As they do regularly, hundreds of golf fans in Southern Illinois will tune in this weekend to watch television coverage of the PGA Tour. Undoubtedly, as they watch Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler or any one of the other professional golfers playing at this weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Tournament mis-hit a shot and end up in the rough, the viewers will wonder if they could have done it better.
Now they have the chance to find out if they are on par with Mickelson, Fowler and the others by playing the very same Bay Hill Golf Course without ever leaving Southern Illinois — all thanks to a local golfer with the goal of joining the pros on tour.
Murphysboro’s Bobby Diehl has been playing golf since he was 13. He played in high school and college and dreamed of someday being a professional, competing at golf’s highest level.
“I had just had enough of talking about it, and a couple of years ago, it was time to be about it,” Diehl, who has earned the PGA Associate designation, said of his efforts to become a PGA professional — an effort that can take six or more years.
For starters, he had to overcome a very basic roadblock — how to work on his game all of the time. “Essentially I needed a place that I could practice year-round,” he said.
Diehl says he began looking for an indoor facility or some all-weather way of working on his game. His solution was to purchase a SkyTrak golf simulator, a computerized system that allows users to hit actual golf balls into a screen a few feet away. The system provides swing and distance data. Paired with some add-on software, users can play any one of thousands of courses worldwide — including Bay Hill.
As Diehl began using the system inside a Murphysboro office building he owned for his own practice and for lessons he teaches, it seemed natural to offer the system to others. With that, SI Golf Complex was born.
He says the system works not only for lessons, but can be configured as a driving range or, thanks to the software, allow individual players or even foursomes to play one of 150,000 courses, including some of golf’s most prestigious, including St. Andrew’s, Augusta and TPC Sawgrass.
“You can use the range — hit every club in your bag if you want to and the system will tell you how far and which direction you hit it,” Diehl said. “Or you play courses all around the world.”
Diehl says nine holes of golf is $20 per player, but he cautions that there is a two-hour time limit, so amateurs don’t take too long on really tough courses.
“There are just so many courses, it’s overwhelming,” he says. “There are courses that, as fans, you watch on TV and you can play. It looks and feels like the real thing.”
He adds that the software can add in elements such as weather to make things even more challenging. The system allows golfers to use their own equipment right down to tees. And even though they are driving shots into a screen just nine feet away, it looks like the ball is traveling down the fairway.
“As soon as the ball hits the screen, it drops to the floor, but on the screen, you see it going down the course,” he said. “It has a flight tracker and it is scary-accurate."
Diehl says the reaction from local golfers has been overwhelmingly positive to the system.
“I think a lot of golfers really haven’t known what to expect because there aren’t any other facilities like this in Southern Illinois and plus, just swinging a golf club indoors feels a little unusual at first,” he said. “But once they spend a little time hitting balls on the range, they become really comfortable with it.”
He adds that the range software is especially beneficial for his students because of the instant and quantitative feedback it gives.
“I’ve had a lot of repeat customers already, despite only being open a few weeks. I’ve had one guy who was on the range for a couple of hours; he just kept hitting balls.”
Diehl says his goal for the indoor facility — besides helping himself and his students get better — is to give local golfers an option.
“I am in no way trying to compete with the golf courses in the area,” he said, “but I’m here for those players who want to play when it’s nasty outside. In here, you can golf any time you want.”
Plus, he says, the simulator is fun.
“I’ve had some people tell me that they were shocked at how good the system was and how they all had a blast,” he said.
SI Golf Complex is at 15 N. 13th St. in Murphysboro. For more information, call 618-201-4662.