By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA
No matter who you ask in the golf industry, the consensus is that rounds are up across the country. Public courses are experiencing a resurgence in play after an uncertain spring caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and private club members are eager to get out of the house and enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow patrons. As golf continues to grow, PGA Professionals strive to improve the skills of their students by instilling good practice habits that can be applied between lessons. After all, the driving range is an important part of our continued efforts to grow the game and foster a love of golf within our junior players, women golfers, seniors, and Sunday die-hards who want to get to the next level.
Off-course golf entertainment venues like Topgolf, X-Golf, Drive Shack, and several others are doing their part to introduce the game to many who may not have frequented their local driving ranges in the past. They attract friends, families, and kids to a unique gaming environment that goes beyond birdies and pars. In addition, indoor golf simulators have helped make the game a year-round endeavor, regardless of one’s location. It is incumbent upon traditional green grass golf facilities and driving ranges to take advantage of the increased excitement about golf, keep the momentum going, and offer a product that these groups will enjoy and frequent often.
I spoke with some public course- and private club-professionals, as well as several stand-alone driving range owners about what their customers prefer in a practice facility. In addition, I went directly to the source, actual golfers on the range, some honing their skills and others searching for some – all, however, having a good time with a golf club in their hands. Whether practicing for their club championship or enjoying a first date, everyone had an opinion on what they like to see when hitting the range.
Keith Stoll, and his customers at Forest Hills Golf Course, in La Crosse, Wisconsin went six years without a practice range. Train tracks adjacent to the course necessitated the need for a project that closed their range “temporarily”. When it reopened this summer, Stoll’s league, tournament, and everyday golfers were pleased with the result. “I feel the majority of golfers prefer to hit off grass compared to mats. With that being said, the quality of mats being used could persuade golfers to appreciate the mats much more. We have invested in top quality mats that are very thick and give the golfer the feedback in their shot – a fat shot will feel like a fat shot,” Stoll stated. He did add, however, what most any golfer will tell you – “It is hard to beat hitting off good turf.”
Brian Bonesteel, the owner of Ascot Park Golf Center and Green Acres Golf Course, located in Kingston, New York, says his customers are split. He says beginners prefer mats, usually hitting exclusively off the rubber tees that stay put after every swing. His better golfers, and anyone looking for a true practice session, are more partial to grass. Brent Kraus, the PGA General Manager at Wynlakes Golf and Country Club, in Montgomery, Alabama, says, “Grass tees should be large enough for turf recovery and daily tee rotation.” In his opinion, “members do not like mats or artificial turf”.
After engaging a dozen or so golfers hitting balls at a local range, I was hard-pressed to find someone who preferred mats. However, this data is slightly jaded, as the two public driving ranges in my area are exclusively-grass, so even the beginners who might usually prefer the convenience of mats and rubber tees have only experienced hitting off of grass.
The second hot topic that was brought up by almost everyone, was the quality of the range balls. Ironically, the difference in opinion here was quite similar to the feedback received regarding mats. The consensus among the industry professionals was that the better the player – the higher quality golf ball you should have on the range. Stoll says, “I don’t think every driving range needs Pro V1’s, but quality balls enhance the experience.” 80% of the public range golfers I spoke with didn’t know what Pro V1’s were; and the rest told me that having them on the range would get expensive, as they would get hit into the woods, damaged by mowers, or disappear into golfers’ bags. One of the few unanimous opinions was that balls should be new and clean – an amenity that a golf range of any size and budget can afford.
Targets were the next issue that golfers and owners had on their minds. Bonesteel said that good targets are a must – Kraus stressed that multiple targets from within 150 yards are very important – Stoll stated that “one of the main purposes of a range is to figure out club distances. Having targets that will give you that feedback is imperative.” Golfers confirmed exactly what the professionals had to say. Whether you have greens, yardage signs, barrels, nets, poles, or a car in the middle of the range (like one Northern New Jersey facility), targets are vital, in number, size, and visibility.
When asked about memberships and special rates, the industry professionals were split. Those who managed a range at a course said that memberships were popular among members and customers. Several outdoor stand-alone driving range owners in the northeast cited the short golf season and the need to maximize revenues in their rebuke of discount and incentive programs. Year-round facilities (those with enclosures or heated stalls) had a different opinion, gladly offering discounts during off-peak times of the day or week.
Finally, we discussed arguably the two most important parts of the game – short game and putting. Quotes such as “Putting greens and short game areas are also very important pieces of a true golf practice facility.” and “This is an essential part of practice, as the majority of the game is played around the greens.” and “I always stress [that my students] use their bucket of balls to putt and chip, then head to the range to finish up their practice.” tell the story in very few words. Brent Kraus’ response to the importance of putting and chipping areas says it all…“A must!”
Finally, the many conversations I had on the range included other topics, such as demo days – an important attraction to get golfers to your facility, technology – some said a luxury, others a necessity. (All said it would be nice, but definitely not for everyone.), and cleanliness – during the age of COVID, probably priority number one!
I turned to long-time PGA member, George McNamara, co-owner of The Golf Zone, in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania to put it all together. “Attention to Detail” is his solution. He arrives at his facility an hour before opening every day to ensure there are no broken tees on the range, all stalls look the same, and the facility is clean. Providing an exceptional experience every time a golfer walks up to his range is his priority, and that seems to be the consensus throughout the facilities I visited.