The Evolution of the Practice Facility

Features - Spotlight

Golfers are spending more time and money honing their games. Anthony L. Williams, CGCS, CGM, explores a part of a course where technology and social possibilities are converging.

© anthony williams

Lately I have been involved in a lot of discussions with other golf industry professionals about practice facilities and the golfer’s expectations for these facilities now and in the future. It is important to note that what we now know as practice facilities were once shadows of their current selves. Thirty years ago, we used terms like driving range or putting green and occasionally mentioned a practice bunker that was likely located at the side of driving range tee. The idea was to hit a quick bucket of balls and maybe roll a few putts and get on the course as quickly as possible. Those days are over.

We are now living in the age of the fully-appointed practice facility and savvy superintendents are raising the standard across the industry. Let’s look at some of the latest innovations in the evolution of the practice facility.

Technology has changed the way golfers play and practice

The epicenter of the need for the evolution from a simple driving range/putting green to a modern practice facility is technology. Expanding golf technology is the driving force behind changes in the average practice facility.

Do you need more proof? Picture (or Google search) a typical driving range from the 1980s. How many rangefinders do you see? Video swing and swing speed analysis stations? How about overhead and in-ground lighting, not to mention master-planned LED lighting? How many night golf events are on the calendar? What sort of irons and drivers do you see? Are the type of range balls you see still in use today? What does the average shot look like from a height and distance perspective?

“Technology enhancements that track shots for distance and accuracy are becoming more common every day,” says PGA Master Professional Tim Cusick, who was recently selected as one of the top 100 golf instructors in the country. “My hope is that all facilities can enjoy these types of systems in 10 years’ time.”

These changes have fueled the evolution of the practice facility. The changes are obvious and show no sign of slowing down or stopping. The successful Topgolf business model has tapped into the blend of technology and golf ethos in a unique practice environment, and successful clubs are eager to find their own answer to the successful practice facility equation. It is time to rethink what is possible.

Spacious practice areas with improved turf varieties are a customer demand at facilities of all levels.
© anthony williams

Bigger and more durable turf areas are essential

Now that we have established the number of practice shots struck and the shear distance the golfer is hitting the ball has changed, we can also see the deep impact on the design and maintenance budget required to create the practice space.

Bigger tees, higher netting, more targets, defined hitting lanes, and designated chipping only and putting only areas are now expected at every level of a golf club. I have worked in the private, public and resort golf markets over the past 30 years, and while the end products and price points vary, the practice facility has become a value add at every level. Every designer and architect I spoke with told me they have never heard of a driving range tee project where the tee size was going to be reduced. In fact, most agreed that it was impossible to build a practice tee too big now and in the future.

It is also important to note that as we get new and improved turf varieties that recover quicker and pair them with even better agronomic programs (a great topic for another article) there is a limit to the number of shots that a natural grass tee can take and still hold the expected quality. Thus, some brave souls have integrated synthetic turf into their practice facilities. Technological advances in synthetic turf are proving a valued strategy in the modern practice facility. Many superintendents are using state-of-the-art synthetic turfs to take some of the pressure off the natural grass surfaces, especially in high-volume clubs. These new synthetics are more playable than earlier products, they can hold a tee, and are available in tee/fairway, rough and even green heights. When well designed and constructed, these modern additions are a great way to accommodate more play in less space.

Another regional use for these tees and greens, especially in the Transition Zone, is for frost delays or rain events that may temporarily close natural turf tees/greens. The synthetic tees/greens allow for a more weather-proof experience. I built my first synthetic tee 15 years ago and we just opened the latest version last month. The new synthetic materials are amazing, and our membership could not be happier with the addition. We have improved our practice areas by blending tradition and innovation, thinking outside the traditional tee box.

Practice areas provide space for a diversity of events that can help golf facilities generate interest among new audiences.
© anthony Williams

Social aspects of the modern practice facility are critical to success

The game of golf is also changing socially. It is an individual sport played in small groups, but now more than ever the golf club experience has an ever-increasing social expectation. It is even more important that a practice facility has a variety of social aspects and alternative uses that meet or exceed the golfer’s expectations.

Our natural grass practice tee, for example, will host more than a dozen large social events ranging from formal dinners to concerts and circus-style attractions this year. Beyond special events, every part of the practice facility must meet or exceed golfer/user expectation such as restroom facilities, which must be adequately designed, sized and clean. Food and beverage services must be available and be equal to the club’s food and beverage reputation. Hours of operation must be extended to allow early and late practice (time is a factor). This mandates quality lighting throughout the practice facility for both function and safety.

Junior programs must offer quality instruction and plenty of social engagement for the child and the parent. The Topgolf influence can once again be felt in this new level of expectation as every club evaluates how far to expand the practice facility as an added social space. Some new uses for the practice facility include mini-course layouts in the driving range floor, water features (for practice and aesthetics), multiple target greens that are visible from several hitting angles/locations, creative range/distance targets, practice areas designed for small, medium and large groups, and private teaching areas catering to specific golfer needs. Covered and heated hitting bays are also a must for the fair-weather golfer. Even irrigation and drainage must be maximized to allow more hours of operation so that facilities are not too wet or too dry but just right.

Bob Scott, ASIC President of Irrigation Consulting Services in Georgia says, “We are now actually making a game out of practicing the game and we must customize every design element to maximize resources and minimize disruptions.” That says it all.

Communication and crafting a master plan

How do we make sure that we make the most of our practice facility and that it continues to evolve with the times? The key is to communicate with all stakeholders to gather real feedback and develop a team of experts that can craft a master plan touching all issues impacting success.

Technology, agronomy, instruction, tracking, social areas, personal service, facilities and alternative uses are all born-first as ideas. Then they must be examined and tested to see if they have merit within the business model and then brought into reality with a sense of urgency.

“Our master plan process is heavy on communication at all levels,” says Steve Wolfard of W Golf Design. “Without that communication, it is possible that you will miss the mark and not create as many opportunities for it (the practice facility experience) to be great.” That sums up the evolution of the practice facility. Expectations have moved from good to great and we must deliver every time a range ball takes flight.

Putting it all in perspective

The greatest part about the golf industry is that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. The evolution of the practice facility is no different. Golf is a great game in part because it allows for a variety of players to find their swing and create memories as a single, foursome or a tournament champion.

The industry has developed a new and growing revenue stream within the practice facility. Superintendents are committed to crafting to new designs and programs to maximize this evolving part of our properties. We remain the keepers of the green (practice or primary). We often interact with more members on these practice areas than anywhere else on the property. As you make your rounds and your budgets this season, take a hard look at where your practice facility is, where it could be and then join the evolution.

Anthony L. Williams is the director of golf course maintenance and landscaping at the Four Seasons Resort Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.