The Range Game - Winter is No Time to Shut it Down

By: Bart Potter


One lies on the campus of a Big 10 university. One carries the name of a giant in golf equipment. One is affiliated with a cluster of local athletic clubs. And one is a family business in every sense of the word.

Four golf practice ranges, in four regions of the country, with virtues in common enough to call them all "super ranges" - and it's not all about size. All four are listed among the top-100 ranges in the U.S. by the Golf Range Association of America (GRAA). All are surviving in a shaky golf economy.

What keeps them alive and well, they all say, is a commitment to the customer. And that means making it comfortable in winter, when the weather might discourage rounds of golf in the great outdoors.

There is no better time, says Steve Reuhl, to put in serious work to forge a change in your game. And the price is right, an added bonus for the golf-starved using the practice range as a coping mechanism. "People will spend $7.50 for a bucket instead of spending $40 or $50 for a round of golf," says Reuhl, director of golf at the Columbia Super Range in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle.

"Most people, recreational golfers, just don't try to make changes until they're in season. And that's a lot tougher."

The Columbia Super Range is operated by Columbia Athletic Clubs, with four fitness centers in suburban Seattle. The range offers 50 stalls for striking balls, about half of which are heated to take the edge off the winter chill.

But the thing that makes Columbia unique - and is likely to make the fastest improvement in a golf score - is the nine-hole, natural-grass chipping and putting course. Par is 2 on every hole, which starts with a chip from off the green. Play all day here for $5. There are six pros, including Reuhl, on Columbia's teaching staff, and two indoor video studios offer further incentive to a wintertime golf makeover.

William (Bill) McInerney, owner of McGolf in Dedham, Mass., a mile south of Boston's city limits, says, "We try to hit the people who really love golf."

When McInerney, who had played on the Asian Tour and American mini-tours, bought his business in 1980, it was a rundown driving range - an old dump, literally. Gravel and dirt and patchy grass intermixed thinly atop accumulations of bottles and shoe leather from its days as a factory site.

Five years after he bought the range, McInerney realized he needed to get people into his business who didn't play golf. So he added mini-golf and an ice cream shop - "loss leaders," he says. "That really was what changed the dimension of the business," he says.

Today, McGolf features 65 hitting bays, 20 of which are covered and offer optional heat. The golfer serious about lowering his or her scores can join the members-only short-game club on 25,000 square feet devoted solely to pitching and chipping.

Six teaching pros, including McInerney and his sons Bill Jr. and Eric, offer lesson programs. It's not unusual to see the instructors strolling the hitting bays and offering free advice, with a particular eye out for people taking their first-ever golf swings. "Get their hands right at the top and let 'em go," says McInerney Sr.

The McInerney family business has evolved: the mini-golf area has grown into a sharply manicured 18 holes, and the ice cream shop is now the Sweet Spot Café, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner . . . as well as ice cream.

In Las Vegas, the Callaway Golf Center has made a niche in a desert Mecca where there is serious competition for every entertainment - and golf - dollar. The center is independently operated by Boreta Enterprises, and is not a franchise of Callaway Golf. But the ties to the golf-equipment manufacturer are deep and prominent. Callaway is the only equipment sold in the pro shop, and all club rentals are late-model Callaways.

General manager Robert Gonzalez says his center benefits from its location - a mile from McCarran International Airport, a mile and a half from Mandalay Bay, roughly 15 minutes south of The Strip. And if you think Las Vegas weather is a natural antidote for winter golf doldrums, Gonzalez points out that he does, in fact, have to shut down some days in January, some years, because of desert cold.

The range offers 110 hitting stalls, an undulating five-hole putting green on artificial turf, a 12-hole putting course on natural bermudagrass, a chipping green with bunker, and five greens devoted to longer short-game shots - all renovated in 2009.

Eric Meeks, the 1988 U.S. Amateur champion, directs a teaching staff of six instructors. "People come to my place because it's Callaway," Gonzalez says. "If they just stop by to check it out, they say, 'Hey, this is really cool.' "

Steve Ruthenberg is a veteran of 25 years at the Golf Center at MSU - and 25 Michigan winters. The center in East Lansing benefits from its association with Michigan State University, a perennial Big 10 power in both men's and women's golf.

The range's 23 covered and heated stalls allow the center to stay open almost every day. The facility was closed only once last season due to weather, says Ruthenberg, the GM and director of instruction, and that was only because the university itself shut down. The MSU Winter Golf Program, which has room for 130 people, sells out every year, says Ruthenberg.

On warmer days, golfers in East Lansing can brush up on their games on a three-acre short-game area with bunkers and realistic target greens. And the center is connected to two full-length golf courses at Forest Akers - the championship-caliber West Course and the more-forgiving East Course.

These four award-worthy practice ranges offer an affordable alternative to a golf-course round, any season of the year. But it's in winter when they really show their value - the right time, the right place, to get golf right.

"It's the best time - for me, myself, if I look at my own game and want to make a change, this is the time I do it," says Reuhl of Columbia Super Range. "Then I work on it all winter long."

For more information on these practice facilities, visit:

www.superrange.com
www.mcgolfonline.com
www.callawaygolfcenter.com
http://golf.msu.edu/instruction

Bart Potter writes about golf from his home in Olympia, Wash. He's covered cops and courts, arts and entertainment and sports as a daily journalist, and for three years wrote an award-winning golf column for The Olympian newspaper. He's taught journalism at a public college and a private university, and is The Commissar of the Grey Goatee Golf Association (3GA) Tour. You can find him at http://greygoateeblogolfosphere.blogspot.com.


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