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Home on the Range The author, an avowed range rat, learned plenty about a mostly mom-and-pop business while searching in vain for his swing

Nov. 13, 2000
Nov. 13, 2000

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Nov. 13, 2000

Home on the Range The author, an avowed range rat, learned plenty about a mostly mom-and-pop business while searching in vain for his swing

Your range rat is a man with a past. He's Bogie--no pun
intended--bent over a bottle of bourbon in the dark of Rick's
Cafe. He's James Stewart in Vertigo, tailing a beautiful woman
through the streets of San Francisco because she reminds him of
a lost love. Your range rat can be charming, even debonair, but
golf has made him cynical. Like Sean Connery in a Bond flick, he
has wakened too many times with a dead blonde sharing his pillow.

This is an article from the Nov. 13, 2000 issue Original Layout

I speak from experience. For more than a decade I have haunted
driving ranges from Minneapolis to Miyazaki, searching for a lost
golf swing. I have hit balls off carpet squares, vinyl strips and
gravel. I have hit off moldy mats into a night rain and watched
the ball vanish above the lights and reappear as a splash in
black water. I have aimed at trees, tractors, trampolines,
yardage signs, fire trucks, bull's-eyes, pinball pods, rainbows
and rafts. I have watched low-compression pitch-and-putt balls
swoop and dart like june bugs in the floodlights. I have hit
balls from wire buckets, drawstring bags and plastic paint cans.
I have pushed computer cards into slots and watched balls pop up
from underground. I have picked the gleaming white fruit of those
elegant ball pyramids at golf schools and resorts.

Being a range rat is an interesting life, but it changes a man.
Some years ago I was hitting balls at 2 a.m. at the Randalls
Island Golf Range in New York City, when the cry of a baby
distracted me. Turning around, I discovered that a Korean family
had taken over a nearby bench. The mother was juggling baby
bottles and blankets. A preschool girl slept on her
grandmother's lap. Between shots, the father--who looked like a
middle manager for Samsung--turned to his family and spoke in
Korean. The women shook their heads vigorously and used their
hands to show that his club face was closed on the takeaway.

A man wearing a sweatshirt and a ball cap walked up with two wire
buckets of balls and took the station to my immediate right. The
new arrival and I practiced for a while in silence, until he
accidentally kicked over one of the buckets, sending balls
bouncing down the concrete sidewalk behind the tee line. "Stop!"
he yelled at the runaway balls. He turned to me and said, "I can
hit O.K. when I'm a little buzzed. How about you?"

He then told me the story of his life. He was 39, married and
childless. He loaded trucks for a living and drank beer most
nights at a lounge. He said he had been playing golf for two
years and, oh, yeah, he hoped someday to play on the Senior tour.
"I don't hit it as good as Nicklaus and those guys," he said
unnecessarily, "but I used to hustle pool, so maybe I can hustle
golf."

He had a 7 o'clock tee time, and that's why he had come to
Randalls Island when the bar closed instead of going home. He
said, "I could use a few hours sleep, but when my head hits the
pillow, I'm gone." He coughed. "Watch this. I can make the ball
suck back like Greg Norman." He made a short, choppy swing and
hit an ugly knuckleball that flew about 100 yards and hopped down
the range like a jackrabbit. He shook his head and said,
"Sometimes that's a hard sonofabitch to hit."

That's why I say the driving range life changes a man. You start
as a kid, swinging so hard with a cut-down five-iron that you
stagger off the mat. You celebrate adolescence by taking your
girl to the range and showing her how to hold the club while
smart guys yell "Fore!" from passing cars. Before you know it,
you're a character in a campy poster, smacking balls at the
towers of the Triborough Bridge in the wee hours with James Dean
on the mat behind you and Marilyn Monroe just up the tee line
hitting soft wedges to the 50-yard sign.

