Making Practice Areas Perfect

By | December 20th, 2016
Renovation of the practice facility at Contra Costa CC was a natural offshoot of its golf course renovation in 2014.

Renovation of the practice facility at Contra Costa CC was a natural offshoot of its golf course renovation in 2014.

Many properties are improving facilities that help golfers sharpen their skills and bring new players to the game. But to maximize their appeal and user satisfaction, they must get the same care as golf courses.

To grow the game, the golf industry must hook people who need to develop their skills—but often lack the time to do so. As a result, more and more properties have undertaken significant capital projects, often in conjunction with a golf course renovation, to elevate their practice and instructional facilities beyond pitch-and-putt areas or basic driving ranges. These new and improved practice facilities, however, have brought important additional responsibilities to the maintenance departments that must oversee their upkeep.

At Contra Costa CC, space was maximized to include a 40-yard-deep, full-grass tee box, extended range area, and 24 hitting stalls.

At Contra Costa CC, space was maximized to include a 40-yard-deep, full-grass tee box, extended range area, and 24 hitting stalls.

Natural Progression
At Contra Costa Country Club in Pleasant Hill, Calif., renovating the practice facility was a natural offshoot of a 2014 remodeling of the golf course. “We hit the reset button on the golf course and wanted to upgrade the practice facility as well,” says Golf Course Superintendent Ryan Maher.

Maximizing a small space, Contra Costa’s expanded practice area includes a 40-yard-deep, full-grass tee box; extended range area; and 24 hitting stalls where golfers can try to add distance to their drives. To work on their short games, golfers can take advantage of dedicated putting and chipping greens, a variety of bunkers, and a hard-lie practice area.

To create 30 to 40 more yards of driving distance on the range, the putting green on the previous practice facility and the previous driving-range teeing area swapped locations. To add more distance to the range, the green on the adjacent 17th was moved farther away and to the right.

The driving range is no longer the stepchild to other amenities at a property, says Lester George, and should be treated as an important profit center.

The driving range is no longer the stepchild to other amenities at a property, says Lester George, and should be treated as an important profit center.

Tips from the “Practice Guru”

In the last 25 years, says Lester George, ASGCA, of George Golf Design in Midlothian, Va., golfers and golf course properties have started to look at practice facilities in a completely different light.

“The driving range used to be the stepchild to all of the other amenities at a property, and an overlooked revenue stream,” George says. “But practice has become the game within the game, and practice areas are now seen as key profit centers.”

Sometimes known as the “practice guru,” George leads practice-facility discussions and boot camps around the country. And for a practice-facility project to succeed—and to keep it as maintenance-friendly and cost-efficient as possible—the golf course superintendent’s input is vital to the process, he says.

“We can’t leave [the superintendent] with a problem,” George says. “We don’t want to corrupt the process of agronomy through thoughtless design.”

George’s keys to building a successful practice facility include these recommendations:
• Use proper grasses that are native to the property
• Locate the practice facility in an area that receives enough sunlight to grow grass
• Have greens that react properly when balls hit them
• Have the same type of grass that is on the fairways, for teaching and learning situations
• Feature comparable bunkers with the same compaction, sand, and level of quality of those on the golf course
• Create practice facilities that are interactive, have shot value, and go beyond just hitting balls
• Offer golfers the chance to hit a variety of shots to realistic targets
• Give players the ability to move around and change shot scenarios
• Have target visibility, target strategy, changing wind direction, and the ability to approach from different angles
• Include indoor hitting bays as well as club and golf-swing analysis

The type of grass that should be planted on a practice facility, George adds, depends on its usage rate. Grasses are more durable now, he notes, and durability is important for a concentrated area where a large volume of balls are being hit.

The space and distance of a practice facility should be relative to the size of the property available, he adds. In addition, properties are finding value in building a three- or six-hole short course as part of a driving range. Some properties are even incorporating FootGolf or FlingGolf courses into their practice areas, to provide added recreational options for those who may not want to play “pure” golf or may just want to occasionally try another form of the game.

