LI's driving ranges continue to thrive
All the trappings are as familiar as your furniture at home: striped golf balls, tall rubber tees, bouncy mats, signs that say "150" or "200," and the irrepressible ball-collecting cart that keeps moving even though everyone is aiming at it. This is the driving range, as American as a drive-in movie, with apparently more resilience.
The driving range still is an American institution and a fixture on Long Island, from the Spring Rock Golf Center near Queens in New Hyde Park to the Southampton Golf Range that is right there on North Highway for the whole summer crowd to see. Despite a recession that has jeopardized some private and public golf clubs, driving ranges have stayed the course.
In fact, ranges offer antidotes to the twin pitfalls of regular golf: time and expense. A golfer can spend $10 and a half-hour on the range before or after work or at lunchtime.
"As long as golf is played, there will be room for driving ranges," said Steven Willner, manager of the Oakdale Golf Center on Sunrise Highway. "They're learning centers. You can come to a driving range when you first start and you won't get too intimidated."
A range is a gathering place for families, what with the snack bar and miniature golf course that usually is on the premises. It's also a reasonably priced dating spot and a tuneup ground for low-handicap golfers such as teenagers Mark Reilly of Babylon and Matt Lowe of Farmingdale, who practiced for a U.S. Open qualifier at Skydrive Golf Center on Route 110 in Farmingdale.
"There's the love of the game involved here. People do enjoy it," said Andrew Mursch, manager of Skydrive, explaining why there is room in the economy for a year-round double-deck facility that is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. "We don't really need too many more big box stores."
Yes, people make jokes about "Tin Cup," the Kevin Costner movie in which a driving range pro emerges as a U.S. Open contender ("It's heroes that I need. Not obscure driving range pros," said an exasperated TV director in the film.)
Yes, patrons do shoot at the moving ball retrieving cart. Mursch said the vehicle is well protected but he does tell all the drivers, "Don't let them see you flinch."
Willner said traffic was down a little in Oakdale this June because the U.S. Open, which normally gets people out to the range, was televised at night so people stayed home to watch. Also, the weather has been good, which is not great for a range with sheltered stalls. The Oakdale center thrived during the rainy June 2009. Still, business generally is solid.
Skydrive offers a unique touch with a wine bar - Buddy Koehler, one of the range's owners, is also one of the owners of Osprey's Dominion Vineyards in Peconic. Mostly, though, the key is that the simplicity of the range is a good fit with golf's complexity.
"It gives people an environment to practice without consequence," said Skydrive head pro Victor Romano, former head pro at Bergen Point Golf Course. "There is no water to possibly hit into, no bunker to hit into, no people pushing them. There is a certain comfort level because there is no finality to the shot. There are 100,000 balls out there and no one knows which ones are yours."
On top of that, there is just something irresistible about nailing drives off those big rubber tees. As one golfer said at Skydrive on a recent weekday morning, "My wife would kill me if she knew I was here."