Your range rat is afraid of commitment. He's John Cusack in High
Fidelity, tallying the women who have left him. He's Hugh Grant
in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Your range rat loves driving
ranges, but he knows it's dangerous to invest too much emotion in
any particular range. The two formative ranges of my youth in
Kansas City--Smiley Bell's and Sam Snead's--gave way decades ago to
a television studio and tract housing, respectively. (Range
balls, oddly enough, linger for years, transmigrating through the
soil by a process understood only by geologists. When bulldozers
plowed up Smiley Bell's in 1969, old golf balls were found to a
depth of eight feet.)

In Ireland this July I found the Ennis Driving Range padlocked
and shuttered. In downtown San Diego, in August, I spied the high
nets of a range from the window of my harborside hotel. When I
drove to the site, I found a closed range overrun with weeds and
trash. Even the Wall Street Journal keeps track of driving range
morbidity. In May, Family Golf Centers, Inc., which operated 111
golf centers and 19 skating rinks in 23 states and three Canadian
provinces, filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S.
Bankruptcy Law. Among the Family Golf assets were 21 Golden Bear
Driving Ranges, operated under license from Jack Nicklaus's
Golden Bear Golf, Inc.

This bleak picture notwithstanding, driving ranges are thriving.
A National Golf Foundation study found that range rats spent $722
million for balls at stand-alone ranges in 1999, up more than 50%
from 1994. The number of tee stations climbed 16% in the same
period, to 73,158; the number of customers rose by 56% to 17.8
million; and the number of range visits jumped from 71 million to
96 million. "Practice has never been so popular," writes NBC golf
analyst Roger Maltbie, co-author of the book Range Rats. "The
culture is growing like some giant sci-fi creature oozing up out
of the ground. It's Range Ratzilla!" A trade publication calls
ranges "the golden child of golf."

It's just that driving ranges have remained unalterably
small-time, defying the standardization and consolidation of
other businesses. "There's a reason why only 12 percent of ranges
are part of multisite operations," says Mark Silverman, editor of
Golf Range magazine. "The minute you have to start paying other
people to run the property, a lot of the money goes out the door
in overhead."

The Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway of Laurel, Md., is one of my
favorite ranges, and it is successful because its owners
understand that range rats don't care about corporate balance
sheets and economies of scale. "I'm the only corporate structure
here," says co-owner Gus Novotny. "It's a mom-and-pop business."

Novotny is a legend. He was the first range operator to offer
heated stalls to golfers. He was the first to design a mechanical
ball conveyor to deliver washed golf balls to the shop. He was,
and is, the only range operator to walk the aisles of the annual
PGA Merchandise Show wearing a black bowler. That's why I made a
special trip to Rocky Gorge--to talk to Gus and to take a shot at
his junked car.

First the car. It's parked about 160 yards from the double-deck
tee line, a battered '94 Dodge with a giant bull's-eye painted on
it. Hitting from a mat on a crisp weekday morning, I launched
seven-irons at the car, wondering what a direct hit would sound
like. (I am sadly familiar with the sounds that a golf ball makes
when it strikes stucco, tile, aluminum siding, brick, concrete,
wood decking and various items of lawn furniture, but I had never
hit a car.) "We had a green out there," Novotny said, watching me
take a few swings, "but if you hit the flag, you didn't hear
anything."

So in 1978 Gus parked his '73 Olds convertible on the hillside
and invited customers to rain on his parade. The new target was
an instant success, and now Gus has to change the car every year.
"Newer cars aren't as good as the old ones because there's too
much plastic in them," he told me. "You need a '70s car to get
that good old clank sound when it hits, instead of a thud." I
finally planted one squarely on the driver's side door and was
rewarded with the resonant peal of surlyn on sheet metal.
"Bingo!" he said.

Novotny is semiretired at 63, but his mark is everywhere at Rocky
Gorge. He designed the tractor-drawn baseball/softball picker. It
was his idea to build the world's longest miniature golf hole, a
downhill, 185-foot par-2. The animatronic figures and the
benches? Gus again.

Rocky Gorge used to be a farm. Novotny and a partner leased the
land back in 1964, when Gus had to decide whether he would be an
industrial engineer (he has an engineering degree from Maryland)
or a golf pro. "I thought this would be the ideal business," he
said. "Open in the summer, off in the winter." He laughed. "I
found out you have to be open in the winter and on rainy days
too. You have to start at 6 a.m. and work until 1 a.m."

