How golf's practice areas will look in the future

By Chris Rodell
Golf Magazine
February 2008

The driving range of the future will look vastly different from those of today. Gone will be the dead level, perfectly manicured facilities. They’ll be replaced with lines of rolling tee boxes studded with sidehill lies, gnarly patches of rough and narrowly defined corridors that’ll force practicing golfers to focus.

They are changes that must come or else our golfing descendants will look back on us with pity, or worse, scorn. That’s because golfers of tomorrow will realize the facilities of today do little to improve how golf is played on a regular course.

“Today’s ranges don’t challenge golfers in the areas they need to be challenged,” says Curt Siegel, venerable pro emeritus at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. “Most golfers go to ranges thinking it’ll help them improve, but that’s something they’re ill-equipped to do themselves.”

Most amateur golfers spend an hour at the range unintentionally grooving what was an already bad swing. For them, an hour at the range is little different than an hour spent chopping wood. It’s decent cardiovascular exercise and when the pile’s gone, you feel that you’ve accomplished something productive. But like that pile of wood, the ultimate results of the exercise will eventually go up in smoke.

For the average 18 handicapper -- and according to the National Golf Foundation, that is the average golfer -- no more than 18 of his or her roughly 100 shots will be struck from range conditions: perfectly flat lies with the ball perched atop accommodating little pegs. The rest will be struck from the guts of golf; the rough, from sidehill lies. And the vast majority will occur within a measly 50 yards of the target.

Still, most ranges are built to attract once-a-summer golfers whose main ambition is impressing his Friday night date with one smashing drive that’ll clear the 300 yard sign and roll deep into the corn field (and you’re wise if you wink at that “300” sign).

For such a cerebral game, it’s a pretty stupid way to grow core enthusiasts, those that drive the industry.

Siegel has a revolutionary idea that’ll add a claustrophobic element of true golf to spacious ranges where buffalo could comfortably roam.

“Rather than letting golfers spray balls throughout the property, the ranges should have a series of trees or artificial dividers to define typically tight fairways,” Siegel says. “That’ll simulate real golf conditions.”

That’s a good start.

Next, build rows of mounds that’ll let golfers practice from irregular lies. Some range owners will complain that it’ll increase maintenance costs. They’ll complain until one of their competitors does it and begins reaping the benefits.

Second, the emphasis needs to shift away from the long-ball to where scoring matters most. How about setting a peach basket 50 yards from the mats? Lob the purple ball in the basket and your next bucket’s free.

You won’t need a time machine to see that the future is now at Jim McLean Golf Center in Fort.Worth, Texas. It’s where he and Tom Fazio have make a practice facility that looks like a golf course. A par 3 course doubles as a practice range with water hazards, OB, and other real golf concerns, in addition to traditional range staples.

“We wanted to build a place where golfers could experience real golf conditions, and be able to do it in an hour or two,” McLean says.

But, guaranteed, something must be done or else savvy golfers of tomorrow will suspect that the driving range owners of today are in league with what the most cynics say about black-hearted quacks in the medical industry.

They’ll say they never wanted us to get better in the first place. They’ll say that the only way for them to profit was to keep us sick so we’d keep coming back again and again for cures that would forever elude.

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