A New Home on the Range

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For the initiated, they excite from a distance, like a long-awaited ship coming over the horizon. Be it giant nets slung onto 90-foot poles that soar above suburban sprawl, or the haze of bright lights shining in a farmland summer night, the sight of a golf range along the road tends to push daily cares to the background. Clubs are in the trunk, Ive got a few minuteswhy not hit a bucket?
 
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.