Practice Facilities: The Best Places to Find Your Best Game
By John Bebow
Thirty years ago, King Par Golf was a simple little shack in a field outside of Flint where 1960s golfers _ inspired by the slashing swing of Arnold Palmer _ tried to tear the cover off range balls.
Today, King Par, in Flushing, has 22,000 square feet of golf merchandise, a double deck of 32 heated tees, enough grass tee area to hold 70 more players, a practice bunker, a 5,000-square-foot practice green, and a nine hole par three course. They'll have four full-time teaching pros on staff in 1998 and they're building three new target greens in the driving range.
"The idea of a driving range has changed a lot over the years," says John Kuchka, King Par's head pro. "Ten or 15 years ago people just came out here and wanted to hit the ball as far as they could. Now they're trying to hit draws and fades. We're just giving them what they're asking for."
All over Michigan, top resorts and driving ranges are accommodating this Hoganesque desire to practice, practice, practice. Here's a look at a handful of the best places to find your best game:
A 120-player driving range and 20,000-square-foot short game practice area offer a fine opportunity for players to tune up before attacking the Grand Valley State University course.
But a top-notch teaching staff and a three-hole practice course are what make The Meadows really stand out as a teaching and learning center. The Meadows has hosted the Butch Harmon School and the Dave Pelz's short game program. And the practice holes _ part of the $10 daily fee for using the range and short game area _ are an important component in adult and junior camps the teaching staff runs throughout the summer.
"We can recreate any game situation you'll find on the golf course," says Director of Instruction Patti Butcher. "We really feel the practice holes advance our mission so much that they're worth the investment."
Here's another operation trying the practice hole approach. Bay Meadows has three practice holes of 100-160 yards.
"The bulk of the game is 150 yards in and that's what this is all about," says Jeff Dean, Bay Meadows' head pro. "And on golf courses there isn't a place to learn etiquette and shot making without making mistakes and angering the people behind you. With the number of people taking up the game, our practice holes give people the chance to learn the game, especially if they aren't ready for the big course."
Players who buy a bucket of balls for the Bay Meadows range get access to the practice holes for an additional $2. The range will expand to 50 grass stations (and 12 mats) by mid-summer. Two large chipping/putting greens are also available along with a wide range of adult and junior lesson programs.
"It's an absolutely marvelous facility," says Bob Lober, longtime Traverse City golf coach. "They have great teaching programs."
Crystal Mountain caters to both the serious player and couples on weekend golf getaways who want to get a few pointers.
"A lot of people just use our facility for an hour in between conference sessions or on lunch breaks," says assistant pro Rick Gardner.
The 10-acre learning and practice center is home to the acclaimed Crystal Mountain Golf Academy, which includes intense two- and three-day camps.
In building the practice facility, Crystal Mountain went so far as to have architect Bill Newcomb separately design two chipping greens complete with bunker complexes and a one-acre putting range.
"It's not just a flat putting surface," Gardner says. "You need to have all ranges of shots or you can't teach as well."
Amid the hustle and bustle of suburban Detroit, teaching pro Joseph Portfilio gives 2,400 lessons a year at this nationally recognized pro shop.
Increasingly, Portfilio relies on technology to teach. While Carl's will offer two rebuilt practice greens in 1998, along with 70 outdoor tees and a range with nine target greens, Portfilio says he does some of his best teaching indoors.
His secret is a split-screen digital videotaping technique. The video allows players to see all aspects of their swings. Then a computer compares the novice swings to the fundamentals of several top-rank pros who are also captured on tape.
"It's a great, year-round learning aide," Portfilio says. "I see greater improvement in the off-season indoors on the machine."
The Golf Range and Recreation Report recently named Miles of Golf one of the top 100 pro shops/practice centers in the country. And 1998 will be the first full year of the shop's most innovative program _ a members-only practice area.
Called "The Players Club," the members-only range is an attempt to provide country club quality practice grounds in a golf-enthused community with few quality practice areas.
"Once you leave the country clubs it's difficult to find a good place to practice around here," says Miles Vice President Doug Davis. "We're trying to cater to the public, pay-to-play player."
For $185, Players Club members get $110 worth of range balls and exclusive use of grass teeing areas and a short game center. Matted teeing areas and an expansive pro shop remain open to the general public. Players Club membership also includes free weekly clinics by teaching pros who cover all aspects of the game.
This is the place if you just want a beautiful spot to act like Ben Hogan and hit golf balls until you bleed.
HawksHead, a two-year-old Arthur Hills design, is a beautiful links which specifically tests driving accuracy, short and long sand play, and putting. Players can fine-tune all of those fundamentals on HawksHead's sprawling practice facility, which includes a large, undulating putting green, a well-bunkered practice green, and a manicured range with several target greens.
Out-of-the-way South Haven is a tourist town and the downtown shops are much more crowded than the range at HawksHead. A player will very rarely feel crowded while hitting balls here.
"It's a big expense for us," says owner Al Ruppert. "But as a player, you know what ticks me off more than anything? Going to a range where I have to hit off a mat or a grass tee area that doesn't have any grass."
WUSKOWHAN, WEST OLIVE
Recently honored by Golf Digest as the 1997 Best Private Golf Course in the U.S., Wushowhan also is a ball-beater's eden. Designed by Rick Smith, Wushowhan possesses an ample putting green, a fine primary practice range with target greens, a secluded practice tee for lessons, and the coup de' grace: an exquisite short game area. The short game area allows a player to work on virtually every short shot one might encounter on the course: chip, pitch and sand shot.
Large enough to accommodate several players, the area's centerpiece is a practice green encircled by immaculately cared for turf. " I love this area; you can lose yourself in your game," said member Tim Moore.
John Bebow is managing editor of Michigan Live, a statewide news and entertainment service on the Internet. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
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