By Brian O’Hare
UP in Newcastle for the week long 2015 NSW Veteran Golfers Association Matchplay Championship the Wednesday was a rest day … and a rather wet one.
It seemed like a great opportunity to do a little early work, have brunch at the excellent Surfhouse café overlooking Merewether beach, take in a movie, and forgo all things golf.
I like to call such things non-golf-related activities. Sometimes you just need them.
The movie was The Martian starring Matt Damon and I don’t think it is too much a spoiler to reveal he gets stranded on Mars alone for quite a while … and that there are absolutely no golf references in it.
After the first few months alone on the red planet though I bet most of us would wish we at least packed a six iron and a couple of golf balls to help while away the hours. And maybe a wedge as well, with all that sandy terrain he could have become an excellent bunker player.
Coming out of the theatre and strolling around the eastern end of the Newcastle CBD I noticed a shop front with a big Callaway photo and, looking closer, that it was called Slice. A golf equipment shop, I thought, and definitely to be avoided under that day’s non-golf-related activities guidelines.
I hurriedly walked in the opposite direction, gazing with great interest at all the fashion, antique and art shops in that revitalised city area and decided – at that particular time – I should go back to the golf shop.
Inside, one realises immediately that the place is actually called Slice Virtual Golf, has a little bar and a quite attractive looking pizza menu.
On that wet Wednesday afternoon there were three groups of guys in the virtual golf booths, obviously deeply involved in some personal three man competitions, having a beer, a pizza, and a great time.
The part owner turned out to be Newcastle local Stuart Dryden, who for many years worked as a golf caddie, mostly on The European Tour where he teamed up with the likes of Peter Senior, Rodger Davis, Ronan Rafferty and Paul Casey. He started in 1985 and for his last 10 or so years caddied on and off for Richard Green.
Looking for something new to do a few years back he teamed up with a couple of non-golfing partners and worked on the virtual golf, beer, food concept that seemed to work well in some overseas locations.
Slice was the result and has been going great guns since opening in June 2014.
Slice offers the opportunity to play 95 of the world’s greatest golf courses on some very realistic, state of the art golf simulators.
You use real clubs (your own or theirs) real balls, and though you are actually hitting into a large screen, it all begins to feel very authentic.
There’s also gourmet pizzas, a licenced bar, competitions, lessons with a PGA Qualified Instructor, group bookings and corporate events.
Stuart says the venue has proved very popular, particularly for events such as bucks parties and work Christmas functions.
As well as being able to play iconic courses such as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St Andrews, you can also set it up in driving range mode, so on a wet Wednesday afternoon you might be tempted to hit a few balls and finally perfect your golf swing.
“Many of our customers are non-golfers but we do get serious golfers coming in and they still have fun with it,” Stuart says.
In one of the quite large golfing booths – which each also have two actual putting green cups (left and right) for players to putt out on – it is a simple matter to set up the Augusta National program as an example.
“I was amazed when I first set it up,” Stuart says. “I’ve been to Augusta a couple of times and when I set it up it was spot on, just so accurate. It even had the TV towers.”
He suggests I play a couple of holes but I helpfully explain the no-golf policy. “C’mon,” he says, “you’ve at least got to play Amen Corner.”
Pretty soon I discover that on the famous par three 12th you can’t actually walk across Hogan Bridge, but you can certainly put your tee shot in the water … twice in a row.
After all those years on tour caddying for some of the best, Stuart has a keen eye. He suggests there’s a common flaw in my setup.
Stuart is called away as more and more afternoon customers arrive at Slice.
I continue with the Augusta back nine (“Oh Look,” I excitedly exclaim to myself on the 13th, “there’s Phil Mickelson’s tree.”)
Finishing the 18th – and of course impossible not to recall Adam Scott’s putt there in 2013 to ensure a playoff (and so many other golfing memories), I consider my options. I could play the front nine, try somewhere else … or even walk out the door.
In no time flat I’m whisked across the Atlantic to Scotland. Oh shit, here I am standing on the first tee at St Andrews.
I don’t overdo it. Just play the front nine.
“It can get addictive can’t it?” says Stuart, returning from helping customers.
It’s definitely time to leave.
I walk out the front door and realise it is a whole lot later than when I walked in. Kind of like being stranded on an another planet, except with the unmistakable smell of pizza baking in the oven.
Mars, Augusta, St Andrews … Newcastle.
Life can get confusing at times. But somebody’s got to do it.