Golf goes underground

From the comfort of a Soho basement, members of a revolutionary new club are able to play the finest courses in the world. But can its owners rebrand the sport as hip urban entertainment?

James Day takes his driver, steps up to the tee and, after a gentle practice swing, sends the ball soaring 300 yards down the fairway of the 18th at the world-famous Old Course at St Andrews. Turning back, he pauses, looking for the right words to explain why he believes his new venture is targeted as accurately as his shot. "The thing is," he shrugs, "golf is changing massively, and we've created the future." And as he stands there, silhouetted against the life-size virtual golf course projected on the screen behind him, it's hard to resist his vision.

James Day takes his driver, steps up to the tee and, after a gentle practice swing, sends the ball soaring 300 yards down the fairway of the 18th at the world-famous Old Course at St Andrews. Turning back, he pauses, looking for the right words to explain why he believes his new venture is targeted as accurately as his shot. "The thing is," he shrugs, "golf is changing massively, and we've created the future." And as he stands there, silhouetted against the life-size virtual golf course projected on the screen behind him, it's hard to resist his vision.

This is Urban Golf, a 6,000sqft former printworks in a Soho basement, now converted to house six state-of-the-art golf simulators. Here's how it works: step one - you stand in a booth, 11ft by 12ft, and drive, putt, slice or totally miscue the ball towards the screen. Step two - the ball passes through two sets of sensors that detect trajectory, speed and spin. Step three - the real ball hits the screen and drops to the floor, while the shot you played - however embarrassing - appears as if real, on one of 50 of the world's top courses. Step four - you either smile smugly or mumble your excuses. But don't try to blame the machines - they're so accurate the US PGA (Professional Golfers' Association) uses them to ascertain the precise characteristics of different brands of golf ball.

"It's the ultimate boy's toy," concludes Day, as he sits back down on one of the four black leather bar stools near our booth and orders a bottle of Grolsch from the waitress. But Urban Golf is about more than just wow-wee technology. Not yet open a fortnight, it's already attracting a very different crowd from the computer geeks and stockbrokers you might imagine setting up home here. This is the world's first fashionable golf venue.

There's no oak paneling, just exposed brickwork, plain white walls and oversized line-drawings, parodying the traditional diagrams that dictate the rules of fair play. There are no tartan-upholstered armchairs but plenty of nicely-worn-in Danish 1950s leather sofas. While you wait for your booth - or your turn on the putting green - you can use the PlayStation 2 (running Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004, naturally) or lounge around listening to music and watching golf on the flatscreen TVs. You can order a beer and sushi from the waitresses until 11pm. And there's nothing so crass as a neon sign - at street level - the only giveaway is the discreet buzzer in the nondescript doorway, and the odd group of recording-studio technicians and ad directors making their way back to Golden Square, still swinging their arms after spending their £15 per person, per hour. This is not just golf reinvented, this is a pool bar for the 21st century.

It all started a little over two years ago. Back then, Day - who's now 24 and, at 20, was the UK's youngest ever golf professional to be accredited by the sport's governing body, the PGA - was head of the teaching school at the Stoke Park course in Buckinghamshire (where James Bond outfoxed Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob, and where Bridget Jones went boating on the lake). "One of my clients was a property developer called Simon Margolis, and we ended up playing a lot of golf together," he recalls. "One day, we were having a drink after a round at The Berkshire, and he started quizzing me about ambitions and stuff. I told him about this idea I'd been thinking about for a while. We chatted about it for quite some time, and 20 minutes after leaving the clubhouse, he phoned me and said: 'I think it's a goer'."

The project now has five partners. Day, Margolis, his business partner Nicholas Lawson, an architect named Henry Squire, and Edward Freedman. Simon Mainoo, who previously ran the downstairs bar/club at the nearby Moroccan restaurant, Momo's, is in charge of front-of-house schmoozing.

Freedman is the man who, in the mid-Nineties, took Manchester United's merchandising turnover from £1.2m to £28m, then went on to break records for pop merchandising with the Spice Girls. So when Day says that the group wants more venues, and fast, you get the impression he's not bluffing.

"In two years, or less, we want to be in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Dublin, Belgium, and elsewhere in London - Knightsbridge, Mayfair, and we're already looking for a site in King's Cross," says Nicholas Lawson, 36, as he takes one of Urban Golf's pristine, top-end Callaway clubs from the rack. "And possibly one in the City, but it's not really a City concept. Hopefully we're a bit more..." His voice trails off as he concentrates on grip, stance, swing. A tuft of navy checked shirt tucked into baggy chinos is to be seen peeking out from another booth, but the only golf clothing on sale is JLOC, by Johan Lindeberg, whose mainline collection is to be found in Harvey Nichols. Lawson hopes there'll be more Japanese denim than Japanese bankers in his venues.

Purists of all sartorial persuasions will be lured by what Day describes as "the best video-analysis coaching system anywhere in the world" and the UK's first bespoke club service from Callaway, due to arrive imminently. But they'll need a crowd of addicts who see this as a hip leisure option, a luxury attachment of their urban lifestyle. After all, these machines cost £50,000 each, and set-up costs came in at around £1m - it'll take a lot of £15-per-hour sessions before they hit profit. Are they out there, these hoards of swinging golfers?

The sport is certainly attracting a growing number of hip, high-profile enthusiasts, including Justin Timberlake, The Prodigy's Liam Howlett and Radio One's DJ Spoony. Tim Southwell, former editor of Loaded, has recently set up another magazine, Golf Punk. "It's not just about being younger, it's an attitude thing," he says. "Two years ago, I went back to my golf driving range after quite a while away from it. It was full of cool-looking people, groups as young as 14 or 16. They didn't look like golfers, they weren't all cabbies. And now our issues sell 20,000 copies - they're even on sale at Royal Troon." Market research backs this up. According to Mintel, 48 per cent of regular golfers are aged between 17 and 34. The new survey by the English Golf Union found that 5 million adults in the UK describe themselves as golfers, though only 1.25 million are club members. So what happened to the missing millions? They turn up at cheaper, pay-and-play courses. And maybe there are a few hundred thousand waiting for 50 virtual courses to arrive in an alcohol-licensed basement near them.

Meanwhile, Day pars the last hole at St Andrews and Lawson holes out for a respectable one-over. Early signs are good for them and their high-flying plans. "There's one more venue that my heart is absolutely set on: New York," adds Lawson. "I've said I'm willing to go and live there for three months if I need to, to make it happen." But you get the impression that they'll have to get there fast. The word is out. Urban Golf's best customers so far were a group who arrived at 11am and stayed until 10pm. "They came here straight off the plane from New York. I don't know how they heard about us, we'd only been open a couple of days."

And with that he taps on the LCD touch-screen and the Scottish scenery changes to that of the 18th hole at Oakland Hills, Michigan, where Europe gave a pasting to the US in the Ryder Cup last week. "We never play the same course all the way through," says Day. "It's more fun this way."

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