During his first five years, Gus had no income from the range,
getting by only by teaching at a technical high school in a rough
area of Washington, D.C. Now he has 23 employees, 13 of them
full-time, and he boasts that he pays 100% of their benefits.
"There will always be Chevrolet, apple pie and driving ranges,"
he told me, "but to make a living at it you have to love golf,
and you have to give up your life."

Your range rat is a wanderer, an adventurer. He's Steve McQueen
in The Sand Pebbles, wooing a beautiful schoolteacher while
Chiang Kai-shek's soldiers riot on the Yangtze. He's Alice in
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, drinking from the container
labeled DRINK ME.

I was driving a desolate stretch of California 371 between
Temecula and Palm Desert. The late afternoon sun hit a peeling
wooden sign by a ranch gate, and I caught the words ...LF RANGE.
I didn't hit the brakes until I was a quarter mile down the
road. Making a U-turn, I drove back to the gate and turned in at
the sign, which read, L C VENTURES GOLF RANGE. No range was
visible, but a gravel road ran down the fence line. I followed
it, raising a plume of dust. A few hundred yards later, the road
turned left into a cluster of sheds and mobile homes. I parked
the car between a pickup truck and some rusty barrels and stared
out the windshield. A field of prairie grass climbed to the
south, bisected by a row of decrepit yardage signs. Unpainted
and cracked tee markers pointed up the hill toward a small
cinder-block house.

I wandered onto the empty tee line, picking my way between a
broken-down clothes dryer and a discarded sofa. I called out,
"Hello?" but no one answered. When I looked back at the closest
trailer, a red curtain moved in the window--or was it my
imagination? A weathered shed caught my eye. I walked over and
stared in disbelief. On the counter were a half-dozen wire
buckets of old golf balls and a sign: $3 BUCKET. I felt a sudden
chill. I had stumbled upon a ghost driving range.

I left my $3 under a hunk of rusted metal, got my clubs out of
the trunk and, in the setting sun, began hitting balls up the
hill. A cool wind blew out of the mountain shadows, making the
tufts of grass shake and my skin crawl. I swung mindlessly,
slapping balls up the hill with no regard for form or outcome.
When the balls were gone, I took the pail back to the shed and
put my clubs in the trunk. The curtain in the trailer seemed to
move again. Minutes later, speeding down the highway toward the
Coachella Valley, I took a deep breath and turned on the radio.

Your range rat is a put-upon consumer. He's Jack Nicholson in
Five Easy Pieces, sweeping the dishes off the table when the
waitress won't bring him a side of toast. Your range rat loves
driving ranges, but he knows that most of them are sadly
deficient. One range has Heinz 57 golf balls with hand-painted
stripes that leave red blotches on a club face. Another range
faces the setting sun, so you can't see the ball in the
afternoon. Two years ago in Seattle I visited a range that had
protective netting that extended out about 10 feet between
stalls. You could only aim straight ahead, like a hunter in a
hallway.

My experience is universal, judging from the e-mails I get from
readers of my Mats Only column at golfplus.cnnsi.com. "I
absolutely refuse to hit off mats," writes a worked-up Steve
Killebrew of New York City. "What a joke they are! They cause you
to hit it fat and are hard on the joints." Max Hill of Baytown,
Texas, writes that the "absolute worst driving range is Hacker's
Haven, here in Baytown. No grass on the teeing areas, just
hardpan, and we have been hitting the same balls for about eight
years now." Pat Larkey of Pittsburgh describes a range near
Cambridge, England, as "early chicken coop" and says it is tended
by a middle-aged woman in curlers and a floral housecoat. "The
balls are remarkably dirty, cut and ranging in compression from
about five (like a Ping-Pong ball) to 150 (a cross between
fieldstone and a ball bearing)."

