Title:
Portable, weather resistant golf practice device
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A portable, weather resistant golf practice device is disclosed. The golf practice device of the present invention includes a multi-dimensionally adjustable practice platform that enables a golfer to repetitively practice shots under conditions that realistically simulate various combinations of uphill, downhill, or side-hill lies, as well as various grass lengths and sand trap conditions. The golf practice device of the present invention is user programmable, relatively inexpensive, lightweight, easily moved by one person, completely portable by two persons, and exhibits enhanced weather resistance. The golf practice device of the present invention minimizes height between the ground and the top of the practice platform, or “step-up” height to provide a golf practice device that is easily and comfortably used.



Inventors:
Sobol, Raymond J. (Henderson, NV, US)
Application Number:
09/775966
Publication Date:
10/25/2001
Filing Date:
02/02/2001
Assignee:
SOBOL RAYMOND J.
Primary Class:
International Classes:
A63B69/36; (IPC1-7): A63B69/36
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
GRAHAM, MARK S
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Ray J Sobol (Kelowna, BC, CA)
Claims:

What is claimed is:



1. A portable golf practice device comprising: an adjustable support assembly including a base and a platform support, configured for multidimensional adjustment with respect to said base, said platform support including a substantially continuous and generally planar upper surface; a practice platform attached to said platform support and including at least one drainage hole, a standing area including a series of raised ribs, and a tray; a synthetic grass and rubber mat removably placed in said standing area over said series of raised ribs; an insert removably placed in said tray, said insert simulating one or more lengths of grass or sand trap conditions; and an electronic control unit (ECU) configured for control of the multi-dimensional movement of the platform support and practice platform attached thereto.

2. The portable golf practice device of claim 1, wherein said adjustable support assembly further includes at least two actuators operably coupled to said ECU that may be independently, electronically controlled thereby, said actuators being positioned underneath said platform support and between said platform support and said base.

3. The portable golf practice device of claim 2, wherein said adjustable support assembly further comprises a central universal joint, said central universal joint being positioned under said platform support and between said platform support and said base.

4. The portable golf practice device of claim 1, wherein said base comprises a first frame and said platform support comprises a second frame with a platform member being attached to said second frame of said platform support.

5. The portable golf practice device of claim 2, further comprising a bellows attached to and extending between said base and said platform support, said bellows substantially enclosing said at least two actuators.

6. The portable golf practice device of claim 2, wherein said base further comprises at least one wheel assembly.

7. The portable golf practice device of claim 2, wherein said ECU comprises a processor, machine readable memory, and a user interface.

8. The portable golf practice device of claim 7, wherein said user interface is configured to generate signals corresponding to user inputs and said processor is operably coupled to said user interface to receive said generated signals, processing said generated signals, and control adjustment of the practice platform in responsive to the user inputs.

9. A portable golf practice device comprising: a platform support configured for multi-dimensional adjustment, said platform support being generally planar and having a substantially continuous upper surface. a base extending under said platform support and including a substantially horizontal portion extending between a first raised portion and an opposing second raised portion, said second raised portion including a first overhang; a first mounting point located at said first raised portion of said base, said first mounting point including a first universal joint attached to a first end of said platform support; at least two actuators overlying said platform support and attached to said first overhang, said at least two actuators including distal ends including additional universal joints, said additional universal joints serving as additional mounting points and being attached to a second, opposing side of said platform support; a practice platform attached to said platform support; and an electronic control unit (ECU) operably coupled to said at least two actuators and configured for controlling the multi-dimensional movement of the platform support and practice platform attached thereto.

10. The golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said practice platform comprises at least one drainage hole, a standing area including a series of raised ribs, a tray, a mat removably placed over said series of raised ribs in said standing area, and an insert removably placed in said tray, said insert simulating one or more lengths of grass or sand trap conditions.

11. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said first raised portion of said base further comprises a second overhang, said second overhang having a third actuator mounted thereto, said third actuator having a distal end serving as said first mounting point incorporating said first universal joint.

12. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said first raised portion of said base further comprises a second overhang, said second overhang having third and fourth actuators mounted thereto, said third actuator having a distal end serving as said first mounting point incorporating said first universal joint and said fourth actuator having a distal end including a fourth mounting point incorporating a fourth universal joint.

13. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said base comprises a frame structure and said platform support comprises a generally planar and substantially continuous sheet of material.

14. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, further comprising a bellows attached to and extending between said first overhang and said platform support, said bellows substantially enclosing said at least two actuators.

15. The portable golf practice device of claim 11, further comprising a first bellows and a second bellows, said first bellows attached to and extending between said first over hang and said platform support and said second bellows attached to and extending between said second overhang and said platform support.

16. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said base further comprises at least one wheel assembly.

17. The portable golf practice device of claim 9, wherein said ECU comprises a processor, machine readable memory, and a user interface.

18. The portable golf practice device of claim 17, wherein said user interface is configured to generate signals corresponding to user inputs and said processor is operably coupled to said user interface to receive said generated signals, processing said generated signals, and control adjustment of the practice platform in responsive to the user inputs.

19. The portable golf practice device of claim 17, wherein said machine readable memory of said ECU includes a plurality of pre-programmed practice routines, each of said pre-programmed practice routines being selectable from said user interface and comprising a plurality of pre-programmed practice platform positions simulating various different golf course conditions.

20. The portable golf practice device of claim 7, wherein said machine readable memory of said ECU includes a plurality of pre-programmed practice routines, each of said pre-programmed practice routines being selectable from said user interface and comprising a plurality of pre-programmed practice platform positions simulating various different golf course conditions.

Description:

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATION

[0001] Under the provisions of 35 U.S.C. §119(e), priority is claimed from U.S. Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 60/179,952, filed on Feb. 2, 2000.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

[0002] 1. Field of the Invention

[0003] The present invention relates to a golf practice device. Specifically, the present invention relates to a portable, weather resistant golf practice device including a practice platform capable of electronically controlled multi-dimensional adjustment.

[0004] 2. State of the Art

[0005] In order to improve the consistency, distance, and accuracy of their golf shots, it is essential for golfers to spend a considerable amount of time practicing. It is accepted by many that the best environment for such practice is the golf course itself. This is true because golf courses generally encompass a variety of terrain, including uphill, downhill, and sidehill grades, varying lengths of grass, and sand traps of diverse grades and shapes, and it is difficult to simulate such conditions in an off-course environment. However, playing a round of golf is time consuming and can be expensive. Moreover, because the objective in golf is to complete a round with the least amount of strokes, playing a round of golf does not provide the golfer an effective opportunity to repetitively practice shots made under particular combinations of course conditions.

[0006] Practice ranges provide a partial solution to golfers' practice needs. In general, practice ranges are easily accessed, inexpensive, and enable the golfer to spend as much or as little time practicing as desired. Additionally, practice ranges provide an excellent environment for repetitive practice.

[0007] However, practice ranges are not without disadvantages. For instance, practice ranges generally simulate only the most ideal conditions on a golf course (i.e., the tee-boxes provided on practice ranges are generally level and can not simulate the varying grades, grass lengths, or sand traps encountered on a golf course). Even where practice ranges include practice areas providing some terrain diversity, the shots a golfer can practice at such facilities are still limited by the terrain provided, and where a practice range includes diverse practice areas, these areas are often surfaced with natural turf, which is difficult and expensive to maintain. Moreover, traveling to and from a practice range only to have to move from one practice area to another is inconvenient for many. Therefore, it would be desirable to provide a device that enables a golfer to repetitively practice shots that accurately simulate the varying uphill, downhill, or sidehill lies, grass lengths, and sand traps encountered on a golf course without having to play a round of golf, move from area to area within a practice range, or even visit a practice range at all.

