THE golf club where I was a member immediately prior to my current club had only enough room for a short practice fairway. Even a player of my meagre ball-striking ability couldn’t use much more than an 8-iron. As a result, I never hit a single practice ball there in the five years I was a member. In fact, the only time I set foot on it was to retrieve a stray drive from the first tee.
As space becomes scarce and new course developments try to rein in costs, practice ranges have slid near the bottom of the totem pole of golfer priorities, and what facilities clubs can afford to build and maintain. Unless a range is drawing carload after carload of golfers specifically seeking to practise, it is a cost centre rather than a revenue source for most clubs.
That might sound like too much accountant-speak and not enough golf-speak, but 21st century life in golf clubs – rightly or wrongly – has to be as much about the bottom line as the bottom of the cup.
Earlier this year I listened to the intriguing and enthusiastic voice of James McCully, the director of golf at Black Bull Golf Club on the Victorian/New South Wales border, as he outlined features of their range that I hadn’t heard before yet found so astonishingly simple. In short, the Black Bull practice range is far more than just a place to hit balls. Firstly, the end-of-range structure is fully covered to allow balls to be struck in all weather. OK, so that’s not amazingly enterprising. But what is ingenious are the non-golf uses.
By the end of this year, Black Bull intends to house a screen within the undercover area that can be put up or rolled down to create a cinema setup where the seats are spread across the grass spanning the start of the range. Already the space is operating as a function area with a sports bar and room for 100-plus people.
Suddenly, a portion of the golf land that could superficially be viewed as a cash drain becomes, at minimum, a source of golfer and member entertainment and quite possibly a diverse revenue stream. McCully has secured a liquor licence to cover the entire space and is chasing a popcorn machine to complete the cinema experience. ‘A Day On The Green’-style concerts and opera events are also part of the vision. With a little savvy, the list of possibilities is as long as a Dustin Johnson tee shot.
“I call it a driving range on steroids,” McCully says, adding that it will fast become an environment that attracts non-golfers who will hopefully become curious about the game and eventually venture onto the course.
Interestingly, the initial plans for Black Bull didn’t include a driving range. Once a sizeable cart shed was required, McCully suggested to the owners how expanding it to also include a range would make sense. And from there the ideas flowed.
Is this the driving range’s future, one where it needs to stand on its own financial feet? Golf industry analyst Jeff Blunden from Golf Business Advisory Services says anecdotal evidence suggests a decent practice facility is important to keep golfers feeling connected to their home club if they can’t devote several hours to playing. If four or five hours isn’t an option for a full 18 holes, 30 to 40 minutes to hit balls is bound to be more viable. As such, findings from Blunden’s club member research projects indicate practice facilities are more important to younger members than for older, more established ones.
Historically there’s been a one-dimensional view of practice facilities, Blunden adds, and a lingering quandary over how to use the land they occupy. The challenge surrounds the thinking regarding commercial logistics versus services; the costs of practice grounds and also their opportunities. Golf clubs must be asking themselves how to expand their revenue opportunities, and – like at Black Bull – the practice facility is one place to look.
“You get out of golf what you put into it. What we are seeing is more thought being given to land space and how to best optimise it,” Blunden says, adding that modern technology is now playing a role. “With the simulator experience only getting better, the cost of range safety growing and the sheer value of land, more clubs will likely go down the no-range path.”
And whether that winds up having an adverse, positive or neutral effect on golfer and member numbers is no easy question for which to conjure an all-encompassing answer.