Mats are the bete noire of range rats. Hit your shot a little
fat and the sole of the club bounces into the ball, producing a
misleadingly decent shot. Hit too steeply into the mat and the
elbows rebel with tendinitis. Hit from the outside or toe down
and the mat keeps it a secret--there is no divot to analyze to
correct one's swing faults. Still, mats have improved
exponentially since the 1950s, when all-rubber surfaces caused
sprained wrists and left black streaks on the soles of clubs.
The nylon top cloth caught hold in the '60s, and the late '80s
saw the introduction of artificial grass that simulates real
turf. The best mats today, such as the $300 Wittek Quatro, have
an air-cushioned underpad that softens impact and minimizes
bounce.

Balls are next on the list of range-rat complaints. Though many
ranges buy factory-striped two-piece balls from Spalding or
Titleist, some economize with smooth, low-compression spheres
that perform like petrified marshmallows. Others buy balls from
ball hawks--those brave souls who dive into water hazards and
scour the woods for lost balls--and paint on their own stripe.
"The problem with range balls is not so much the balls as the
quality of the landing area," says Golf Range's Silverman. "If
they land in a hardpan dirt field, the abrasion grinds off the
clear coat, and it's the clear coat that makes the ball durable."

Finally, you have the problem of floodlights. A fancy range
opened in Pittsburgh a few years ago with lights that faced the
golfers, blinding them at night. Other ranges have experimented
with berm or ground-based lighting (the Karsten Test Facility in
Phoenix) or just plain bad lighting (Surf 'n' Turf Driving
Range, Del Mar, Calif.), with varying degrees of success. My man
Novotny studied the lighting issue some time back. Observing
that the interchange of I-95 and Maryland 216 was made brilliant
at night with lights on 100-foot poles, he went out at 4 a.m.
and hit golf balls across the highway. "It was really bright,"
he says. "You could throw a quarter on the ground and see if it
was heads or tails."

Unfortunately, you couldn't see a ball once it got airborne
because the lights illuminated only the top half of it. That
experiment, along with trial and error, convinced Novotny that
range lights should be on 30- to 35-foot poles aimed at a central
point 150 yards out. It also helps to have covered tee stations
with fluorescent lights in the ceilings to eliminate clubhead
shadows. "The ideal situation would be a little of each," says
Dennis Tull, owner of Smiley's Golf Complex in Shawnee, Kans.
"Pole lighting, bunker lighting and canopy lighting."

Sad to say, even the ideal situation is never quite ideal. Get
everything right--the best mats, the best balls, state-of-the-art
lighting, landscaped parking, a sushi bar--and your range rat will
still sigh and stare at the round rubber tee protruding from his
mat. The rubber tee is always too high.

Your range rat is a caring individual. He's Bing Crosby in White
Christmas, organizing a scheme to save the General's country inn.
He's Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx, delivering kicks to the
jaws of the thugs who wrecked a young woman's market.

I, for example, lose sleep over the situation outside Halifax,
Nova Scotia, where two driving ranges, no more than a mile apart
on Highway 333, compete for a very finite customer base. The
Goodwood Family Golf Center, the spiffier of the two, faces east
on an appealing tree-lined site. The west-facing Halifax Golf
Center, by way of contrast, rubs against gritty workyards filled
with chemical tanks and stacked lumber.

I was in the Goodwood shop on a Saturday morning, talking with
owner Barry MacDonald, when a woman came in to buy a gift
certificate for her husband. She looked as comfortable as a
kindergarten teacher at a gun show. She said, "People are content
to just stand there and hit those golf balls, are they?"

MacDonald chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't say that they're content."

MacDonald is 53. He was a barber and then a fireman before he
took up golf a decade ago. "I got hooked on the game," he told
me, "and stupid entrepreneur that I am, I decided to start a
range with a fellow fireman." The partner split after three
years, but MacDonald soldiers on with the help of his wife, who
moonlights as a bank clerk; his daughter, Candace; and golf pro
Kevin Reid, a former Mountie. During the golf season MacDonald
works 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. He picks balls, he
mows the range, and when the season ends around Nov. 1, he
starts right in on equipment repairs and maintenance. "I'm like
a lobster fisherman in the Maritimes," he said. "I spend the
winter preparing for the season."