[0008] Several devices have been developed in an attempt to answer this need. For example, U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,720,670, 5,470,074, 5,358,251, 5,340,111, 4,875,684, and 3,633,918 disclose golf practice devices incorporating adjustable platforms upon which a golfer may stand to repetitively practice shots simulating various combinations of course conditions. However, each of the devices taught in these patents suffers shortcomings which diminish its value to the user. In particular, none of the devices embodies a golf practice device that is comfortable to use, weather resistant, programmable, sufficiently lightweight and portable to be useful in practice range and backyard environments, and capable of simulating varying uphill, downhill, and sidehill grades, as well as varying grass lengths and sand trap conditions. Therefore, the devices disclosed in these patents have not enjoyed widespread commercialization, and a golf practice device which embodies all of these described characteristics would be an improvement in the art.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

[0009] The portable, weather resistant golf practice device of the present invention includes a practice platform, an adjustable support assembly, and an electronic control unit. The practice platform is sized to provide a practice area wherein a user can address a golf ball and practice various golf shots. Due to the construction of the golf practice device of the present invention, the height between the ground and the top of the practice platform, or “step-up” height, is substantially reduced relative to existing devices, making the golf practice device of the present invention easier and more comfortable to use. Moreover, the practice platform may include a device allowing the simulation of various grass lengths or sand-trap conditions. Through adjustment of the adjustable support assembly, the practice platform may be moved multi-dimensionally to accurately simulate a wide variety of uphill lies, downhill lies, or sidehill lies, including combinations of uphill or downhill and sidehill lies. Adjustment of the adjustable support assembly is carried out using the electronic control unit and may be manually executed or automatically executed using a pre-programmed routine. Thus, the golf practice device of the present invention is weather resistant, portable, comfortable to use, accurately simulates a wide range of golf shots, including shots taken from a variety of uphill, downhill, or sidehill lies. The golf practice device of the present invention enables a user to practice such shots without playing a round of golf and without moving from one area to another within a practice facility, or, when used in a home environment, without even visiting a practice facility.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

[0010] In the drawings:

[0011] FIG. 1 illustrates a first embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0012] FIG. 2 through FIG. 5 illustrate adjustable support assemblies useful in conjunction with the first embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0013] FIG. 6 and FIG. 10 illustrate a second embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0014] FIG. 7 through FIG. 9 illustrate adjustable support assemblies useful in conjunction with the second embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0015] FIG. 11 illustrates a practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0016] FIG. 12 provides a cross-section view of a portion of the standing area of a practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0017] FIG. 13 through FIG. 15 illustrate different inserts useful in conjunction with the practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention;

[0018] FIG. 16 illustrates an exemplary user interface included in the electronic control unit of the golf practice device of the present invention; and

[0019] FIG. 17 provides a schematic illustration of an embodiment of the golf practice device according to the present invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

[0020] A first embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention is illustrated in FIG. 1. As in each of the embodiments of the present invention, the golf practice device 10 according to the first embodiment includes an adjustable support assembly 12, a practice platform 14, and an electronic control unit 16. As can be appreciated by reference to FIG. 1, the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention underlies the practice platform 14, supporting the practice platform 14 from underneath.

[0021] Exemplary adjustable support assemblies 12 that may be used in the first embodiment of the present invention are illustrated in FIG. 2 and FIG. 3. The adjustable support assemblies 12 include a base 18, a platform support 20, a central universal joint 22, and at least two independent actuators 24a, 24b capable of manipulating the position of the platform support 20. The central universal joint 22 is positioned between the base 18 and the platform support 20 and allows the platform support 20 to move multi-dimensionally relative to the base. As it is used herein, the term “universal joint” refers to any joint or bearing which facilitates simultaneous movement about at least two different axes.

[0022] As is shown in FIG. 2 and FIG. 3, the base 18 and platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the present invention may include frame structures constructed of structural members. The construction of the base 18 and platform support 20, however, is not so limited. For example, the base 18 and platform support 20 may also be constructed of a generally planar sheet of material. Moreover, the base 18 may include any structure providing a suitable mounting point (i.e., sufficiently robust to withstand the significant stresses imposed during use of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention) for the actuators 24a, 24b or central universal joint 22 of the adjustable support assembly 12. For instance, instead of a frame structure or generally planar sheet of material, the base 18 may be a concrete slab, a metal or concrete post, or even the deck of a boat or ship. It is preferred, however, to construct the base 18 and platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the present invention using frame structures, as such a construction yields a relatively lightweight, yet durable, adjustable support assembly 12.

[0023] In addition, any material or combination of materials may be used to construct the base 18 or platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment, as long as such materials are weather resistant, corrosion resistant, and sufficiently robust to produce a base 18 and platform support 20 capable of withstanding the stresses exerted during use of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention. For example, coated steel, stainless steel, aluminum alloy, titanium alloy, composite materials, polymer materials, or any combination thereof may be used to fabricate the base 18 or platform support 20, and where the base 18 or platform support are fabricated of generally planar sheet material, composite structural materials, such as those manufactured by M.C. Gill Corp. of El Monte, Calif. USA, for example, are preferably used. Moreover, the base 18 and platform support 20 may be fabricated using any suitable fabrication technique, such as, for example, any known cutting, welding, riveting, or bonding techniques. However, it is presently preferred to construct the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment using a base 18 and platform support 20 constructed of welded steel structural members 30 provided with a suitable corrosion resistant coating.

[0024] Where the platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 includes a frame structure, the platform support 20 also preferably includes a platform member 32 (illustrated in FIG. 4). The platform member 32 may be affixed to the frame structure of the platform support 20 by means known in the art, such as, for example, rivets, bolts, screws, or welds. As can be seen in FIG. 4, the platform member 32 includes an upper surface 38 which is continuous and substantially planar, as well as an outer perimeter formed by a flange 42 extending downward and generally perpendicularly away from the upper surface 38. It is preferred that the flange 42 be continuous with the remainder of the platform member 32.

[0025] The platform member 32 may also be constructed using materials and methods known in the art and may be attached to the frame structure by any known means, provided that the materials and means used result in a platform member 32 that is corrosion resistant, weather resistant, and able to withstand the stresses exerted during use of the golf practice device of the present invention. For example, the platform member 32 may be constructed of separate pieces of metal stock that are cut and welded to form a platform member 32 having a continuous and substantially planar upper surface 38 and an outer perimeter formed by a downwardly extending flange 42, or substantially the same result may be achieved using a single piece of metal stock, which is cut, bent, and welded to the appropriate size and shape. Additionally, the platform member 32 may be constructed of any suitable polymer or composite materials, such as, for example, the composite structural materials manufactured by M.C. Gill Corp. However, it is presently preferred to fabricate the platform member 32 by welding multiple pieces of aluminum stock together. It is further preferred to mount the platform member 32 to the frame structure of the platform support 20 using stainless steel rivets.

[0026] The continuous nature of the upper surface 38 and flange 42 of the platform member 32 is significant. Such a design easily sheds water, dirt and debris away from electrical or mechanical systems underlying the platform support 20. Several existing golf practice devices include platforms that are compromised by perforations or holes made to accommodate tees, ball holders, foot switches, grass adjusting mechanisms, and the like. Each such perforation or hole in the platform serves as an additional avenue for water, dirt, and debris to pass through the platform and contact the associated mechanical and electrical systems underlying the platform of these existing devices. Therefore, the substantially continuous, uncompromised platform member 32 surrounded by a downward extending flange 42, as shown in FIG. 4, results in a golf practice device which is substantially resistant to incursions of water, dirt, and debris.

[0027] Where the platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment is formed from a generally planar sheet of material, there is no need to provide a platform member 32. However, even where the platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the present invention is constructed using a generally planar sheet of material, it is preferred that the platform support 20 include a flange that is continuous with a top surface of the platform support 20, extends around the perimeter of the platform support 20, and extends downward and generally perpendicularly away from the top surface of the platform support 20.