Better Sight Lines
In 2012, Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, Tenn., renovated its practice facilities by revamping its main driving range and its West practice area. The golf course, built in 1927, also added an East chipping green of 4,000 sq. ft.

“The original practice area was just fit in on the property in space that was available,” notes Certified Golf Course Superintendent Ryan Blair. “It was small, but we made it bigger and shaped it with a gentle rise from the tee box.”

Holston Hills’ previous range had a visibility of about 200 yards and a gentle uphill rise that then went back downhill. As a result, balls would disappear over the horizon, so golfers couldn’t see where their shots landed. Now, the main range has visibility of up to 285 yards and new target greens.

The West practice area, located to the right of the first hole, originally was not functional and did not mirror the short-game shots that golfers face on the course. Previously, its green was about 3,000 sq. ft., but the new green measures 9,000 sq. ft. “It is used mostly for putting,” Blair says. “We don’t want a lot of ball marks on it.”

In addition, the West green now mirrors the greens on the golf course. The new design also allows multiple golfers to practice at one time, without interfering with each other. “Before the renovation, the green was almost dead-center in the West practice area,” Blair explains. “If someone was on the green, you really couldn’t do anything else. The green was moved to one side [to be] more multi-purpose.”

Given an opportunity to provide input into the design of the renovated practice area, Blair says he considered what members wanted and what would work with the property. For example, while the East and West practice areas each have two bunkers—one large and one small—members didn’t want the bunkers too close to the greens. In addition, Blair states, members wanted downhill or uphill shots to the green on the East practice area. “On the course, the greens are built into the horizon lines of the property,” he says.

New-found Independence
Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., renovated its double-ended practice facility as part of a golf course renovation project in the summer of 2014, after the public facility got new ownership. The practice tee closest to the clubhouse includes a high-quality range mat that extends the width of the tee. An expansive putting green and short-game area is adjacent to this area, and the short-game practice complex also features a large bunker that can accommodate five players at one time. The far end of the range, which is partially covered, is typically reserved as an all-grass tee.

“We have two practice putting greens—a large one and a small one—by the first tee,” reports Director of Golf Maintenance Dan Taylor. “We call the small tee the ‘on deck’ tee.”

During the renovation, the property removed bunkers from the middle of the driving range and added a couple of fairway bunkers on the far end of the range.

Independence also has a par-3, nine-hole course adjacent to the practice facility. With holes ranging from 90 to 180 yards, the course is a popular spot for golfers to play after work or when they are short on time. In addition, juniors and other new golfers can hone their skills on the short course. According to Taylor, the property is also considering renovating the nine-hole course to convert part of it into more practice areas instead of golf holes.

High-Function, Low-Maintenance
While practice areas make it easier for golfers to improve their games, the new facilities typically are set up and built to be low-maintenance as well. But just as players expect their practice golf shots to mimic their shots on the golf course, they also expect their golf courses and practice facilities to be maintained at the same level.

Holston Hills CC’s renovated practice areas (circled in red) reflect more of what members want when working on their games, such as downhill or uphill shots to the green, and bunkers that are positioned to be less imposing for approach shots.

Holston Hills CC’s renovated practice areas (circled in red) reflect more of what members want when working on their games, such as downhill or uphill shots to the green, and bunkers that are positioned to be less imposing for approach shots.

“As a maintenance staff, we have done a good job of keeping it on par with the golf course,” Maher says of Contra Costa CC’s facility. The practice area has six bentgrass putting greens, which grounds-crew members mow every day. “We treat those exactly like we treat the greens on the golf course,” notes Maher.

The bentgrass chipping green, which has both a deep and a shallow bunker, is mowed daily as well. The ryegrass driving range, which also includes bentgrass target greens that contrast in color with the range floor, is mowed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The same crew members who mow fairways mow the driving range on the same day, and the ones who mow greens on the golf course mow the chipping and putting greens on the practice facility.