I asked about the range down the road, and MacDonald answered
with a tale that sounded like an episode of Northern Exposure. He
said he and his partner had bought their land in 1992, but the
bank needed time to act on their application for a $40,000
business loan--like, two years. The partners cleared the property
and put up a sign that read GOODWOOD FAMILY GOLF CENTER. Without
warning, a wealthy contractor launched a preemptive strike,
opening a range on acreage he owned in the industrial district.
Just to draw the line more clearly, the rich guy opened a bar in
his shop. "That's something I don't believe in," MacDonald said.
So this formerly golf-free stretch of highway suddenly had two
driving ranges: MacDonald's family-oriented facility (flowers in
window boxes, soft drinks in the fridge, Dudley Do-Right on the
lesson tee) and the contractor's place (pool cues on the wall,
bikers on the tee line, Snidely Whiplash behind the register).

Two years ago, the Halifax Golf Center went out of business and
Goodwood seemed to have won. But when spring rolled around a new
owner, Jae Hang Kim, took over, prolonging the struggle.
MacDonald had to consider the possibility that a disciplined
Korean businessman might put in the long hours necessary to
compete in a range war. "The hours are a killer in this
business," MacDonald said.

Goodwood is a delightful driving range and MacDonald is an
amiable, hardworking man, so I pledged that I would give him my
business whenever I am in Nova Scotia--which is, more or less,
never. I then drove down the road to meet Kim. I found him in his
shop moving boxes, a gray-haired man of 60 with searching eyes.

Kim's story was familiar. He, like MacDonald, had decided to
pursue golf as a kind of exit strategy, in his case from a career
as a chemist. He, too, was putting in long hours--in at 7:30 a.m.,
out at 9 p.m.--and like MacDonald he was getting help from his
wife. (Kim's son, a dental student at New York University,
planned to work at the range between terms. Kim's other child, a
daughter, is a doctor.) "I don't think that I can make any money
this year," Kim admitted. "I have to spend more to make the place
better."

Moved by his obvious sincerity and his love for the game, I
promised Kim that I would give him my business whenever I was in
Nova Scotia.

Your range rat is on a quest. He's Ronald Coleman in Lost
Horizon, looking for Shangri-La. He's Diogenes with his lantern,
Don Quixote with his impossible dream. The range rat knows there
is one perfect place to practice, and he will find it: El Dorado
Driving Range. Holy Grail Hit 'n' Sit. The tees will be sod cut
from Augusta National's fairways. The balls will be Titleists,
right out of the sleeve. The target green will resemble the 16th
at Cypress Point, with pounding surf and sea lions.

Bill Scott, an East Coast lawyer who has taken more than 250
lessons from more than 40 teachers, has practiced at a number of
ranges that he classifies as mystical--places like Pine Valley in
Clementon, N.J., or Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, where the
range grass is as green as Ireland and the air smells like summer
watermelon. "Some go to the range to correct swing flaws," he
says. "I go to the range because there I am free to hit balls in
quiet seclusion for the pure pleasure of feeling that solid hit
and watching the flight of the ball against a blue sky to a
landing place not as carefully selected as it should be."

A surprising number of these mystical fields are open to the
public. Albuquerque, for instance, is a destination resort for
range rats. You can hit off Tour-quality grass and gasp at
sunsets at the city-run Puerto Del Sol Golf Course, the
state-owned University of New Mexico Golf Course and the Native
American-owned Isleta Eagle Golf Course. Pass through
California's Coachella Valley and you can pig out on range balls
at the Westin Mission Hills Resort--$7 for a day ticket to either
of two scenic, double-ended ranges--or at the new Cimarron Golf
Resort, where a range attendant rebuilds your ball pyramid, gives
you exact yardages to the target greens and cleans your clubs,
all for $10.

Or you can call off the search and go straight to World Woods. I
heard about this place last fall when I was in Florida. The
assistant pro at a club in Sarasota told me about an emerald city
of practice where you could hit shots from all points of the
compass to natural greens; where the all-grass tees were smooth
enough for lawn bowling; where forest creatures crept out of the
woods to watch you swing. "It's in the middle of nowhere," he
said, "but that's part of its charm."