[0028] As illustrated in FIG. 2 and FIG. 3, the central universal joint 22 included in the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment may be established by providing a joint which enables simultaneous pivoting about a first horizontal axis 44 and a second horizontal axis 46, the horizontal axes 44, 46 being positioned substantially orthogonally relative to one another. Such a central universal joint 22 is preferably mounted to the base 18 and the platform support 20 using pivotal or spherical bearings 48. However, the adjustable support assembly 12 may be fabricated using any combination of universal joint and mounting means known in the art that allows the platform support 20 to simultaneously move about at least two axes (i.e., multi-dimensionally) relative to the base 18. Also, the central universal joint 22 not only allows the platform support 20 to move multi-dimensionally relative to the base 18, but serves as a load bearing member supporting the platform support 20, the practice platform 14, and a golfer. Therefore, the central universal joint 22, as well as any mounting means, such as the pivotal or spherical bearings 48 used to affix the central universal joint 22 to the base 18 and the platform support 20, should be fabricated using materials providing a structure capable of adequately supporting the platform support 20, the practice platform 14, and a golfer as the platform support 20 and practice platform 14 are adjusted multi-dimensionally relative to the base 18.

[0029] Though more may be used, the adjustable support assembly 12 of the golf practice device of the first embodiment at least two actuators 24a, 24b mounted to the adjustable support assembly 12. For example, as shown in FIG. 2, the actuators 24a, 24b may be mounted to the base 18 and the platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 using spherical or pivotal bearings 48. Alternatively, as shown in FIG. 3, the actuators 24a, 24b may be mounted to the central universal joint 22 and either the platform support 20 or the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12. In such a design, the first actuator 24a is mounted to the base 18 at its proximal end 47a and to the central universal joint 22 at its distal end 51a, and the second actuator 24b is mounted to platform support 20 at its proximal end 47b and to the central universal joint 22 at its distal end 51b. Where the design depicted in FIG. 3 is used, it is preferred to mount the distal ends 5la, 51b of the actuators 24a, 24b to the central universal joint 22 using clevis-type joints 49, while the proximal ends 47a, 47b are preferably mounted to the base 18 and platform support 20 using pivotal or spherical bearings 48.

[0030] The actuators 24a, 24b included in the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment are bi-directional actuators and may be placed under independent, electronic control. As the actuators 24a, 24b are independently controlled to extend or retract, the platform support 20 is moved multi-dimensionally through the range of motion afforded by the central universal joint 22. Moreover, as the platform support 20 achieves a desired position, the actuators 24a, 24b serve to maintain the platform support 20 in place. Thus, the actuators 24a, 24b and their mounting means must be robust enough to withstand the significant stresses imposed as the practice platform 20 is moved and maintained in place during use of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention.

[0031] Though several known actuators (e.g., actuators including hydraulic cylinders, pneumatic cylinders, or mechanical drives) and mounting means may be used under such conditions, actuators including mechanical drives, particularly those comprising a lead screw and an electromagnetic motor, are presently preferred (SKF USA, Inc. of Bethlehem, Pa., USA, distributes a range of such actuators that are well suited for application in the present invention). Actuators including mechanical drives are preferred over pneumatic or hydraulic actuators because they are capable of consistently providing precise linear adjustments of over wide temperature ranges without recalibration. This performance characteristic, in turn, results in precise angular adjustments to the platform support that are repeatable over wide temperature ranges without recalibration. In addition, actuators including mechanical drives result in a weight savings over pneumatic or hydraulic actuators, which generally must be significantly larger and heavier than actuators including mechanical drives in order to handle the same operational stresses.

[0032] Though the adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the present invention has been described as including a central universal joint 22, the adjustable support assembly 12 is not limited by such a design. For example, where the adjustable support assembly 12 includes three or more actuators 24a-24c (shown in FIG. 5), the need for a central universal joint may be obviated.

[0033] FIG. 5 illustrates an adjustable support assembly 12 having three actuators 24a-24c positioned between and mounted to the base 18 and the platform support 20, but as is easily appreciated, the adjustable support assembly 12 of FIG. 5 lacks a universal joint mounted to both the platform support 20 and the base 18. As before, the actuators 24a-24c are bi-directional actuators that may be independently, electronically controlled.

[0034] The actuators 24a-24c are preferably mounted to the base 18 and the platform support 20 using pivotal or spherical bearings 48. However, any mounting means known in the art allowing the actuators 24a-24c to move the platform support 20 multi-dimensionally may be used. Further, the actuators 24a-24c are positioned about the adjustable support assembly to maximize multi-dimensional movement of the platform support 20 relative to the base 18 while retaining stability. For example, as is illustrated in FIG. 5, the first actuator 24a may be positioned and mounted near a first end 50 of the platform support 20 and base 18, while the second and third actuators 24b, 24c are positioned and mounted near a second end 52 of the platform support 20 and base 18. In such a design, the first actuator 24a may be used to control the elevation of the first end 50 of the platform support, and the second and third actuators 24b, 24c are used to control the elevation of the second end 52 of the platform support 20 while simultaneously controlling the inclination or declination between the front side 54 of the platform support 20 and the back side 56 of the platform support 20. Though only three actuators 24a-24c are illustrated in FIG. 5, more than three actuators may be used as desired, and the relative positions of the actuators between the base 18 and platform support 20 may be varied depending on the size and shape of the platform support 20 or base 18, or the amount of adjustability desired.

[0035] The adjustable support assembly 12 of the first embodiment of the present invention also includes a protective curtain or bellows 60 mounted to and extending between the platform support 20 and the base 18 (shown in FIG. 1). As is shown in FIG. 1, the bellows 60 preferably peripherally surrounds the electrical and mechanical systems of the adjustable support assembly, and may be mounted about the outer perimeters of the frames (hidden from view in FIG. 1) of both the platform support 20 and the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12. Further, the bellows 60 is preferably securely affixed to both the base 18 and the platform support 20, thereby minimizing the possibility of injury to the user of the present invention or passers-by which may result from contact with any electrical or mechanical system associated with the adjustable support assembly 12. The secure, substantially continuous affixation of the bellows 60 also protects such systems from fouling by weather, dust, debris, vandals, or small animals, problems which have been reported in existing devices lacking such a feature.

[0036] A variety of materials known in the art may be used to make the bellows 60. For example, the bellows 60 is preferably fabricated using either a flexible polymer material or a fabric. The material used for the bellows 60 is preferably resistant to UV light degradation, durable, and weather resistant. Where fabric is used, it may be inherently weather resistant or it may be coated or laminated in order to achieve resistance to the elements. For example, a heavy-duty, coated synthetic fabric, such as nylon laminated with a breathable GORE-TEX™ membrane or rubber coated nylon that is moisture and air impermeable, depending on the environment in which the golf device is to be used. Further, where polymer material is used to create the bellows 60, UV-stabilized, impact-modified ABS or high density polyethylene (HDPE) is preferred. In order to provide a durable area for attachment to the base 18 and the platform support 20, the bellows 60 may include reinforcing members, such as, for example, eyelets or grommets. Further, the where fabric is used for the bellows 60, the area of attachment may be reinforced by, for example, a dual cloth layer, a rope, a cable, or other elongated element sewn into a hem. Alternatively, where the bellows 60 is made from a polymer material, reinforcement may also be provided by simply including areas of increased material thickness where the bellows 60 is to be attached to the base 18 and platform support 20.

[0037] Presently, the first embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention is provided with an adjustable support assembly 12 having a bellows 60 constructed of a synthetic fabric having polymer strips as reinforcing members. The polymer strips are sewn into the fabric of the bellows 60 in the areas where the bellows 60 is attached to the base 18 and the platform support 20. The bellows 60 is then permanently affixed to the base 18 and the platform support 20 by driving screws or rivets through the areas of the bellows 60 reinforced by the polymer strips and into the base 18 and the platform support 20.

[0038] A practice platform 14 is attached to the platform support 20 of the first embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention (shown in FIG. 1). The practice platform 14, therefore, may be articulated through the multi-dimensional range of motion of the platform support 20 upon extension or retraction or one or more of the actuators (hidden from view in FIG. 1) included in the adjustable support assembly 12. The practice platform 14 is attached to the platform support 20 by any suitable means known in the art. For example, the practice platform 14 may be bolted, screwed, riveted, bonded, or welded to the platform support 20. Riveting the practice platform 14 to the platform support 20 using stainless steel rivets is presently preferred because it provides a rugged, weather resistant, and permanent attachment of the practice platform 14 to the platform support 20. Riveting also results in a practice platform 14 that is less susceptible to vibration and less likely to partially or completely detach due to the loosening of screws or bolts over time.

