Practice Facilities – Logistics and Economics with Lester George

Having grown up and spent most of my life at a club without a practice facility, I’ve always clamored for one. One of the reasons I chose the club I now belong to is the outstanding practice ground. I enjoy the solitude, often put some music in my ears and pound, chip or putt away. Game improvement is also a goal. The great Golden Age golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast wrote “Ground for practice in proximity to the clubhouse is one of the essentials of the modern golf course.” Unfortunately, many courses even today do not have adequate practice facilities

As a golf club and course analyst, I’ve observed that there is a potentially significant economic impact of having (or not having) a sufficient practice ground and sought to learn more. One golf course architect who has focused on practice facilities is Lester George of George Golf Design in Midlothian, VA, a frequent lecturer for the Golf Range Association. I posed some questions to him about practice areas.

George, a highly decorated architect with designs such as Kinloch (VA), Ballyhack (VA) and DuPont CC (DE) among his accomplishments advocates having as many shot options as the area can produce, focusing on those the player may find on the golf course where the range is located. Pitching, chipping, short and long greenside bunker shots, fairway bunker shots, rough areas and greenside putting are among those he mentioned as typical elements considered fundamental to a quality practice ground.

Often, practice areas are judged by their sheer size. George says there is no “standard” and he’s done them from as small as 5,000 SF to 70 acres, and even some 100 acre short course practice facilities. I asked how much tee space is required and George replied simply that “bigger is always better”. He says it seems as though you can never have enough and that practicing is growing in popularity. There are some courses that calculate the required amount of tee space by keeping track of the number of balls hit and estimating how much turf each shot requires.

Economically, practice facilities can serve different masters. At private clubs, they’re often considered a member-satisfaction amenity while at daily-fee facilities, they are often seen as potential revenue generators. George mentioned that his practice facility at one private club generates nearly $1 million per year in revenue for a private club of 480 members. His short course at Kanawha Club in VA was recently named among the best 25 par-3 courses in the world.

George advocates consideration of prime locations for practice facilities. If the facility is too far from the clubhouse it won’t be used as much. “Location, location, location.” In studies we’ve done for practice facility expansions or additions, we’ve definitely found that a poorly located area is often neglected.

Among the most recent enhancements to practice facilities are teaching and learning centers. George mentioned that he first became focused on practice areas in the late 90’s when he designed a 3-hole practice course around a range at The Colonial in Williamsburg, VA and then in 2001 built Kinloch which has a magnificent practice facility of 17 acres with a (then) 3-bay 3,500 SF learning building with all the technological advancements, including a SAM putting lab and physical therapy area. That’s since been expanded to 5 bays. With technology (video, launch monitors, etc., George estimates the cost of these facilities from as low as $300,000 to $2 million. The best learning facilities require a design team consisting of a building architect to define space needs, a golf course architect to find the best site and address any necessary golf course modifications and a technology consultant for all the electronics of the modern learning and fitting centers, such as launch monitors, video equipment and computers. These buildings can be both a member amenity at private clubs and a revenue producer at both daily-fee and private facilities.

Short game areas are often an afterthought, according to George. Golfers practice much more than 5, 10 or 20 years ago and practice has become its own industry. Short game areas have often been overlooked, but it’s widely believed that the more serious golfers who join private clubs not only want an ample practice range but quality, and ample sized short game areas.

Safety being a big issue, George says he’s encountered conflict with holes, swimming pools, surrounding residences, parking areas, and commercial and military airspace among others. He’s frequently had to alter existing golf holes because it’s unusual that a course has an extra 10+ acres that is both physically suitable and conveniently located for maximum usage.

George notes that the most frequent flaws he sees in practice facilities is that they’re too short, too narrow, poorly planned or don’t have targets. His image of the ideal practice facility starts with a north-south orientation to reduce conflict with sunrise and sunset, and a minimum of 350 yards in length with 100,000 SF (roughly 2.5 acres) of range tee area. He emphasizes multiple, realistic targets that can be easily converted to a reversible short or par-3 course for family play. These often have slower greens and 8″ cups. George also emphasized the need for distance wedge areas for practicing shots from 10 to 100 yards with targets. He sees ranges expanding, with some now as big as 40 to 70 acres (most are 10 or less) which can also be used for fitness trails, laser tag, drive-in movies and other activities.

The practice facility can be an economic engine for any golf facility, either through membership development or revenue production. Some generate as much as $1 million in revenue, according to George and can be the difference between success and failure.