on black electrical tape to see whether a club was long enough ? that is, if they watched a customer?s swing at all. No longer.

Retailers are increasingly using state-of-the-art launch monitors that use software to analyze your swing ? its speed, backspin and the angle at which the club face strikes the ball. Club fitters then interpret the data to find clubs with not only the right length but also the proper grip and shaft flex. A 30-minute consult can run as much as $300; some stores credit it toward your club purchase, while others (like the Golfsmith chain) do it for free. T

o avoid an expensive mistake, says Terry McAndrew, publisher of Web Street Golf Report, request a fitter trained by a manufacturer or through a group like the Association of Golf Clubfitting Professionals. Simulators For golfers who can?t wait for good weather to get their fix, video games like PGA Tour for the Nintendo Wii offer the simplest way to score some swing time, if not the suntan.

For a more wonky in-home swing analysis, simulators like the OptiShot Infrared Golf Simulator ($400) and P3ProSwing Sport ($600) work like those store setups; hook them to your TV or computer, swing over a small pad, and up to 65 built-in sensors will scrutinize the results. For the biggest screens and fanciest graphics ? think: you, on the fairway at St. Andrew?s ? deluxe room-size setups ($12,000 and up) let you thwack a ball against a special screen and typically use a high-speed camera and home-theater-quality projector.

Just be sure to budget for a tape measure. Some consumers say they?ve felt ?really cramped? when swinging, while others have nearly put a hole in their ceiling. Too much light can also hurt a player?s score: Dancin? Dogg Golf, which makes OptiShot, warns of inaccurate or ?nonsensical swing results? if there?s too much sun, incandescent or halogen light. (Hint: Use compact fluorescents.) The real solution? Get back out on the course.

Copyright The New York Times Syndicate