Can you really play golf indoors? Neil Wilcox believes the answer is yes and has put his money where his mouth is by opening the iPlay Golf centre in Newport Pagnell. Glyn Pritchard went to find out why.
A non-descript business park in Newport Pagnell may seem an unlikely setting for a game of golf, but looks are deceptive. Once inside, iPlay Golf is like the Tardis opening onto more space and areas as you explore. The centre is the brainchild of Neil Wilcox, who has a background in local government, not golf.
Wilcox explains, “I worked in local government consultancy with a business partner helping local authorities make sense of, and conform to national government changes in legislation. It was lucrative but very demanding – we worked weekends and public holidays. When the recession hit it also became depressing with the emphasis on efficiencies and making cuts.”
To decompress, Wilcox took up golf. “I’d played a bit as a kid with my dad, but in 2009 I took it up again and was completely smitten. Initially I thought I can combine golf with business, but then I realised all I really wanted to do was play golf, so I sold my interest in the consultancy firm to my partner and looked around for a golf related venture.”
Initially Wilcox considered a high quality driving range. “I wanted to create a ‘golfing heaven’ for practising. With Simon, my general manager, we looked for somewhere to create a 400 yard range so we could use real golf balls, plus short game area, club house and so on; finding that much land at an economic price was a challenge.”
Wilcox had become a member of Woburn and it was there that he found inspiration. “They had installed a simulator and I was really wowed by it. I had seen simulators before but hadn’t realised how far they had progressed in terms of realism and accuracy. The Foresight GC2 simulators we use are accurate to an A4 sheet of paper over 300 yards. So instead of trying to create an actual driving range I thought let’s create a virtual one.”
The iPlay Golf centre has the feel of a sports bar, with widescreen TVs, bar, pool table and a nightclub music system. “We wanted to create a buzzing atmosphere, where people would enjoy coming to hang out as well as playing and practising golf”, Wilcox confirms. “My vision was based on what I felt I needed personally to improve my game and also the kind of social atmosphere I like to relax in.”
In total there are six Foresight GC2 simulator bays. Three are used for general play and two have the added HMT (Head Measurement Technology) giving extra clubhead data for coaching and club fitting. “We looked at other systems but chose Foresight because the stereoscopic camera imaging was more accurate than the radar based systems and the course simulations are very realistic.”
The sixth GC2 is used in the VIP room with superwide HD screen. “The VIP room is bookable with luxury seating, waitress service for up to 20 people in comfort, a Sony PS4 games machine, projection facilities for major sports events on the big screen and a private surround sound system. The wide screen can be used to play additional world famous golf courses complete with weather effects piped through the powerful sound system.”
The official public opening was in May but the centre had been running since November 2014 so that Wilcox and his team could fine tune the concept. “Initially we had a golf shop selling apparel. It was successful but clothing racks detracted from the club atmosphere so we closed it. We still offer custom fitting of equipment and we have accounts with eleven manufacturers including Callaway, Cobra, Mizuno, Srixon, TaylorMade and Nike.”
For coaching and custom fitting, Wilcox has recruited a crack team led by PGA professionals Danny Poulter (brother of Ian) as director of golf and Greg Tilbury as head professional. “We have demo evenings where people can come along and try clubs and we offer lessons.”
Pricing the facilities is based on £10 per person, per hour, with supervised under 14s at half price. There is also a £20 club membership which gives a ten percent discount on the usage rate. “Members benefit in a number of ways. We hold monthly medal and Stableford competitions and we arrange events like a rules quiz evening with an introduction to the rules by an expert. We want to create a club camaraderie, but people can still just come up here to play the course of their dreams or use the range to get their club gapping right and their swing metrics analysed.”
The membership scheme has proved to be successful with 500 already on the books before the official opening. “I think we’ve got the pricing right, because it’s affordable. A three hour round will cost £30 which is comparable to a normal green fee. But of course you can play here in virtual California when it’s freezing and pouring outside, or after dark. We close most evenings between ten and eleven but for special events our drinks license runs to 3.00am.”
Financial success for iPlay Golf is important to Wilcox because he has personally funded the whole venture. “I did put together business plans for the banks, but they are still very nervous of new ventures so I have put my own money into it because I believe in the concept totally.” In fact Wilcox is already looking to expand the current facility. “The gym next door is relocating and that will give us room to expand. I envisage a short game practice area, an academy setup and a golf shop for apparel and footwear.”
Going forward Wilcox believes that iPlay Golf could become a franchise operation. “We already have a lot of expertise and I think that is transferable and the concept is solid.” However, his dream of playing lots of golf and bringing down his handicap has taken a back seat to work. “It’s ironic but I really struggle with time to play. My handicap at Woburn is still 28, but I have a society handicap of 18 because they think I must be a bandit with all this practice kit available to me. If only it were true!”