ST. PAUL -- Golf is not dying. It’s just moving indoors.
“This can’t not succeed,” said Steven Nelson in X-Golf Woodbury, as he watched his son whack a ball down a simulated fairway. He looked around at all the customers who — like him — were drawn away from golf courses to a faster, weather-proof, golf-like experience.
X-Golf is part of a wave of indoor golf facilities arriving in area malls, hotels and apartment buildings.
The indoor game is surging, even as the outdoor game sags. The indoor golfers say that outdoor golf is too slow, too expensive and full of hassles.
In their indoor golf-havens, they play on video game versions of the world’s greatest golf courses. They can eat, drink and mingle with other golfers, on the coldest days of winter as well as rainy afternoons in July.
That’s why commercial indoor golf has grown to more than 15 locations in the metro area. Three new ones — TopGolf, X-Golf and the proposed Birdi Golf site in Woodbury — are the first franchises in the state.
It’s ironic, because outdoor golf is on a downturn.
Minnesota lost 70 golf courses from 2000 to 2016, according to the website foregonegolf.com. The number of U.S. golfers dropped by one-third since 2000 despite an increase in population, according to several surveys.
So how can indoor golf be thriving?
No more lost balls
Just compare the experience, said Amy Struve, marketing director for the new TopGolf facility in Brooklyn Center.
TopGolf’s golfing bays are stacked three levels deep. From more than 100 climate-controlled tee-off rooms, golfers hit balls across a 215-yard driving range. Microchips in the balls instantly report the distance of each shot.
No one wastes a minute searching for a lost ball, dodging a rainstorm or waiting for the slow golfers ahead.
“The business here has been blowing everyone out of the water,” said Struve.
But Michael Turnbull, for one, is skeptical about this new approach to the game.
“That is the entertainment business. It’s not golf,” said Turnbull, an expert on golf trends and director of instruction at Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley.
Golf simulators are popping up everywhere, he said.
The state’s first indoor-golf hotel has opened in Minneapolis — the Graduate Hotel, offering Swing Suites. More than 10 metro-area apartment complexes boast golf-simulation rooms as an amenity, like a pool or fitness center.
There are some signs the indoor game is starting to eclipse the outdoor game, Turnbull said.
“A guy came to me and said he wanted indoors lessons only, not outdoor,” said Turnbull. “I wasn’t sure what to say to him — except no.”
One indoor golf entrepreneur has a warning for traditional golf.
“We definitely are competition,” said Brad Wohlers, owner of Element Indoor Golf Club in Vadnais Heights.
It opened in January and already business is strong, he said.
“I am shocked at how much people like these simulators,” said Wohlers. “There is no waiting, no searching for the ball. That is huge. … The way things are going, this is the future of golf, especially in colder climates.”
Introducing the game to many
But Topgolf’s Struve said indoor golf is helping outdoor golf.
More than half of her customers have never played golf before, she said.
“We are introducing the game to so many people,” said Struve.
Amy Harris does the same thing. As the X-Golf Woodbury instructor, she teaches newcomers in a special training bay, with help from two cameras that can replay every swing in slow motion.
The new players appreciate the relative privacy, so they aren’t as embarrassed by flubbed shots.
“They say, ‘I am so glad it’s just us,’ ” said Harris.
X-Golf co-owner Tonya Holt was a member of Hillcrest Golf Club in St. Paul until it closed in 2017. There, she said, playing 18 holes could take five hours. At X-Golf, anyone can play 18 holes in an hour.
And indoor golf is more convivial. Instead of being locked into foursomes for several hours, golfers can play as singles or doubles, or with any number of players up to six.
They can drift back and forth between bays, to check on their friends. They don’t have to wait to get back to the clubhouse for food and drinks.
Holt wants to make the place a social hub for non-golfers, too.
X-Golf has hosted yoga classes, and is planning trivia nights and “Paint and Sip” nights for lessons with a local artist. Kids at birthday parties don’t have to play golf — they can use the giant screens for playing video games.
“We created a golf-friendly but not golf-required community,” said Holt.
She was interrupted by what sounded like a rifle shot — thwack!
Beside her, golfer Nelson hit a fairway shot into a facsimile of the first hole of Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska.
He retreated into a chair, flanked by beer and pepperoni pizza. His 8-year-old son, Everett, tapped a yellow button on the floor, and a ball slipped out of a trap-door and right on top of a rubber tee.
Everett sliced the shot, then sat down to eat a giant pretzel. Overall, he said, he does prefer reality-based golf.
“It’s more realistic,” he said.