Virtual golf. Is it as ‘Good’ as the Traditional Game?


What time is good to Zoom?” my colleague asks. I see my calendar packed with Zoom meetings and search for an open spot. “How about Tuesday about 11:00 a.m.?” I respond. (I should be finished with my “Quick 9 Holes” by then.) “Sure, I’ll send you the invite,” she says and within seconds the Zoom meeting appears on my phone. “See you then!” she exclaims. Oh boy, I think. Another Zoom. At least I have perfected the Zoom outfit, which comprises a cute top, sometimes a very chic scarf, and a full face of makeup. I do have an image to uphold, right? And it goes so well with my junky flip flops and badly-in-need-of-a-pedicure toes.

This is the world we are in now. Meetings are virtual. Your child’s dance lesson, your job, my classes, a doctor appointment, all virtual. Our digital world became even more virtual seemingly overnight.

And then there’s golf.

Golf has been sandwiched somewhere between course closures and business-as-usual. It found itself with flags being untouchable all the way to carts being practically fumigated for germs. Tournaments were cancelled yet for some, the show went on. I haven’t set foot in my pro shop for months. Others go in, congregate, and chat.

Golf is a divide of ideology but also a common ground for normalcy.

Just as your grandchild’s best friend’s birthday party transforming into a virtual celebration, golf has embraced, whether by choice or not, the virtual space. Golf has pivoted to virtual lessons and consultations. You can schedule a virtual golf fitting, enter a virtual golf tournament, or buy a simulator where you can play a virtual round in your basement no matter what the weather forecast says.

But, virtual golf isn’t really new. Virtual simulators have been practice aides for years. The 1960s gave us the first virtual golf simulator/golf instruction system patent. Video game technology of the 1970s and 1980s gave us a more realistic experience, and now virtual reality can offer you an accurate tree-by-tree  representation of some of the most famous courses in the world (without being told you must hit from the front tees because “that’s where women play from.”) Virtual golf has transitioned from a form of practice to a sought-after leisure activity. With the rise of eSports and gaming, it was probably bound to happen.

Some of you may be thinking, “I would never play virtual golf for fun. I can’t joke around with my friends and how can I get a golf glove tan line in my basement?” (The more advanced simulators can be programmed for a sunny day, but the tan line is not included.) So, what’s the big deal about virtual golf? Believe it or not, academic studies have been conducted on this very subject.

A 2014 study explored virtual golf with several interesting results. The main idea behind the study was to explain why people did or did not play virtual golf. Basically, the results showed people who play virtual golf do so because virtual golf was easier to gain access to due to reduced expense, convenience, and time savings. Another reason people stated they play virtual golf was that it was less harmful to the environment than traditional golf.

A later study (2019) built upon the 2014 study to further explore virtual golf and how it compares to traditional golf given the same general constraints (like cost and time). The authors placed the constraints into three categories: intrapersonal (Ex: anxiety), interpersonal (Ex: spouse, children), and structural (Ex: weather, income, work). The authors in the 2019 study found cost, weather, time, skill, income, and mastery level all had a role in which type of golf a person would choose to play. (If you are wondering, weather was the biggest factor followed by cost. Time placed third.)

I have read several studies, unrelated to these, which showed social, financial, and time constraints were all prominent predictors of traditional golf participation. We all know golf can take up quite a bit of time and be very expensive. We can think of all kinds of reasons why we can’t play. It’s reality. I feel these challenges are disproportionately felt by women more than men given traditional cultural gender roles and income disparity.  (Additionally, COVID has further emphasized income and gender inequality. For example, some jobs were able to live in the virtual space, but many lower income jobs were not.)

So, what can we say about the role of virtual golf, where it could it take the game, and should we even care? Virtual golf has a lot of good points. There can be 6 inches of snow on the ground and you can still play in sunny conditions with a slight virtual ocean breeze if you want. It may cost you $5 for a round instead of $30 plus a cart. It won’t harm the ozone layer. Virtual golf can be a great way to get younger children interested in the sport without spending a lot of money on clubs that end up in the back of their closets. Virtual golf could expose the game to a whole new generation.

However, virtual golf has some potentially problematic cultural issues. If income is a constraint on traditional golf, virtual golf may be the only option. Even though golf has tried in recent years to be more inclusive, studies like the ones referenced here, show a demographic like income could be a dividing factor on who can play what version of golf, where, and when.

All of us probably have some kind of opinion of virtual golf. Is it really a sport? Is it as “good” as the traditional game? But then again, we have seen many differences of opinion in golf for years, too.  Women on the course on weekends? Can I be a member at a golf club without a husband on the account? Is a mock neck really a collar? Is golf a sport or a game?

On one hand, thank goodness traditional golf has stood its ground in the digital era. The open air, the comradery, the scenery. The pride of retrieving your ball from the cup after a good putt (finally). Is there any possible way to replicate this in the virtual environment, though? Virtual golf can help the climate crisis, show kids how fun the game can be, and allow us to play a round and still have dinner on the table that evening.

On the other hand, traditional golf still houses issues like sexism. Everyday and all the time. We see it at the professional level all the way down to the local level. Could virtual golf possibly help remedy this problem by not being on the physical course where so much of this happens? Maybe. I think virtual golf is a superb opportunity to help the game in several ways including removing negative attitudes toward female players. But, for now, the traditional course is where I will be. It’s a preference just as virtual is for others. I’m glad to stare sexism in the face as I watch that foursome rush past me to get ahead of me because “women play slow.”

While the attitude of male dominance on the golf course still exists in many cases, maybe someday in traditional golf we can mimic virtual golf and simply delete it.

References:

Han, H., Hwang, J., and Woods, P. (2014). Choosing virtual – rather than real – leisure activities: An examination of the decision-making process in screen golf participants. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 19(4) 428-450.

Choi, C., Greenwell, C., Hums, M., and Hambrick, M. (2019). Understanding consumer behaviors in virtual golf: Differences in leisure constraints. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 28, 46-57.


Kelly Price completed her Ph.D. of Human Ecology with a concentration in Retail and Consumer Sciences at the University of Tennessee. She currently teaches at East Tennessee State University where she is a three-time recipient of the College of Business and Technology Excellence in Teaching Award. Her research interests include women’s golf, consumer behavior, and online education with numerous presentations and publications in these areas. Her non-academic experience includes management of discount, specialty, and luxury/resort retail including merchandise buying and retail operations management.

Dr. Price is the host of the On the Tee with Dr P podcast. Contact her via email at Ontheteewithdrp@gmail.com or on Twitter @DrKelly04. 

See all of Kelly Price’s popular articles on Women’s Golf





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