On the north end of the driving range at Torrey Pines there is a metal utility shed. It’s big enough for a person to walk into and normally is used for storage. At this week’s Farmers Insurance Open, however, the volunteers working the range are using it to take cover. Not from the weather, which has been perfect, but from golf balls flying at them from the other end of Torrey’s two-sided range.
Much has been said about how today’s long-bombing tour pros and the distance gains they’ve achieved are rendering some courses nearly obsolete. The same goes, apparently, for some driving ranges. Municipally operated Torrey Pines is becoming a prime – and potentially dangerous – example of that.
There was a buzz on social media earlier this week because the windscreens of two cars in the caddie parking area adjacent to the range were smashed by waywards shots. That’s a problem, but that’s not as concerning as what the volunteers have seen. They say balls hit from the south side of the range up to the north are flying into players or even over their heads. One volunteer said a ball flew straight into a cardboard bin. Another bounced in the carpark behind the range and dented the bonnet of a car. Four balls, a volunteer said, hit the side of the utility shed during his shift.
Hence, the duck and cover. The volunteers hand out the buckets of balls to the players using the tees on the north end and then shuffle back inside. Maybe someone should be handing them hard hats. “If the players are out here, we go back to our hiding place, because it’s like an explosion when it hits [the shed],” said a volunteer who asked not to be identified.
Marty Gorsich, executive director of the Farmers Insurance Open, said he is well aware of the issue, and that it’s not new. He said several car windshields in the caddie lot have been broken each tournament over the past few years and confirmed that two have been smashed this week. He said a volunteer also made a claim for a dent in that person’s car. (The host Century Club pays for the repairs, Gorsich said.)
“The calibre of ranges on tour, in this department … [Torrey Pines] is too tight, and it’s become short,” Gorsich said. “We’re not freaking out, but you’ve got this factual issue. The guys are getting longer, and unless there’s some kind of change [with limiting distance], it’s a problem that’s not going to get better and has the opportunity to get worse.”
The problem at Torrey Pines is that the range is in a very confined space. To the direct east is the busy thoroughfare of Torrey Pines Road. To the west is the ninth fairway of the North Course. Both sides have high netting, but even everyday golfers who use the public courses the other 51 weeks of the year sometimes breach it. The distance from the hitting bays from one end of the range to the other is about 320 to 340 yards. (Click on the Tweet below for a full aerial image of the range.) Meanwhile, there are currently 94 players on the tour who average more than 300 yards in driving distance; 24 of them average 310 or longer. Two players – Matthew Wolff and rookie Cameron Young – are at 320 for the season and both were in the field this week.
Said a veteran tour caddie, “The range is obsolete. We were getting pelted with balls the other day.”
The tour and Century Club did erect shorter fencing this week in front of the players so that rollouts from shots hit from the other end would not reach them, but that doesn’t do them any good if their peers are easily flying those barriers.
Gorsich said he’s had discussions this week with John Mutch, the chief PGA Tour official on-site, about the situation, and he’s been in communication with the city about how it might address the issue in the future. A spokesman for the city of San Diego said in a statement to Golf Digest on Friday: “The City is aware of the comments related to the driving range, but this is the first time it has been raised as a larger concern. After the tournament, the City will assess the area and make modifications to the range that are deemed necessary.”
Torrey Pines is not the only tour course a range that’s become too short. Last April, for the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town, a net held up by cranes was added at the back of the practice area to protect golfers putting on the eighth green on the other side.
As for Torrey Pines, why not just keep players to one end of the range? That’s difficult when there are 156 players who need to practise with limited spots.
“This is not a Bryson phenomenon,” Gorisch insisted.
He was, of course, referring to Bryson DeChambeau, the bulked-up bomber and US Open champ who competed in the World Long Drive Championships in October and led the tour in driving distance last year at 323.7 yards. DeChambeau, who played this week in the Farmers and missed the cut, doesn’t even appear yet in this year’s tour driving statistics because he hasn’t played enough rounds.
When the buzz about busted windscreens broke out this week, DeChambeau became the subject of the finger-pointing, though there isn’t any firm evidence that he was the player who damaged the cars. However, when Dustin Johnson, another of the tour’s longest drivers, was asked by Golf Digest to assess the Torrey Pines range, given the broken windscreens, he said, “That’s not me. Talk to Bryson.”
Windscreens aside, there also is this account from a volunteer that might be concerning for the tournament and the tour: “I was working on Monday and Bryson was hitting on this [North side] down to the other end. I was receiving radio calls that he was actually flying it to the line down there [on the South end]. We asked him to cease using his driver, and rather than doing that and complying, he was aiming for the ninth hole on the North Course and hitting it over the fence into the fairway.”
There were no fans on-site on Monday, but pros were playing practice rounds on the North.
It figures that numerous venues either are or will become problematic for players such as DeChambeau. In Thursday’s Farmers round for example, DeChambeau blasted a 362-yard drive on the South’s seventh hole that missed the fairway left by 40 yards. If he was on the Torrey Pines range, that’s definitely in the caddie carpark – or beyond it.
Reigning Olympic gold medallist Xander Schauffele, a native San Diegan who has been hitting balls on the Torrey range at least since high school, said he’s sympathetic to long hitters such as DeChambeau who shouldn’t be limited in their ability to practise.
“It’s not fair to them,” Schauffele said. “If I hit it far, I’d want to be able to hit my driver, especially at Torrey Pines, to warm up. Guys are hitting it farther. Maybe they need to put a net up over that caddie parking area. There are ways to fix it.” Speaking directly of DeChambeau, he added, “I think it’s a tricky situation for him. It’s not his fault.”
Schauffele, who’s currently 53rd on the tour in driving average at 305.3 yards, smiled and contended no one should worry about him beaning cars or other players. “I don’t see myself crow-hopping one into someone’s windshield,” he said. “Maybe it will hit the blue net at the bottom and scare somebody. But besides that, it’s really not my thing.”