[0039] A second embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention is illustrated in FIG. 6. The second embodiment also includes an adjustable support assembly 12, a practice platform 14, and an electronic control unit 16. As can be seen in FIG. 7, the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment includes a base 18, a platform support 20, and two or more actuators 24a, 24b. However, unlike that of the first embodiment, the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention is not contained entirely underneath the practice platform 14.

[0040] The base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment includes a substantially horizontal portion 89, a first elevated portion 90, and a second elevated portion 92 opposing the first elevated portion 90. The substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18 extends between the first elevated portion 90 and the second elevated portion 92. Thus, the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18 serves to locate and maintain the first and second elevated portions 90, 92 in their desired positions and supports the first and second elevated portions 90, 92 as such portions bear stresses exerted by and on the platform support 20 during use of the golf practice device 10.

[0041] As shown in FIG. 7, the first elevated portion 90 of the base 18 may simply extend upward and away from the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18. Further, the first elevated portion includes a first mounting point 96a positioned at a desired distance above the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18. The first mounting point 96a includes a universal joint 100, such as, for example, a spherical bearing or Heim joint.

[0042] While the second elevated portion 92 of the base 18 also extends upwardly and away from the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18, the second elevated portion additionally includes a first overhang 104 extending back over the substantially horizontal portion 89. Two actuators 24a, 24b are mounted to the first overhang 104 in such a way that the actuators 24a, 24b extend generally down and away from the first overhang 104. The actuators 24a, 24b are preferably mounted using pivotal or spherical bearings 48, but the actuators 24a, 24b may also be mounted by any other means known in the art that enable independent extension and contraction of the actuators 24a, 24b after the platform support 20 is mounted to the base. The distal ends 108a, 108b of the actuators 24 provide second and third mounting points 96a, 96b, each including a universal joint 100, such as, for example, a spherical bearing or Heim joint.

[0043] The platform support 20 is mounted to the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment using the mounting points 96a-96c. The platform support 20 includes a first end 110 and a second end 112, which opposes the first end 110. The first end 110 is mounted to base via the first mounting point 96a provided at the first elevated portion 90, and the second end 112 is mounted to the base via that second and third mounting points 96b, 96c provided at the distal ends 108a, 108b of the actuators 24a, 24b. Because each of the mounting points 96a-96c is located at a desired distance above the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18, mounting the platform support 20 to the base 18 via the mounting points 96a-96c suspends the platform support 20 above the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18. As will be appreciated by those of skill in the art, controlled, independent extension and retraction of the actuators 24a, 24b facilitates multi-dimensional movement of the platform support 20, enabling the platform support 20 to accurately simulate various uphill, downhill, and sidehill grades.

[0044] As shown in FIG. 8 and FIG. 9, the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the present invention may also utilize more than two actuators 24a-24d. Instead of having a first elevated portion 90 that simply extends upwardly and away from the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18, the first elevated portion 90 of a base 18 of an adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment may also include a second overhang 105 extending back over the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18. Three or more actuators 24a-24d are mounted at the first and second overhangs 104, 105 in such a way that the actuators 24a-24d extend generally down and away from the overhangs 104, 105. As before, the actuators 24a-24d are preferably mounted using pivotal or spherical bearings 48 but may be mounted by any means known in the art that enable the actuators 24a-24d to adjust the platform support 20 multi-dimensionally relative to the base 18. The distal ends 108a-108d of the actuators 24a-24d include mounting points 96a-96d, which include a universal joint 100, such as, for example, a spherical bearing or a Heim joint. First and second opposing ends 110, 112 of the platform support 20 are mounted to the mounting points 96a-96d to provide a platform support 20 suspended above the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18, the platform support 20 being capable of multi-dimensional movement relative to the base 18 upon extension or retraction of one or more of the actuators 24a-24d.

[0045] The actuators 24a-24d used in the adjustable support assembly of the second embodiment of the present invention are bi-directional actuators that may be placed under independent, electronic control. Again, though any known bi-directional actuator capable of withstanding the operational stresses experienced during use of the golf practice device of the present invention may be used (e.g., actuators including hydraulic cylinders, pneumatic cylinders, or mechanical drives), it is presently preferred to use actuators including mechanical drives for those reasons already explained.

[0046] Even though the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention is illustrated in FIG. 5 through FIG. 8 as including a frame structure, the construction of the base 18 is not so limited. For instance, instead of a frame structure, the base 18, or one or more portions thereof, may be constructed using generally planar sheets of material, or a combination of frame structures and generally planar sheets of material. Moreover, the substantially horizontal portion 89 of the base 18 may comprise, for instance, a concrete slab or even the deck of a ship or boat having the first and second elevated portions 90, 92 of the base 18 attached thereto. Regardless of its configuration, the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment may be constructed using any materials or fabrication means known in the art, including, for example, those discussed in relation to the first embodiment. It is preferred that such materials and fabrication means result in a base 18 that is weather resistant, corrosion resistant and able to withstand the stresses exerted during use of the golf practice device of the present invention.

[0047] The platform support 20 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the present invention may be constructed as a frame structure having a platform member fastened thereto, as is described in conjunction with the first embodiment. However, as is illustrated in FIG. 7 through FIG. 9, it is presently preferred to construct the platform support 20 using a single substantially planar sheet of material. Though various metal alloys, composites, and polymer materials known in the art may be used to create a substantially planar sheet suitable for use as a platform support 20, composite structural materials such as, for example, those manufactured by M.C. Gill Corp. are preferred.

[0048] Where the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the present invention is constructed of a frame structure, protective panels may be affixed to the first and second elevated portions 92, 94 of the base. Such protective panels serve to inhibit access to the mechanical and electrical systems included in the adjustable support assembly 12 and work to minimize or prevent injuries due to contact with such systems.

[0049] As a further protection, the base 18 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment of the present invention also includes bellows 60 attached to and extending between the platform support 20 and any overhangs having actuators mounted thereto. As is shown in FIG. 6, and FIG. 10, the bellows 60 preferably peripherally surround the electrical and mechanical systems (hidden from view in the figures) underlying the overhangs 104, 105. For example, the bellows 60 may be mounted about the underside of the overhangs 104, 105 and also to an upper surface of the platform support 20. Further, the bellows 60 is preferably securely affixed to the overhangs 104,105 and the platform support 20, thereby minimizing the possibility of injury which may result from contact with any electrical or mechanical system enclosed by the bellows 60. The secure, substantially continuous affixation of the bellows 60 also protects such systems from damage or fouling by weather, dust, debris, vandals, or small animals, problems which have been reported in existing devices lacking such a feature.

[0050] As is true of the bellows 60 of the first embodiment, a variety of materials known in the art may be used to make the bellows 60 of the adjustable support assembly 12 of the second embodiment. For instance a flexible polymer material or fabric may be used. However, whatever material is used, it is preferably resistant to UV light degradation, durable, and weather resistant. As before, where fabric is used, it may be inherently weather resistant or it may be coated or laminated in order to achieve resistance to the elements. For example, a heavy-duty, coated synthetic fabric, such as, for example, nylon laminated with a breathable GORE-TEX™ membrane or rubber coated nylon that is impermeable to air and moisture, depending on the environment in which the golf device is to be used. Further, where a polymer material is used to create the bellows 60, UV-stabilized, impact-modified ABS or HDPE are preferred. Moreover, the bellows 60 may be attached to the platform support 20 and overhangs 104, 105 using any known means, and if necessary, may include reinforcing members, such as those described in relation to the first embodiment.

[0051] Like the practice platform 14 of the first embodiment, the practice platform 14 of the second embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention is attached to the platform support 20 (shown in FIG. 6 and FIG. 10). The practice platform 14, therefore, is articulated through the multi-dimensional range of motion of the platform support 20 upon extension or retraction of one or more of the actuators (hidden from view in FIG. 6 and FIG. 10) included in the adjustable support assembly 12. As was true with regard to the first embodiment, the practice platform 14 of the second embodiment is attached to the platform support 20 by any suitable means known in the art. For example, the practice platform 14 may be bolted, screwed, riveted, bonded, or welded to the platform support 20. Again, riveting the practice platform 14 to the platform support 20 using stainless steel rivets is presently preferred.

