Upgraded golf practice facilities have moved front-and-center as an important amenity that not only helps to boost interest in the game, but also adds appeal and value to club memberships.
Practice is unlikely to ever make perfect, given that it’s golf we’re talking about. But more and more clubs are toning up their practice facilities as a way to increase member involvement in the club, improve their skill levels and likely increase play—and, in the case of at least one club, create a new, less-expensive club membership category.
As the look and programming of America’s private country clubs, resort properties and daily-fee facilities continues to evolve to adjust to the schedules and preferences of today’s current and potential members and guests, the practice range is being seen as a more important amenity. No longer merely a relatively barren tee line where players can loosen up before a round or take the occasional private lesson, today’s ranges are becoming a golf experience in their own right.
SUMMING IT UP
Instead of methodically banging balls off into an unadorned—and often poorly maintained—wasteland, today’s club members and resort guests are honing (or learning) their games on facilities that offer target greens at varying distances, as well as sand bunkers, chipping areas and putting greens with design features similar to those they will encounter on the course. Advances in synthetic turf have improved the look and feel of artificial hitting surfaces, giving clubs the flexibility to mix “mats only” days with times offering access to natural-grass tees. This not only helps to contain maintenance costs (and allow more maintenance to be performed in other parts of the practice area), it can also provide better hitting surfaces for players.
As clubs grow ever more focused on the need to offer amenities that will bind existing members and guests to the facility, while also attracting new players and in some cases generating new revenue streams, practice-area improvements appear to be moving up the priority list. Clubs that previously gave short shrift to the range area in favor of the golf course, clubhouse, restaurant and other amenities are beginning to realize that well-designed and maintained practice areas can give people who don’t have time for a full round a reason to come to the club, while also providing opportunities to attract new much-needed demographic sectors, including women and juniors, to the game (and to more lucrative golf memberships).
In redirecting their focus to practice facilities, clubs are also providing new creative opportunities for golf course construction and course design professionals who have found new course construction projects in the U.S. to be few and far between in recent years.
Spurring New Concepts
One poster property for the new wave of practice and game improvement areas is The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, Idaho. In addition to its championship course, the club offers the Challenge Course, an award-winning short course, and a state-of-the-art practice facility, both of which were designed by the team of Damian Pascuzzo and current Champions Tour player Steve Pate.
For the practice area created at SpurWing, Pascuzzo says the duo blended some of the elements of earlier practice-area projects at Coto de Caza (Calif.) Golf & Racquet Club and Midland (Texas) Country Club, and then added unique touches for the SpurWing property.
“We completely redid the range at Coto de Caza,” Pascuzzo says, “and broke down the practice area into three phases—a near-greens chipping area, a precision pitching area with 30- to 70-yard shots, and then the main tee. We also incorporated what they call ‘The Gathering Place’ near the pitching area, with tables, chairs and a place where members could get together and smoke cigars.
“At Midland, they had a huge area to work with,” he continues, “so we built tees on all four sides of the range so the members could hit shots in different wind conditions, as well as near-green bunkers so they could hit all of the kinds of shots they’d see on the golf course.
“We took all that into consideration when we designed SpurWing, where the range is now 340 yards because it’s downwind, with synthetic turf, a huge grass tee, and putting and chipping areas,” Pascuzzo continues. “Then, because SpurWing is a seasonal club, we convinced them to build an indoor teaching facility with two hitting bays. When it was finished last winter, it was booked solid for the first two months it was open—and the club eventually bundled a cheaper membership covering just the short course and the range.”
“To meet the anticipated demand, we promoted a current staff member to serve as our Director of Instruction,” adds SpurWing’s head professional, Adam Martens. “We tried to put together a practice facility that would allow you to practice every part of the game.” The range is “very popular and a lot of fun” for the club’s 550 members, Martens reports, adding that “It’s a very active range.”
Quail Ridge Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., is equally pleased with the reception it’s received from its upgraded practice area, which was redesigned several years ago by Florida-based architect Kipp Schulties. Schulties has completed a number of similar projects either separately or as part of major course renovations throughout the Florida area, including The Club at Admirals Cove in Jupiter, Fla. He is also working on a range redesign at Hunters Run Golf & Racquet Club in Boynton Beach that is currently in the proposal stage.
“The short-game practice area Kipp did for us has worked out great,” says Quail Ridge’s Director of Golf, Charlie Bowie. “We’ve got target greens with shots from 10 to 15 yards up to 70- and 80-yard pitch shots, as well as bunkers, practice greens and the main range, so you can hit just about any kind of shot.