“We will spray the range floor about once a month on Mondays [when the club is closed], to get some iron out there,” Maher reports. “With the nutrients in our irrigation water, not a lot of fertilizing is required to keep things happy. Also, we will fill divots on the range tee every Monday.”

Contra Costa took the soils from the golf course during construction and moved them to the driving range, and the property redid its bunkers after completing the turf renovations. “We used that sand to topdress the driving-range floor during the summer, and it made a big difference,” says Maher.

The value of Independence GC’s investment in an improved practice facility has been clear to Director of Golf Maintenance Dan Taylor, a 40-year industry veteran. “I see a lot of people who don’t have four-and-a-half or five hours to play [a round] come to the practice facility to hit for 30 minutes or an hour,” Taylor says. “And we now have a place for golfers to practice any type of shot they’ll see on the golf course.”

The value of Independence GC’s investment in an improved practice facility has been clear to Director of Golf Maintenance Dan Taylor, a 40-year industry veteran. “I see a lot of people who don’t have four-and-a-half or five hours to play [a round] come to the practice facility to hit for 30 minutes or an hour,” Taylor says. “And we now have a place for golfers to practice any type of shot they’ll see on the golf course.”

Contra Costa, which is pursuing Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification, follows best-management practices to maintain both its golf course and practice area. “We’ve been on reclaimed water for 15 or 16 years, and by only mowing the driving range once a week, we’re using less emissions and fuel,” Maher reports. “We have lots of nitrates in the water, so we don’t have to spray and fertilize as much.”

Top Priority
At Holston Hills CC, the grounds crew also treats the practice facilities, which have bentgrass greens and 419 Bermudagrass, the same as the golf course. The staff now mows the areas every day. “In the past that wasn’t the case, because the greens weren’t constructed that well,” Blair notes.

The practice areas are mowed first, though it then takes crews a little longer to finish mowing the golf course. With multiple practice greens, the maintenance staff can also close one of the greens if necessary, to verticut or apply products.

“It didn’t change the maintenance routine that much,” Blair says of the renovation. “The only thing different from a maintenance standpoint is that we put more fertilizer on the practice areas now, because they get more use.”

Sometimes the Holston Hills maintenance staff will test out new fertilizers on its practice areas. “When we use different ones, it’s easy to see the results,” Blair says. “The green is the part of the golf course where you don’t want to mess it up. It needs to be identical to everything.”

The property also has an 8,000-sq. ft. nursery green that is used to plug spots on the golf course. “We treat it the same way as we treat the golf-course greens,” says Blair. “We don’t just mow it on occasion because nobody ever plays on it. If you don’t treat it identically to the greens on the golf course, it won’t match up if you have to repair a spot. It could be brown or brilliantly green.”

The maintenance staff also topdresses the practice areas more frequently now, to keep the playing areas level.

For irrigation, Blair says, the practice areas now have multiple irrigation rows, because the playing corridors are so wide.

“The greens also have a lot of irrigation rows around them,” he says. “We have more sophisticated irrigation systems around the practice areas, because we needed to get everything to grow in. Once it was all grown in, we don’t use it as much as we did from the start.”

However, Blair likes having the ability to turn on a single head to water a dry spot on the practice areas, which were not irrigated before the renovation. “We had more upfront costs, but it saves you money down the road, because you can manage it so much easier,” he says.

Freed Up
At Independence Golf Club, the practice facility opens early and remains open until late in the day. Daily maintenance of the practice area includes mowing the greens, changing the holes on the putting greens, and moving the hitting stations on the range. The grounds crew fills in divots and mows the driving range on a weekly basis.

“We close the range early one day a week, to pick up balls so we can mow it the next morning,” says Taylor.

Otherwise, the property rarely has to close the range. If the temperature drops below 26 degrees in the winter, however, the practice facility greens will be closed and covered. “We’ll [also] close it if we get a lot of rain and it’s too wet to pick up balls,” Taylor says.

The turf on the practice area is the same as on the golf course. The 419 Bermudagrass on the tees and driving range matches the fairway turf. The greens on the practice area and the golf course are Champion UltraDwarf Bermudagrass.