[0052] Though each of the embodiments described herein includes advantages over prior art devices, the second embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention is presently preferred. A problem associated with prior art golf practice devices having adjustable practice platforms is that the height between the ground and the top of the practice platform, or “step-up height”, was often so large as to produce anxiety or sensations of imbalance in users. Advantageously, the design of the adjustable support assembly of the first embodiment of the present invention can reduce the step-up height to eleven inches or less. However, because the actuators included in the adjustable support assembly of the first embodiment are located underneath the platform support, the step-up height of a golf practice device according to the first embodiment must be at least as high as the underlying actuators. In contrast, the actuators included in the adjustable support assembly of the second embodiment of the present invention are positioned over the platform support, and, as a consequence, the minimum step-up height of the golf practice device according to the second embodiment is not limited by the minimum height of the actuators. For example, a golf practice device according to the second embodiment may be manufactured to have a step-up height of approximately seven inches while maintaining a practice platform capable taking on a 5° slope about two different horizontal and substantially orthogonal axes of rotation. Therefore, the second embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention may be manufactured to have a step-up height that is significantly smaller than that of the first embodiment, resulting in a golf practice device that is relatively easier and more comfortable to use.

[0053] The practice platform 14 of the golf practice device of the present invention (illustrated alone in FIG. 11) is sized to allow a golfer to comfortably address a golf ball and repetitively practice shots in various platform orientations simulating uphill, downhill, or sidehill grades, or any combination thereof. The practice platform 14 comprises a continuous structure and is defined by a top surface and a bottom surface (not visible in FIG. 11) as well as an outside perimeter. The practice platform 14 may be fabricated in a variety of shapes, but a generally rectangular shape is preferred. Additionally, the practice platform 14 is preferably constructed of a material that is corrosion resistant, insensitive to daily or seasonal temperature fluctuations, resistant to UV degradation, and of sufficient durability and strength to support a golfer and withstand regular use. For example, the practice platform 14 may be fabricated from coated steel or a corrosion resistant alloy, such as stainless steel, a titanium alloy, or an aluminum alloy. Alternatively, the practice platform 14 may be constructed of a composite material, a resin, or a polymer, such as, for example, ABS or HDPE. It is presently preferred to construct the practice platform 14 using thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized HDPE, as this material results in a durable, non-corrosive, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive practice platform 14 that is resistant to UV degradation and is easily formed into a continuous structure of the appropriate shape.

[0054] The practice platform 14 of the golf practice device of the present invention may include several features. Among these features are drainage holes 126, a standing area 128 to be used by a golfer while practicing, and a tray 132 wherein different inserts 134 simulating varying grass lengths or sand trap conditions can be disposed. Further, the practice platform 14 preferably includes at least one depression 140 allowing easy storage of and access to a plurality of golf balls during a practice session. Thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized HDPE is easily formed through rotational or injection molding processes to produce a practice platform 14 including each of these features.

[0055] The drainage holes 126 pass through the practice platform and allow water to easily drain off of the practice platform to the upper surface of the platform support. Because the upper surface of the platform support of each embodiment of the present invention is substantially continuous and planar, the draining water easily passes to one of the edges of the platform support where it is shed from the golf practice device.

[0056] The standing area 128 to be used by a golfer includes a series of raised ribs 130. Though any desirable dimensions may be used, the raised ribs 130 are preferably spaced on 2″ centers and are approximately 1″ wide by ½″ tall. The raised ribs 130 provide open avenues for water travel and thereby help to prevent the standing area 128 from becoming waterlogged after the golf practice device of the present invention is exposed to precipitation. Moreover, the convoluted surface provided by the raised ribs 130 results in a stronger practice platform 14 better able to withstand the compressive and angular forces exerted by a practicing golfer.

[0057] A mat 142 (shown in place in FIG. 1, FIG. 6, and FIG. 10), which may be fabricated of synthetic grass and/or rubber, is removably placed over the series of raised ribs 130 and covers the standing area 128 to be used by a golfer while practicing. The mat 142 is preferably perforated or otherwise fabricated to allow the passage of water. Though various known materials may be used to fabricate the mat 142, a commercial grade ASTROTURF™ surface with a rubberized backing is presently preferred. The mat 142 should be forgiving yet sufficiently rigid that when it is positioned over the series of raised ribs 130, a valley 144 is formed between each raised rib 130, even when a golfer is standing on the mat 142 (illustrated in FIG. 12). These valleys 144 are not so apparent to a golfer as to be intrusive or upsetting, yet they allow water to pass through the mat 142, into the valleys 144, and out of the standing area 128 used by a golfer while practicing.

[0058] Removable placement of the mat 142 over the series of raised ribs 130 may be achieved by means known in the art. For example, the practice platform 14 may include attachment areas 146 for the mat (illustrated in FIG. 11) whereon two sided adhesive tape is adhesively attached. Alternatively, one side of a two sided hook and loop adhesive system, such as VELCRO™, may be attached by known means such as adhesive, screws, or rivets, to the attachment areas 146 included on the practice platform 14, and the second side of the two sided hook and loop system may be attached to the mat 142 by similar means. Removable attachment of the mat 142 is advantageous in that it allows removal of the mat 142 for cleaning or replacement.

[0059] The tray 132 included on the practice platform 14 is structurally continuous with the remainder of the practice platform 14 and facilitates the removable placement of a variety of inserts 134 simulating various lengths of grass or sand trap conditions. The tray 132 includes a recess defined by a bottom surface 150 and sidewalls 152a-152d, and may include a depression (not illustrated in FIG. 11) in one of the sidewalls 152a-152d which allows easy removal of an insert 134 disposed within the tray 132. The various inserts 134 may be removably disposed within the tray 132 using any suitable means known in the art. For example, snap-fit connectors, VELCRO™, or other, larger hook and loop systems, may be used to removably place the inserts 134 within the tray 132. However, it is presently preferred to removably place the inserts 134 within the tray 132 using a friction-fit. The inserts 134, therefore, are preferably sized such that, when an insert 134 is placed within the tray 132, the outer perimeter of the insert 134 abuts the sidewalls 150a-150d of the tray 132, thereby creating a pressure between the insert 134 and the sidewalls 150a-150d which maintains the insert 134 in place during use.

[0060] As was mentioned, a variety of inserts 134 simulating varying grass lengths can be utilized in conjunction with the golf practice device of the present invention. Commercially available synthetic grass panels simulating several different grass conditions, such as, for example, tee box, fairway, or rough conditions, may be used to fabricate various inserts 134 by means known in the art. For example as is shown in FIG. 1 and FIG. 13 an insert 134 may produced by affixing a synthetic grass panel 160 of a given length to a backing 162 by any suitable means, such as, for example, bonding, gluing, screwing or riveting. Alternatively, as is illustrated in FIG. 6 and FIG. 14, synthetic grass panels 160a, 160b of differing lengths may affixed to a single backing 162 to produce an insert 134 simulating more than one grass length. The backing 162 of the inserts 134 is preferably fabricated of material that is impact resistant, substantially non-corrosive, UV resistant, and able to withstand normal daily and seasonal temperature extremes, such as, for example, thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized ABS or HDPE.

[0061] The synthetic grass panels 160 used to create an insert 134 may allow the face of a golf club (particularly a golf iron) to travel underneath a golf ball resting on the insert 134 as a golf swing is executed and the golf ball is struck. For example, the synthetic hitting surfaces manufactured by FIBERBUILT® Manufacturing, Inc. of Shelby, Mont., USA, allow the face of a club to travel underneath a golf ball as the golf ball is struck and are well suited for fabricating inserts 134 simulating various grass lengths. Synthetic grass panels 160 that allow a club face to travel underneath a golf ball as the golf ball is struck not only more accurately simulate golf shots taken on natural turf, but also substantially reduce or eliminate the hand shock, arm injury, and club damage often associated with synthetic grass mats.

