Golf driving range in New York

Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The frustrations of the game of golf are legendary. Trying to propel a 1.68in diameter ball from tee to green and into a 4.5in hole can be a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain once called it.

But where do you go when you want to experience that club-flinging, oath-spitting sensation that accompanies a lousy shot but can't get to the course? In New York, you can now play one of the world's oldest games in the most modern surroundings, and without stretching a leg.

This giant doll's house-like structure is a four-storey driving range on Manhattan's Chelsea Pier, described as the world's most technologically advanced golf facility. No need to do battle with the elements - each of its 52 stalls are heated for year-round use. And if you want to check your technique, you can see an instant action replay of your swing on the built-in video. You don't even have to bend down to tee up - balls appear automatically on a retractable rubber tee, ready to be scuffed a short way down the 200 yards of Astroturf towards the Hudson river.

Golf isn't supposed to be so easy. Even the most seasoned professionals testify to the cruelty of the game that began hundreds of years ago on the roughly hewn seaside courses of Scotland. Even then, the compelling appeal of hitting small balls with a stick was exerting a powerful effect. So much so that in 1457 King James II decided too many people were playing golf when they should have been practising their archery. He passed a law banning it, thus making the first known written reference to the game.

Like a lot of sports, another part of its enduring fascination lies in the fact that it involves trying to hit a target. Retired people like it because it's good exercise, but you don't have to be really fit to play. Footballers like it because it's a non-contact sport so they can play it without getting injured. Business people like it because they can do deals on the way round and seal them in the bar afterwards. And old comedians like it because its dress code of slacks and colourful V-neck jumpers coincides with their own.

Although the typical golfer is a middle-class, white male with an average age of 48, it is one of the fastest-growing participation sports in this country. This new generation of golfers needs somewhere to play. But golf courses are greedy - they use up a lot of land and water. Manhattan was bought for $24 (pound;17) in 1626 by Dutch settlers, but prime real estate on the island now changes hands for $100 million (pound;70.7 million) an acre, so a 200-acre, 18-hole course is out of the question. At $25 (pound;17.70) for 100 balls, this high-rise urban version of the game is not cheap, but gives inner-city golfers the chance to work on their technique without the added expense of joining an out-of-town club.

Like all golfers, they live for the moment when they can be as good as the professionals. When, by fluke or good judgment, a drive sails down the middle of the fairway, an iron shot flies straight at the flag, or a 50ft putt rattles into the tin cup, even the most inept hacker can beat 24par, or produce the perfect shot, a hole in one. And that's why they keep practising.

HARVEY McGAVIN Weblinks Official site of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews - golf's governing body: www.randa.orgInteractive museum: www.britishgolfmuseum.co.uk Online golf game: www.artifactinteractive.com.auflashgolf

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