Practice Ranges – Logistics and Economics

Famous Golden Age golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast once wrote “Ground for Practice is one of the essentials of the modern golf course.” In many instances, especially at older courses, the practice area is either an afterthought or simply doesn’t exist.

Having been a member for many years at a club (which failed) without an adequate practice area and now having access to a great range, I can personally attest to the value added by extensive practice facilities. While Tillinghast focuses on the design elements of a great range in A Practical Practice Ground, part of a collection of his writings known as The Course Beautiful we at Golf Property Analysts have advocated the logistical and economic benefits of practice facilities for years.

Some of the benefits to golfers are obvious. Practice areas provide a place to warm up before a round, take lessons, work on one’s game and often the simple solitude often desired by golfers. Not so obvious are the the logistics required of an efficient and useful practice ground.

A critical element of a successful practice ground is that it have a good location and/or easy access. Of course, it has to be large enough to acommodate both length of modern golfers’ tee shots, and the traffic and wear it might experience. However, if the range is not accessible it will suffer.

While it is common for private clubs to have remote practice facilities (Merion and Pine Valley come to mind where members either drive their cars or golf carts to the practice ground), there seems to be a direct correlation at daily fee courses between the usage of a practice facility and its location relative to the clubhouse/first tee.

At private clubs, where a higher percentage of players are likely to visit the club just to practice, easy access to the range, either by location or by car or golf cart is essential. As private club members expect a high level of convenience, rules regarding such access can impact usage. Thus, the economic argument for either developing a practice range or expanding/enhancing an existing one can often be made on the basis of membership and usage at private clubs versus direct and indirect revenues at a daily fee course. Since private clubs rarely generate direct revenue from the range, it’s usually an issue of quality, member convenience and competitiveness. In many cases, the motivation for practice facility development is one of safety, especially where an inadequate range already exists and where either improved equipment and longer drives or simply a requirement for additional capacity has rendered many adjacent areas vulnerable to errant shots.

The sophistication of practice facilities is increasing all the time. In 2009, Golf Digest introduced its first ranking of the 75 best practice areas and many include elaborate short-game areas with multiple bunkers and lies, ranges with target greens at laser-calibrated distances, indoor or covered hitting bays, computerized swing analysis and more. The revenue enhancement possibilities that come from elaborate practice facilities include golf club fitting and sales, lessons, clinics and since the range is now a destination on its own, it is altogether possible that food and beverage sales can be increased. Though most of the “75 best” ranges are located at top private clubs and upscale resorts, even the most affordable daily fee and municipal facilities can benefit in a variety of ways from enhanced practice facilities.

We at GPA are currently involved in an assignment developing an economic feasibility analysis for a proposed practice facility enhancement and expansion. Our market research yielded some interesting observations.

  • Practice Facilities serve different purposes at private clubs than at daily fee courses.
  • Safety and Liability are often the motivating factors in practice range development and enhancement.
  • The economics of a practice facility are often measured by much more than direct revenues.
  • Practice Facilities (outdoor and indoor) can often enhance F &B, pro shop and other revenues.
  • At private clubs, practice facilities are often critical to membership development.
  • Location and access can often determine the usefulness of a practice facility.

The value a quality practice area can add to a club can be significant. Of course, the question is whether that value supports the costs incurred. Analyzing the feasibility of a practice facility for an investor-owned daily fee course is likely to come down to two questions: 1-Does the improvement generate enough revenue to support the cost; or 2-Is the improvement required to solve a problem such as a safety or liability issue? At a private club, it may be an issue of membership development or simply property enhancements to stay competitive, or in some cases to attract major events. In these cases, the economic study may also include a “break even” analysis to determine what the club needs to generate in terms of additional memberships ot break even on the project.

Each and every situation is unique. However, the one constant is that practice facilities are an enhancement to golf properties. They promote learning, game improvement and can help bring new players to the game, especially those that might be reluctant to take to the course right away given the big learning curve in golf. Sometimes the direct and short term economic benefits aren’t so apparent, but the long term impact can be positive. A quality practice area, however simple or elaborate, is an integral part of a complete golf facility and through well conceived design, feasibility analysis and planning can usually enhance any club, whether to solve a problem or simply to enhance the bottom line.