[0062] Additionally, permanent or removable golf tees may be provided in the inserts 134. For example, an insert 134 having a permanently attached golf tee may be fabricated by providing a synthetic grass panel 160 having a small hole, passing a golf tee having a tee shaft and tee anchor through the small hole in the grass panel 160, such that the tee shaft extends out from a top surface of the grass panel and the tee anchor prevents the tee from passing through the grass panel. The tee is then permanently incorporated into the insert 134 by affixing the grass panel 160 to a backing 162 as has already been discussed. An insert 134 having a removable tee may simply include a small hole passing through its entirety (i.e., through the synthetic grass panel 160 and the backing 162). When tee shots are desired, a tee including a tee shaft and tee anchor may be passed through the small hole, and the insert 134 positioned within the tray 132 of the practice platform, the tee anchor maintaining the tee in place during use. When tee shots are no longer desired the insert 134 may be removed from the tray 132, the tee removed, and the insert 134 replaced.

[0063] An insert 134 designed to simulate sand trap conditions may also be fabricated using materials and means known in the art. As illustrated in FIG. 15, such an insert 134 includes four surrounding sides 180a-180d and a bottom surface 182. The sand trap insert 134, therefore, is itself substantially shaped like the tray 132 of the practice platform 14, but its dimensions allow the sand trap insert 134 to fit within the tray 132. The sand trap insert 134 may be fabricated of any suitable material known in the art, such as, for example, thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized ABS of HDPE. When a sand trap insert 134 is positioned within the tray 132, the four surrounding sides 180a-180d of the sand trap insert 134 are preferably in contact with the sidewalls of the tray. Contact between the sidewalls of the tray and the surrounding sides 180a-180d of the sand trap insert 134 not only facilitates removable placement by a friction-fit, but also serves to inhibit the migration of large amounts of sand from the sand trap insert 134 to the bottom surface of the tray 132.

[0064] The practice platform 14 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention may be designed for use by right handed golfers, left handed golfers, or right and left handed golfers. A practice platform 14 designed to allow the golf practice device 10 of the present invention to be used by both right and left handed golfers is illustrated in FIG. 1. The practice platform 14 includes an approach side 190, a target side 192, and first and second sides 194, 196 having first and second upwardly extending ridges 198, 200 at their edges (the first side 194 and first upwardly extending ridge 198 being behind the golfer as the golfer addresses the ball on the practice platform 14). The approach 190 side will generally be used by the golfer to step up onto the practice platform 14 and is farthest from the intended target or intended direction of travel of the golf ball. The target side 192 is opposite the approach side 190 and is closest to the intended target or intended direction of travel of the golf ball. Neither the approach side 190 nor the target side 192 of a practice platform intended for use by right-handed and left-handed golfers includes an upwardly extending ridge. The two sides 194, 196 having upwardly extending ridges 198, 200 are in front of and behind a golfer as the golfer addresses a golf ball in preparation for a practice shot. The upwardly extending ridges 198, 200 at these two sides 194, 196 provide visual and physical references for a golfer and may serve to prevent a golfer from accidentally stepping off or slipping off the practice platform 14. Moreover, one or both of the upwardly extending ridges 198, 200 may include a depression 140 which allows storage of and access to a plurality of golf balls during a practice session.

[0065] As is easily appreciated, a golf practice device 10 including a practice platform 14 having no upwardly extending ridges on either the approach side 190 or target side 192 is easily converted from right handed to left handed use and vice-versa. To accomplish this conversion, the golf practice device 10 need only be rotated 180°. If the golf practice device 10 is positioned for right-handed use, the positions of the tray 132 and the standing area 128 to be used by a golfer while practicing are the mirror opposite of what they should be for a left-handed golfer. However, by simply rotating the golf practice device 10 through 180° relative to the target area or intended direction of travel of the golf ball, the positions of the tray 132 and the standing area 128 to be used by a golfer while practicing are reversed. Therefore, where the practice platform 14 is designed to enable use by right-handed and left-handed golfers, the approach side 190 of the practice platform 14 for a right-handed golfer simply becomes the target side 192 of the practice platform 14 for a left-handed golfer and vice-versa.

[0066] The practice platform 14 may also be fabricated for dedicated use by right-handed golfers or by left-handed golfers. For example, FIG. 6 shows a golf practice device 10 having a practice platform 14 fabricated and mounted for dedicated use by right-handed golfers, and FIG. 10 shows a golf practice device 10 having a practice platform 14 fabricated and mounted for dedicated use by left-handed golfers.

[0067] Where the practice platform 14 is fabricated for use only by right-handed golfers or only by left-handed golfers, the practice platform 14 includes a third upwardly extending ridge 201 along the edge of the intended target side 194 of the practice platform 14. This third upwardly extending ridge 201 intersects the first upwardly extending ridge 198 at the edge of the first side 194 behind a golfer as the golfer addresses the ball in preparation for a practice shot. However, in order to provide free space for the head of the swinging club and the exiting ball, the third upwardly extending ridge 201 on the target side 194 does not extend the entire length of the target side 194. The third upwardly extending edge 201 may provide an added sense of security to a user of the golf practice device of the present invention, but it creates a practice platform 14 with a dedicated target side 194 that cannot be properly used by right and left handed golfers. As is easily appreciated by reference to FIG. 6 and FIG. 10, whether or not a golf practice device 10 is dedicated to right-handed or left-handed use depends entirely upon how the practice platform 14 having a third upwardly extending ridge 201 is mounted to the adjustable support assembly 12.

[0068] It should be understood, however, that the practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention may be fabricated using one, two, or three upwardly extending ridges at the edges of the practice platform. It is simply presently preferred to include only two upwardly extending ridges positioned in front of and behind a golfer as the golfer addresses a golf ball on the practice platform because doing so results in a golf practice device that is easily used by right and left handed golfers.

[0069] As already mentioned, each embodiment of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention also includes an electronic control unit (hereinafter an “ECU”) 16. The ECU 16 is preferably housed in a body 330 that may be mounted to or formed as part of a support 210 which extends up from the adjustable support assembly 12 and is preferably hollow. Moreover, the support 210 preferably extends out of the flange 42 of the platform support 20 of a golf practice device 10 according to the first embodiment (so that the substantially continuous nature of the upper surface of the platform support 20 is maintained), while the support 210 preferably extends out of the top surface 107 of an overhang 104, 105 included in the base 18 of a golf practice device 10 according to the second embodiment of the present invention. Because the ECU 16 controls adjustment of the practice platform 14, the ECU 16 as well as its support 210 should be positioned to facilitate user access. Preferably, the ECU 16 is located on the golf practice device so that it is positioned in front of or behind a golfer as the golfer addresses a golf ball on the practice platform.

[0070] A schematic illustration of a golf practice device of the present invention including an exemplary ECU 16 is provided in FIG. 17. As shown in FIG. 16, the ECU 16 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention includes a user interface 300, a processor 302, and, preferably, machine readable memory 304, such as, for example, random access memory (RAM), read only memory (ROM), programable read only memory (PROM), or electrically erasable programable read only memory (EEPROM). The ECU 16 may also include an outboard (to the processor 302) clock 305, such as, for example, an 8 MHZ crystal oscillator module, supplying clock signals to the processor 302. Further, the ECU may include a communication port 306 enabling communication between the ECU 16 and an external computer 308. Based on inputs provided from, for example, the user interface 300, the actuators 24, or an external computer 308, the processor 302 controls the actuators 24 such that the practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention is adjusted as desired by the user to simulate various golf course conditions. Though the ECU 16 of the golf practice device of the present invention 10 is described herein as incorporating each of its various features within a single body 330, the features of ECU 16 of the present invention need not be contained within a single body 330 and may be located about the golf practice device 10 of the present invention as desired.