I set out the next afternoon in a rental car, driving north into
Florida's hill country. It was raining and I got lost, but I
finally found the little town the pro had told me about. I asked
for directions to the course at gas stations, and glassy-eyed
clerks shook their heads. I drove for almost an hour in a
hardwood forest, looking for a sign. Then, without really
understanding how, I found myself in front of the modest
clubhouse at World Woods. The rain had stopped, and a handful of
golfers were motoring out to resume their rounds on the two
championship courses and the nine-hole short course.

Minutes later, I was driving a cart through a haunt of
moss-draped trees, following signs to the west tee of the
practice range. I emerged behind two large, perfectly turfed tee
grounds overlooking a tree-bordered valley. The middle of the
magic field was dotted with mature trees and steep-faced bunkers
filled with white sand. There were greens at various elevations,
set into slopes the way they are on real courses. The mowed area
extended into the woods and curved around hillocks, suggesting
fairways.

The two west tees had about 20 stations each, but no one was
hitting balls. I emptied my two drawstring bags onto the perfect,
springy turf and looked in all directions. No one was visible. No
balls flew from the north, south or east tees, which were hidden
in the distant trees. No tractors chugged back and forth, picking
up balls. This empty Eden was all mine.

I hit balls for more than an hour in the long shadows and the
golden glow of sunset. After 20 minutes or so, a young woman and
her swing coach joined me. "Do you think we could camp here?" she
asked. "This is heaven." I hit eight-irons at a hillside green
for 10 minutes straight, loving the way each well-hit shot
cleared the front bunker and hopped around the hole. The exposed
soil of my divot field, sandy and yellow, gleamed like simmering
porridge.

Then the sun went down.

Your range rat moves on. He's Mel Gibson in The Patriot, putting
away his guns and raising what's left of his family on a barrier
island. He's Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior, cruising down a
postapocalyptic highway in a bullet-ridden Mack truck. He's Mel
Gibson in Payback, driving to Canada with the money, the blonde
and a couple of broken toes. He's Mel Gibson at the end of Lethal
Weapon 3, already thinking up dialogue for Lethal Weapon 4.

I saw ...ING RANGE out of the corner of my eye and whipped my
rented car into the parking lot of the Emerald Court Hotel and
Resort, a motel-cum-driving range in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Barrels of sorry-looking balls were lined up in the sun. The tee
line consisted of mats laid right on the desert floor. The target
field had no grass at all, but dozens of painted yardage signs
were set out in 10- and 20-yard increments, like airport landing
lights. You couldn't hit a shot without hitting a yardage
sign--unless your ball landed in one of the crumbling concrete
target ponds, which had no water in them.

It was the pits. No, it was the pits squared--ring four of Dante's
Inferno and Family Fun Center. A dozen old farts in shorts and
sunglasses were hitting balls under the merciless midday sun.

I joined them.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIK RANK Going to the mats The number of visits to driving ranges like this one at Randalls Island has increased by 25 million over '94.COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER Automatic Peppering Novotny's clunker, which he has to replace every year, gets the motor going in most of his customers. COLOR PHOTO: ERIK RANK Bridgework You can play a different sort of city game at Randalls Island, where the range offers some towering targets.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Off his rocker In Halifax, MacDonald, a barber and fireman before taking up golf, competes with another range a mile away.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Night moves At Surf 'n' Turf Driving Range in Del Mar, Calif., golfers who show up after sundown feel as if they're left in the dark.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES World apart Stuck in the middle of nowhere in central Florida, World Woods is nirvana when it comes to driving ranges.
Novotny says there will always be driving ranges, "but to make a
living at it you have to love golf, and you have to give up your
life."
Next to me a man wearing a sweatshirt and a ball cap turned and
said, "I can hit O.K. when I'm a little buzzed. How about you?"
I called out, "Hello?" but no one answered. When I looked back
at the trailer, a red curtain moved in the window--or was it my
imagination?
Get everything right and your range rat will still sigh and
stare at the rubber tee protruding from his mat. The tee is
always too big.
No balls flew from the north, south or east tees. No tractors
chugged back and forth, picking up balls. This empty Eden was
all mine.