“The 419 Bermudagrass is an aggressive warm-weather grass, and divots heal quickly on the surface,” Taylor says. “UltraDwarf is also wear-tolerant and can take a lot of use.”

The large putting green on the far end of the range is covered with bentgrass that matches the greens on the par-3 golf course. “We want people to practice on the same type of grass they’ll play on,” Taylor notes.

The practice-area renovations have given the property a new look that is easier to maintain, he adds, because bunkers are no longer in the middle of the range. By placing two bunkers at the end of the facility, the renovation has given golfers more opportunities to practice different shots. In addition, reports Taylor, the new grass is easier to maintain.

“From a maintenance standpoint, taking the bunkers out of the driving range made it easier for everybody,” he says. “The pro shop doesn’t have to pick balls out of the bunkers. [And] the bunkers were converted to ‘Better Billy’ bunkers, so the drainage is better.”

Independence GC’s maintenance staff sprays pre-emergents for weed control on the driving range in the spring, and uses minimal amounts of water on both the practice facility and the golf course. “Too much water is worse than too little water,” says Taylor. “We use minimal amounts of fertilizers and pesticides on the practice area, just as we do on the golf course.”

Like his counterparts at Contra Costa and Holston Hills, Taylor, who has worked in the golf course maintenance business for 40 years and at Independence GC since 2000, says the value and payoff from his property making a greater investment into its practice facility have been clearly evident.

“I see a lot of people who don’t have four-and-a-half or five hours to play a round of golf come to the practice facility to hit for 30 minutes or an hour,” he says. “And we now have a place for golfers to practice any type of shot they’ll see on the golf course.”

Changes in Attitudes
While their maintenance practices might have changed little because of the updated practice areas at their golf courses, superintendents agree that usage and attitudes toward these facilities have become noticeably different through the years.

Maher believes that technology has changed people’s attitudes toward practice areas. Club fitting days are more popular now, he explains, and with new phone apps and the ability to shoot videos on smartphones, more people are practicing more often. The Contra Costa facilities help members practice shots they would hit on the golf course, and golfers can hit off of mats on one acre of the driving range tee to reduce wear and tear on the turf.

With 430 members at Contra Costa CC, Maher reveals, “During the week, the practice facility gets a ton of use. Every afternoon the practice area is just packed.”

He also says the Contra Costa membership is more blue collar and younger than other properties in the area, and many of the members still work fulltime. “Sometimes they only have time to use the practice facility in the early morning or late afternoon,” adds Maher, who has been in the golf course maintenance business since 2009 and at Contra Costa CC since November of 2015, shortly after the property reopened after the renovation was completed in the spring of that year.

“Properties in the East Bay area have small, old practice facilities,” says Maher. “The practice area probably attracts new members, but it’s not the only reason people join.”

He also says the property markets the practice facility renovation on its website.

“I feel like more people practice now than they used to. They like to hit multiple shots. They might not have time to play 18 holes after work, but they can hit balls,” states Blair, who has been at Holston Hills for 16 of his 18 years in the golf course maintenance business. “It gives them something entertaining to do, and they keep getting more and more elaborate. People are not just hitting balls to a flat, open space anymore. They’re hitting to more targets. You have to give people a lot of variety.”

At Holston Hills, players also can simulate golf course conditions on the practice areas. “When we built the two greens, we wanted them to mirror the greens on the golf course,” Blair states. “Your game is prepared. You’re ready for what you’re going to face on the course.”

He says property personnel considered planting Bermudagrass on one of the practice area greens to give the golfers a little variety, but they decided that didn’t make sense because it wouldn’t help them prepare for the golf course.

The East green at Holston Hills is located close to the main driving range, so people can go there to warm up and hit irons before they start their rounds. The West area has its own parking lot, so many people go there just to practice.

“I don’t see as many people hit a few practice shots and then go play,” says Blair. “We want people to spend an hour at the practice areas. Our staff can take people to the practice areas for clinics or lessons.”

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