[0071] Any suitable processor 302 may be used in the ECU 16 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention. For instance the processor 302 may be any known microprocessor or digital signal processor capable of receiving data, processing data, and communicating output or control signals based on the data received. Presently, it is preferred to provide the ECU 16 with a PIC 16C64/08 microcontroller manufactured by Microchip Technology Inc. of Chandler, Ariz., USA. However, the ECU 16 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention is not limited to incorporation of such a processor 302.

[0072] The user interface 300 of the ECU 16 of the present invention includes any known interface that is not only capable of displaying to a user information output from the processor 302, but is also capable of communicating signals representing user inputs to the processor 302. For example, it is presently preferred to provide a user interface comprising a weather resistant membrane keypad 310 incorporating a plurality of input switches 312-324b and a plurality of LCD displays 326a-326c (illustrated in FIG. 16). Where such a user interface 300 is provided, a user activates and controls the golf practice device of the present invention by actuating one or more of the plurality of input switches 312-324b, and the microprocessor 302 directs the display of appropriate information in each of the plurality of LCD displays. A membrane-type control panel is preferred because the entire surface of the control panel is continuous and, therefore, provides enhanced protection from moisture, dust, dirt, and debris. However, as is easily appreciated, the user interface 300 may include any known input device in combination with any known display device, provided that such input and display devices are capable of reliable operation under the anticipated operational stresses.

[0073] As is shown in FIG. 16, the input switches 312-324b of the user interface 300 may control any desired function. The user interface may include an “ON/OFF” switch 312 for activating and deactivating the golf practice device. The user interface 300 also preferably includes a “CALIBRATE LEVEL” switch 314 and a “GO TO LEVEL” switch 316. The CALIBRATE LEVEL switch 314 enables automatic or manual calibration of the level or “zero” position of the practice platform even when the golf practice device is positioned on a non-level surface, and actuation of the GO TO LEVEL switch 316 signals the processor 302 to control the automatic return of the practice platform to the calibrated zero position. Moreover, the user interface 300 may include various input switches for manual or automatic adjustment of the practice platform. The “SELECT PRESET” switches 316a, 316b allow a user to scroll through a group of “presets”, each preset representing a pre-programmed practice platform position or a pre-programmed practice routine including a variety of practice platform settings. Significantly, where the machine readable memory 304 of the ECU 16 includes pre-programmed practice routines, such routines may simulate the terrain of various well-known golf courses, allowing a user to simulate a round of golf on a course of choice. Actuation of the “GO PRESET” switch 318 signals the processor 302 to adjust the practice platform in accordance with the preset selected by the user. To facilitate manual adjustment of the practice platform, the user interface 302 may be provided with “MANUAL UP/DOWNHILL” switches 320a, 320b and “MANUAL SIDEHILL” switches 322a, 322b. Actuation of such switches directs the processor to control the uphill, downhill, or sidehill adjustment of the practice platform until a desired position is achieved. It must be noted however, that the user interface 300 illustrated in FIG. 16 is merely exemplary. The user interface 300 of the ECU 16 of the golf practice device of the present invention may incorporate any number of input switches controlling any desired function of the golf practice device of the present invention.

[0074] The LCD displays 326a-326c provided in the user interface illustrated in FIG. 15 serve to present useful information as the golf practice device of the present invention is used. The information presented in each LCD display 326a-326c is preferably controlled by the processor 302 and dependent upon inputs received by the processor. For instance, as a user actuates one of the “SELECT PRESET” switches 316a, 316b, the microprocessor controls the display of an indicator 317 within the first LCD display 326a. The indicator 317 may be any desirable text and/or graphical message indicating the preset currently selected. The processor 302 of the ECU 16 also receives condition data from each of the actuators 24, and based on such condition data, the processor 32 controls the display of second and third indicators 319, 321 within the second and third LCD displays 326b, 326c. The second and third indicators 319, 321 indicate the uphill, downhill, and sidehill grades taken on by the practice platform and may include any appropriate text and/or graphical message. Further, as a user actuates any one of the MANUAL UP/DOWNHILL 320a, 320b or MANUAL SIDEHILL 322a, 322b switches, the processor not only controls the adjustment of the practice platform according to the user's desire, but also continuously updates the second and third indicators 319, 321 according to the condition information received from the actuators 24. Again, however, the user interface 300 of the ECU 16 of the present invention may include more or less than three displays, and processor may be programmed to control such displays to provide any information deemed beneficial to a user.

[0075] The processor 302 of the ECU 16 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention may be configured as desired to facilitate operation of the golf practice device 10 as described. However, a preferred configuration for a golf practice device 10 including two actuators is presently described in order to more completely illustrate the interaction between the user interface 300, the processor 302, and the actuators 24 included therein.

[0076] Where the present invention includes two actuators and a user interface as illustrated in FIG. 16, it is preferred that input switches, except the ON/OFF switch 312, be connected directly to an input/output pin of the processor, each of such input/output pins being configured as an input. Signals generated by actuation of the input switches 314-324b are preferably processed internally by the processor to produce appropriate output signals. It is further preferred to designate two input/output pins of the processor for each axis of directional control and actuator control, such input/output pins being configured as outputs. Output signals generated by the processor and communicated via these directional pins drive field-effect transistors (FETs), which, in turn, drive the coils of cross-connected relays. When the directional pins are high, the coils of the cross-connected relays are energized and movement in the positive direction of each axis is facilitated. Two additional input/output pins are also preferably configured as outputs and designated for actuator control. When these two additional pins are high, optocouplers are energized and drive gates of high power metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs). For example, IRFP044N transistors manufactured by International Rectifier Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., USA, may be used. When energized, such MOSFETs provide a very low resistance return for the windings of the motors driving the actuators. It is further preferred that eight input/output pins be employed for transferring data to LCD display drivers included in the ECU. Finally, two input/output pins are preferably configured as inputs designated to receive signals generated by encoders included in the actuators. As the actuators are extending or contracting, signals sent by the encoders to the two dedicated pins indicate the exact extension of each actuator. The signals generated by the encoders are processed by the processor to produce output signals to the LCD drivers corresponding to the uphill, downhill, or sidehill position of the practice platform.

[0077] Though not necessary, a communication port 306 enabling communication between the ECU 16 and an external computer 308 expands the potential capabilities of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention. In particular, an external computer may include one or more updated or additional pre-programmed practice routines not included within the machine readable memory 304 included of the ECU 16. Interaction between the external computer 308 and the ECU 16 via the communication port 308 could, therefore, facilitate execution of such additional practice programs by the golf practice device 10, thereby expanding its stand-alone capabilities.

[0078] As mentioned, the support 210 for the ECU 16 is preferably hollow. Moreover, the support 210 is preferably removably mounted to the adjustable support assembly 12 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention, with the ECU 16 preferably being positioned near the top end 209 of the support 210. Removable attachment of the support 210 may be achieved using any suitable means known in the art, such as, for example, bolts or screws. Removable attachment of the support 210 is preferred because easy detachment and reattachment of the support 210 enhances the portability of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention.

[0079] The support 210 may be fabricated of any material that is durable, substantially non-corrosive, and UV resistant. For example, the support 210 may be fabricated of a polymer, such as thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized ABS or HDPE, or the support 210 may be fabricated of lightweight steel provided with a suitable corrosion resistant coating.

[0080] Where a hollow support 210 is provided, any electrical or communication lines necessary to power the ECU 16 or to facilitate communication between the ECU 16 and other internal or external components may be disposed within the support 210. In order to ease attachment and detachment of the support 210 and, when applicable, the ECU 16, each electrical or communication line disposed within the support 210 may be provided with a suitable connector near the top end 209 or the bottom end 211 of the support 210. Where such connectors are included, any one of a variety of commercially available wiring connectors may be used.

[0081] As shown in FIG. 1, FIG. 5, and FIG. 9, the electronic control unit 16 may be housed in a body 330 including a front surface, back surface, top surface, bottom surface (not visible), and two side surfaces. The body 330 is substantially weather resistant and may be fabricated using known materials which are durable, substantially non-corrosive, and resistant to UV degradation. For example, the body 330 may be fabricated using aluminum alloy, stainless steel, coated steel, or thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized ABS or HDPE.

