Death of the Driving Range
How smart ranges are bound to replace today's resource-demanding driving ranges, revolutionizing golf's land-use and appeal to a new generation.
by Edwin Roald
We have always done it that way. These words, echoing the status quo, have been called the seven most expensive words in business. In the business of golf, they are not only common, but often untrue, for throughout its 600-year history, golf has regularly undergone changes so major that Darwin would likely refer to them as mutations.
Among them was the introduction of the steel shaft shortly after World War I. This marked the production of a uniform set of golf clubs that all had the same feel. Until then, and for some time after, golf club shafts were made of hickory wood. Each shaft was unique. Not only did each of them have a unique flex pattern, but it also had much more noticeable torque than today‘s shafts. More importantly, the hickory shafts were too fragile to allow the frequent and intensive practice of longer shots that we know today.
Driving ranges did not become common place until after steel replaced hickory in golf club shafts.
Therefore, very few golf courses designed before the arrival of the steel shaft had anything remotely similar to modern driving ranges. After the use of the steel shaft became widespread, more and more practice areas were introduced. Now they are considered important components in golf facility planning.
However, driving ranges require a great deal of land. A good range takes up around twelve acres, or five hectares, and can also have considerable effect on the golf course‘s routing potential, clubhouse location etc.
Driving ranges therefore often require that some sacrifices are made in planning, although they may not be easily seen or measured. Conversely, other cost items are easily quantified, such as machinery and man hours required in the collection and retrieval of practice balls, ball loss, damage and depreciation, replacement and upgrade of synthetic turf mats and other equipment, maintenance of ball-vending machines, ball-washing, electricity, flood-lighting, cost of capital, mowing and other turf management such as fertilizing, irrigation and application of various chemical products.
All these items add up to a sizeable financial and environmental footprint.
Many resource consuming outdoor driving ranges are bound to be replaced by attractive indoor warm-up and practice areas.
In recent years, golf simulators have improved significantly. Their use has become popular and many coaches consider them almost essential in golf instruction and elite training. It is only natural to assume that simulators will not only improve, but that their compatibility with cell phone and tablet apps will become easier, more accessible, user-friendly and affordable.
In the same way, competition for land and other resources is sure to increase and translate into rising costs. Golf is a large land user that has been slow to react to this changing landscape. Golf’s meaningful and proactive gesture of social and environmental responsibility is overdue. Golf simulators provide a unique opportunity for the game of golf to exercise this and are bound to replace most driving ranges.
To protect surrounding areas from wayward golf shots, investment in land or extensive netting is required, often perceived as unattractive.
Where demand for land is high, the practice area can be re-developed and part of the proceeds used to buy and install simulators. This would allow golfers to practice or warm-up at in the comfort of the indoors all year round. Off-season revenue can be increased as players get introduced to this increasingly attractive substitute for real golf. Whatever the climate, these indoor facilities can provide refuge from excessively hot or cold outdoor conditions, while traditional driving ranges run the risk of losing business due to their facility’s shortcomings or bad, hot or cold weather affecting the golfers’s appetite.
Options include the virtual play of some of the world’s best golf courses or competition against golfers all over the globe in online tournaments. Simulators can also play a key role in securing golf‘s healthy future by introducing a new generation, children and other tech-savvy customers, to golf in an entertaining way with videogame-like modes of play.
Most range balls don't perform in the same way as regular golf balls used out on the course.
Simulators allow golfers to use golf balls of the highest quality instead of lower-grade practice balls that neither reflect a better ball’s true trajectory nor fly as far. Compared to drawing conclusions from eye-balling the flight of a range ball battling the elements, a simulator provides accurate, and immediate feedback on direction, distance, trajectory, sidespin, backspin, clubhead speed and swing path, to name a few factors that the golfer can use to monitor his or her progress. This can save considerable time and annoyance, and allow the golfer to improve faster given proper instruction.
Considering these technological advances alongside the aforementioned economic and environmental trends, traditional driving ranges feel like a thing of the past.
Driving range flood lighting is costly, resource demanding and often controversial for its negative visual impact.
However, driving ranges may not disappear entirely. Well located urban facilities could still have their place, and surely, competition at the highest level will demand that elite players can prepare, practice, and visualize ball flight and trajectory when hitting off real turf. For example, the Open Championship is often staged on golf courses that were laid out before the steel shaft was introduced. Therefore, temporary practice areas are sometimes set up on suitable nearby areas with good turf, e.g. on adjoining fairways on a sibling golf course. Championship venues that may see benefits in abandoning their driving ranges could solve their tournament setup in a similar way.
Just like the invention of the steel shaft did less than a century ago, technological progress is sure to continue shaping golf‘s use of land and other resources. The idea of allocating, preparing and managing a large, expensive area that is widely subject to seasonal use, only to receive golf balls of lower quality struck without accurate feedback, simply does not compare with today’s available and rapidly evolving technology. This marks the end of an era.
The SmartRange concept is designed by Edwin Roald, a golf architect, masterplanner and advisor on responsible land and resource use in golf. For 15 years, he has independently designed and consulted in nine countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Clients include governments, environmental groups, golf course developers and operators.
Edwin is the author of Why18holes.com, where he has since 2008 encouraged the reconsideration of the 18-hole standard, a revolutionary concept Edwin has explained through public speaking and interviews throughout the golfing world.
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