“When we were thinking about doing it, we put together a committee of six or seven people who traveled around to seven or eight courses in the area to see what they did, and asked Kipp to do some of those things for us,” Bowie adds. “Our members love it and tell me about it all the time. [The practice area] is a very busy place, especially in the winter when we’re busiest.”
Worthy of Attention
Kip Wolfe is Vice President of Golf Operations for Henderson, Nev.-based Key Golf Management, which has thrived with the uptick in course and practice-area improvement projects. Key Golf recently acquired Pro Turf International and now offers a full range of course construction and maintenance services, primarily in the Southwest. In addition to a number of practice-range expansions and improvements in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, similar projects have included Red Rock Country Club in Las Vegas, where Wolfe says the club felt an improved practice area would be an important membership benefit in that highly competitive market, as well as Rio Secco Golf Club in Henderson.
“It appears to me that while there’s not a lot of new construction, there is a lot of deferred maintenance that clubs are starting to do,” Wolfe says. “We get general managers coming to us and saying they need better practice areas to keep their members happy.
“We’re constantly trying to see how we can come up with something to improve the asset for the club,” he continues. “And a lot of times, it’s a matter of looking at the practice areas and the other amenities, to see if they are being used.
“After all, a lot of times the practice area is the first thing on the golf course you see, along with the first and 18th holes, so you want it to look nice, and you want it to be used,” Wolfe adds. “In some cases, practice areas could be relocated to a better area and to create a better use for the space. For instance, at Rio Secco, we took out a chipping area near the snack bar and put in an outdoor wedding facility.”
Architect Jan BelJan, who was one of Tom Fazio’s chief designers before going out on her own a number of years ago, agrees that it’s a matter of using existing space creatively. When gauging costs, BelJan says, it helps to look at the proposed elements from a line-item basis using a cost per square foot, depending upon what is involved. Will the changes involve cart path or curb removal, vegetation removal, greens construction, site prep, etc.? Can you get by with push-up greens?
“Just because it might be what you’d call a lower-end club in terms of cost doesn’t mean they can’t have a good short-game area,” BelJan says. “For some folks, practice becomes a way to play golf without actually playing golf, and a good practice area is really important to them.”
Given all the variables involved with determining a cost for an improved practice area—what you already have, how much space is available, what you need and how many bells and whistles can you afford—it is virtually impossible to put a benchmark price tag on practice-facility projects. Most of the projects he has seen or been involved with have run in the range of $250,000 to $300,000, Schulties reports. While that might cause budgetary concerns at some clubs, when it’s compared to the potential return of a handful of new golf memberships, along with having existing members not only spend more time at the club to improve their games, but also retain their golf memberships, many clubs are seeing how the benefits can far outweigh the costs.
Payoffs in Many Forms
While it’s not a private club, the University of Illinois has found another benefit for a state-of-the-art practice facility. Architect Jeff Brauer is currently working with PGA Tour standout and Illinois alum Steve Stricker, along with Mike Small, the Illini’s golf coach and well-known instructor, to upgrade the golf team’s practice facilities.
Using a parcel of land the University had, and where Stricker and Small thought they could emulate the practice area at Augusta National Golf Club, a design was created that incorporates two hitting areas running in different directions, to allow players to practice hitting both draws and fades. The project has already paid off in one big way, with the University landing the state’s top college golf recruit, reportedly in part because of the enhanced practice facility.
Brian Lynch, General Manager of The Haven Country Club in Boylston, Mass., is well aware of the benefits an enhanced practice area can provide in the contemporary country club market. The Haven, which was formerly Mount Pleasant CC before it was purchased from the members in 2011, has been making a series of changes and improvements to the club since the ownership change, and Lynch said the practice range is now on the club’s radar screen. The club has hired architect Ron Forse to create a master plan for the area, and Lynch says there are several key reasons for the project.
“One main reason is the growth and development of a junior golf program and the continued need to attract women players to the game,” he reports. “Those will be major contributors to the success of the club going forward.”
In addition to new player development, which is quantifiable, a good practice area offers less tangible but no less valuable benefits, Lynch notes. “In the old days, if you couldn’t get out for a four-hour round, you didn’t get out to the club,” he says. “Now you can come out for a half hour or so and hit balls and work on your game. It adds to the perceived value of the club, and there’s the whole camaraderie factor—it’s one of the best ways to meet and spend time with your fellow members.”
So, while practice may never make members’ golf games perfect, a first-class practice area is being seen by many properties as a very good way to improve a club’s overall performance going forward.
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