A New Home on the Range
To me, to many, ranges have always been as comfortable as diners or just the right kind of bar. You know youll find kindred spirits there, and a respite from the demands of a time-crazy world. And maybe even a solution to that problem youve been having with your pitch shots.
And like diners, many of the ranges we grew up with were true Mon-and-Pop operations. Fifteen to twenty acres, mats, hut, bunch of balls, maybe a fridge for Cokesnot much more was needed for people to get a taste of golf when there was no time for a full-course, 18-hole meal. Teenage kids could work there and learn the game (indeed, my colleague Rich Lerner did just that at his parents range); families could come and have some fun.
With time, expense and difficulty being the major challenges to golfs growth, youd think the new millennium would be prime time for ranges and the short courses that some of them offer. A range, with its start-and-stop-when-you-like versatility, is better than no golf at all. Heck, in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, golf course real estate is so precious that some people only play at ranges.
But its not that easy. The range business is changing. There are about 2,100 ranges in the United States now, 600 in Canada. About 1,500 offer short courses. Annual growth was double-digit in the 1990s, but has slowed to low single digits recently, says the Golf Range Association of America. The U.S. residential real estate boom has set off rampant commercial development in many cities, and acreage that once would have been considered prime for a golf range is now being eyed up for other uses.
The impediments [to ranges and short courses] are the land values, said Steve DiCostanzo, president of the GRAA, which he founded in 1991. Its also a function of management. If you have engaged, creative management, theyll be able to maximize the return on that course or range. But there are pressures if youre not turning rounds. Theres a lot of pressure to cash out.
Cash out, and let some developer get rich while you take your bundle of money to Florida and relax. Eight of the Top 100 ranges named by Golf Range magazine, the GRAAs publication for members, were lost to redevelopment in the last two years. And for those looking to get in, it can be daunting to convince a bank to lend between $250,000 and $3 million (net of land costs) for a business that doesnt yield as much per acre as another strip mall would.
But theres hope. As with bookstores, bowling alleys, bars and diners, Mom and Pop havent been completely shoved out of the picture (thank goodness). But the core of the business is stepping into the 21st century. The slowing growth in the range business, DiCostanzo says, doesnt reflect the sales and modernization of many older ranges.
There has been some new blood coming into the industry, DiCostanzo said. Entrepreneurs who have succeeded in other businesses having nothing to do with golf have bought some of the old Mom-and-Pop places, and theyre running them more like modern businesses.
Witness Carlsbad Golf Center, in the densely-populated area of suburban San Diego known as North County. Wedged into the big corner made by El Camino Real, a north-south artery, and California Route 78, a popular east-west freeway, Carlsbad features 58 hitting bays (15 for right- or left-handers), all with modern synthetic grass, not that old stuff that leaves green junk stuck to the soles of your clubs. The range is 300 yards long by 100 wide, and patrons hit into a big slope, but all the target flags have been lasered and slope-adjusted for proper distance. Theres a short-game and putting practice area, satellite TV in the pro shop, even RV parking.
But the ranges success has to do with more than the amenities, says one of its owners.
We offer a level of personal service that a lot of places in this world dont anymore, unfortunately, says Dana Chaiken, who owns the range with Susan Roll, a PGA and LPGA professional. One of our biggest revenue sources is our custom fitting. People can test 14 different brands at the same time and get whats best for them. In a store, they might hit into a net; they might not get a trained fitter. Our staff are all PGA or LPGA pros, and our fitters are properly trained. Its a level of knowledge you dont always see at facilities like ours.
Plenty of indoor golf retail locations, especially the so-called big-box stores, have PGA pros and certified fitters. But Chaiken and Roll are looking to combine the range experience with fitting and aggressive game improvement, providing a value-added opportunity for chronic would-be Vijays (that is, range-ball addicts).
That includes a fully stocked pro shop and a teaching arm called the Carlsbad Golf Academy, as well as a members program to increase repeat business (they even have happy hours). Weekends see a lot of family business, Chaiken says, especially Saturdays. Its all planned out, profit- and service-centered, and so far, very effective.
We like to think were modern, Chaiken says. We have a certain youthfulness about usnot an old-school, weve-always-done-it-that-way mentality.
Carlsbad had to make some choices. For instance, with limited space available, Chaiken and Roll decided that a solid pro shop was more valuable than an elaborate food-and-beverage operation. There are snacks, sure, but Carlsbads owners know what their customers want, and its more sand wedges and less Snickers.
The old school thought was, let the people come, theyll hit some balls, and maybe theyll come back, DiCostanzo said. The new school thought is more like the Carlsbad Golf Center. They looked at the business model and said, Were going to maximize teaching revenues, fitting, and family play opportunities, and were going to expand our retail situation.
Just as chain restaurants havent completely replaced wonderful old roadside diners, so it goes with ranges. Scallys in Pittsburgh, Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Woods Golf Center near Philadelphia ' these are all local treasures with a family element, even as they modernize (Woods, for example, is planning a caf). But the mainstream future of ranges appears to belong to the likes of Chaiken and Roll. Theirs is the kind of facility most likely to have the newest synthetic grass mats, automatic tee-up machines, ample netting to protect neighbors, teaching and fitting programs ' whatever the range industry can come up with.
All of which offers us some nice choices that will be increasingly hard to drive by.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.
Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.
The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.
McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.
McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.
Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title
The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.
Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.
Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.
Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.
Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.