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October 1, 2017

Using Tech to Design Practice Ranges

By: Scott Kramer

Veteran course architect Paul Albanese has designed dozens of courses and redesigned many more. He takes particular pride in the courses’ practice ranges, as well, making them both functional and scenic. Intrigued by renowned courses by Donald Rossand A.W. Tillinghast near where he grew up in New Jersey, Albanese played golf for Cornell University and even captained the team his senior year. That experience exposed him to many classic East Coast layouts, further influencing his desire to design courses.

At Harvard University, where he earned a Masters in Landscape Architecture, he crafted his curriculum to focus solely on golf course design and architecture. Albanese eventually landed in Michigan, working with prolific golf architecture firm Matthews & Associates in Lansing before launching his own firm with Chris Lutzke. Albanese is also the director of golf course architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. As much as he imparts his personal touch on every property, he credits technology in producing even better products. As he sees it, technology helps improve his ability to design practice ranges“by providing precision,”he says.“CouplingGPS technology with our in-office design software, we can more accurately calculate distances to the targets from different parts of a range. As golfers today have more technology to use on the course itself for more accuracy, we have taken this same notion to the practice areas.”

In the days before high-end technology, Albanese would often just follow the simple “don’t hit east in the morning or west in the afternoon, due to the sun” rules of thumb. But with the latest software, he easily and cost-effectively determines the sun’s exact angles throughout the year – letting him more precisely align practice areas in ways he may not have in the past.

As far as range design goes, Albanese says that technology’s probably played the biggest role in construction. “Practice areas require precise measurements,” he says. “Before technology, there was a lot of pacing distances and using hip chains with strings. That got really confusing and time-consuming when constructing the space, especially when making changes, and dozers were knocking down stakes. Inaccuracies were common.”

“With technology today, making changes and ensuring accuracy – even after a dozer knocks down a stake – they can simply rediscover the location. We don’t even need stakes. Self-driving dozers are now equipped with their own GPS technology that enable them to practically rough-shape the area based on the AutoCad computer files.”

Choosing the proper grass is a whole lot easier these days too – due to turf technology that Albanese says has been a huge boon to golf facility operations and environmental efficiency. “Using the right turf developed with high-end technology enables range owners to use much less water and chemicals in providing the same – if not better – playing conditions than in the past,” he says. “Even technology developed on machines used for maintaining turf has saved owners money, which can make facilities more economically sustainable.”

Keeping the practice green consistent with the course – with respect to turf and sloping – is key according to Albanese. He uses CAD software (computer-aided design) to create nearly every slope on a putting green, so golfers can practice on surfaces that essentially range anywhere from flat all the way to the maximum-allowable gradient on a pinnable area. “We can get incredibly detailed without much effort because of the tech,” he claims, also insisting that having bunkers on practice ranges is essential. “Having a practice area without bunkers is like practicing the piano on an un-tuned piano – you can still work on the strokes, but the experience will be unpleasant, and you never really know if the results are good. Operators and owners lament the bunkers on the practice areas, because they’re often more difficult from which to retrieve balls. But through good design and using technology in the design process, we can create bunkers where this isn’t an issue.”

In a time-crunched era where the likes of Topgolf facilities are displacing 18-hole rounds, it’s more important than ever for practice ranges to be extrainviting. “They need to become better experiences, especially for more casual golfers,” says Albanese. “Traditional ranges will probably always be the place for competitive, serious golfers to practice. But if range operators and owners want patrons to simply spend time and money having fun, the experience must be commensurate. From a design standpoint, that comes down to having the right composition of target greens, for instance. When golfers are on the range hitting, they need to feel as if they’re looking at a pleasant painting. This could be a lot of smaller greens or a few larger ones – there’s no magic number, but rather a combination of art and science.”