[0082] The body 330 of the ECU 16 may be removably fastened to the support 210 using any means known in the art, such as, for example, bolts or screws. Where the body 330 is removably fastened to the support 210, the body 330 is preferably fastened to the support 210 at the back or bottom surface of the body 330. Moreover, where electrical or communication lines are disposed within the support 210 such lines preferably pass out of the body 330 and into the support 210 through whichever side of the body 330 is removably fastened to the support 210.

[0083] Alternatively, instead of mounting the body 330 of the ECU 16 to the support 210, the body 330 of the ECU 16 and the support 210 may be integrally formed of a single piece of a molded material, such as, for example, thermo-formed, impact modified, and UV stabilized ABS or HDPE. Such a design is desirable, as it simplifies construction of support 210 and body 330 of the ECU 16, while eliminating the need to fasten the body 330 of the ECU 16 to the support 210.

[0084] As is schematically represented in FIG. 16, pressure sensors 340 may be disposed within or under the standing area 128 of the practice platform 14 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention. Such pressure sensors are of great value for determining the shift in weight which occurs between a golfer's feet during the golfer's swing. The pressure sensors 340 output signals representing the weight born by each of a golfer's foot when addressing the golf ball as well as the shift in weight occurring during a swing. The output signals are received by the processor 302, which, in turn, processes the signals and produces outputs controlling the display of appropriate textual and/or graphical information at the user interface 300. Thus, by including pressure sensors 340 within or under the standing area 128 of the practice platform 14 of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention, a golfer can understand the shift in body weight which occurs during strokes taken at different grades representing various golf course conditions. Using such information, the golfer can make any adjustments necessary to arrive at a more ideal weight transfer for strokes taken under various combinations of course conditions.

[0085] As can also be appreciated by reference to FIG. 16, the golf practice device of the present invention may also include a measurement module 342. The measurement module 342 includes one or more sensors configured to sense the speed, rotation, and/or direction of a golf ball after it is struck on the practice platform of the golf practice device of the present invention. The measurement module 342 may also include a sensor configured to sense club speed or angle as a golf swing is executed. The one or more sensors included in the measurement module 342 may be digital or analog, and suitable digital and analog sensors capable of sensing ball speed, rotation, and direction, as well as club speed and angle, are known in the art. For example, American IR, Inc. of Las Vegas, Nev., USA, manufactures single beam, dual beam, and multi-array emitters which are suitable for application in the measurement module 342. Based on sensed inputs from the one or more sensors, the measurement module 342 preferably generates output signals representing an interpolated location of the struck golf ball in terms of distance and deviation from center. Such output signal are received by the processor 302, which, in turn, processes the output signals and controls the display of appropriate textual and/or graphical information at the user interface 300 indicating the interpolated position of the struck golf ball. Communicating the interpolated position of a struck golf ball to a user is highly desirable, as it allows the user to readily appreciate the effects of various adjustments to the user's golf swing or stance.

[0086] Though any suitable power source may be used, the golf practice device of the present invention is preferably powered from 120 volt AC power source. However, the initial current draw of the actuators is very high (i.e., 30 amps or higher), and the 120 AC power circuits generally provided in homes and commercial establishments may not be able to support such a high current draw, even for a very short period. Thus, it is presently preferred to also provide the golf practice device of the present invention with a battery (preferably, a twelve-volt sealed lead-acid battery). The battery serves to buffer the initially high current draw of the actuators, protecting the 120 volt AC power source from sudden, unsupportable current loads. Moreover, where a battery is included in the golf practice device of the present invention, it is preferably continuously charged by a power supply when the golf practice device of the present invention is activated. Though the battery is used to supply electrical current required to operate the actuators included in the present invention, a low current supply is all that is necessary to maintain the battery at nearly full charge because the actuators are operated under a low duty cycle. However, in order to ensure that the battery remains adequately charged and operational, it is preferred that golf practice device of the present invention remain inoperable unless the power supply charging the battery receives AC power and is thus capable of charging the battery. For example, a sense line may indicate operation of the power supply, deactivating the golf practice device of the present invention in the absence of AC power to the power supply. Nevertheless, where necessary, the battery may provide power to operate the processor included in the ECU, even when the power supply is not receiving AC power, in order to preserve information stored in volatile machine readable memory.

[0087] The electrical and communication lines of the golf practice device of the present invention may include any suitable, commercially available wiring, though heavy duty wiring is preferred. All of the electrical and communication lines necessary to the function of the golf practice device of the present invention may be incorporated into a suitable wiring harness routing the various electrical and communication lines to their proper destinations in such a way as to avoid the risk of damage due to interaction with moving parts and to ease transport, set up, and service of the golf practice device of the present invention. Moreover, surge and over current protection is preferably incorporated into the wiring design of the golf practice device of the present invention. Surge protection will serve to minimize potential damage due to battery failure or “hot-swapping” of the battery. Over current protection, which may be provided, for example, by circuit breakers corresponding to each actuator included in the adjustable support assembly, works to prevent excessive power dissipation within the actuator motor, as well as within the driving FETs, in the unlikely event that an actuator is driven to its mechanical limit.

[0088] Further, it is presently preferred that the base 18 included in the adjustable support assembly 12 of each embodiment of the golf practice device of the present invention includes one or more wheel assemblies. Each such wheel assembly includes at least one wheel or castor and at least one rigid arm, with each wheel or castor being affixed to each rigid arm using suitable means known in the art. For example, if the wheel assembly includes a rigid arm having a box-beam construction, a wheel or castor may be fitted with an attachment that may be inserted within a first end of the rigid arm. The wheel or castor may then be affixed by passing, for example, a pin or bolt, through the rigid arm as well as the attachment fitted to the castor or wheel. Alternatively, each wheel assembly may include two spaced rigid arms that are approximately 3½″×1¼″ and made of ⅛″ thick stainless steel. Each spaced rigid arm of such an embodiment includes a hole through which a wheel axle, pin, or bolt may be disposed. A wheel may then be placed between the two spaced rigid arms and attached by disposing a wheel axle, pin, or bolt through the first rigid arm, the wheel, and the second rigid arm. The rigid arms of the wheel assemblies discussed herein may be secured to the base 18 of an adjustable support assembly 12 using any means known in the art, such as, for example, welding, bonding, riveting, bolting, or screwing, that creates a rugged, permanent or removable attachment.

[0089] The base 18 of an adjustable support assembly 12 of a golf practice device 10 of the present invention preferably includes at least one wheel assembly in order to facilitate at least short distance movement of the golf practice device 10 by a single person. Thus, each component of the wheel assemblies should be fabricated of using materials and means resulting in wheel assemblies of sufficient strength to reliably support the entire weight of the golf practice device 10 of the present invention. Further, materials that are lightweight, and substantially noncorrosive.

[0090] Each aspect of the golf practice device of the present invention is chosen to result in a device that is comfortable and easy to use as well as moveable by one person and portable by two people. For example, the adjustable support assembly and the practice platform are designed to result in a practice platform that is adjustable multi-dimensionally yet comfortable to approach, access and use. The adjustable support assembly and practice platform are, therefore, designed to minimize the step-up height between the ground and the top surface of the practice platform. Moreover, the size and weight of the golf practice device of the present invention should allow the device to be moved by one person using the one or more wheel assemblies provided on the base of the adjustable support assembly, and the entire device is lightweight and small enough to be lifted by two people and transported in a pick-up truck, sport utility vehicle, or small trailer.

[0091] The golf practice device of the present invention is, therefore, ideally suited for commercial as well as private applications. As has been emphasized, the golf practice device of the present invention is programmable and enables a golfer to repetitively practice shots under conditions that realistically simulate various combinations of uphill, downhill, or sidehill lies, as well as various grass lengths and sand trap conditions. However, the golf practice device is also relatively inexpensive, comfortable to use, lightweight, easily moved by one person, completely portable by two persons, and can be left out of doors uncovered for extended periods of time.

[0092] Though the golf practice device of the present invention is described herein using various embodiments and figures, the scope of the present invention is not limited to such embodiments and figures but is defined by the appended claims.