Perfecting the practice range
The new state-of-the-art practice facility at TPC Sawgrass reflects the recent trend of upscale ranges
May 12, 2017
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- May 12, 2017
- An overview look of the practice facility at TPC Sawgrass. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When Sean Foley reported to work this week, the well-known golf instructor looked around his new office at TPC Sawgrass and nodded approvingly.
“This is it,” he said. “This is the one.”
Some long for office views of the New York skyline or the California coast. But give Foley a wide, expansive practice range with great turf, shifting winds and distinct targets, then toss in bells and whistles such as a short-game area where his players can practice on uneven lies, and ... well, no wonder he was a happy man after arriving to start his duties for THE PLAYERS Championship.
“You always wonder how you can bring the range to the course,” said Foley, who coaches Justin Rose among others. “Well, you can here. They’ve done a great job.”
Perhaps less heralded than the changes made to THE PLAYERS Stadium Course – though equally appreciated by players – were the improvements made to the TPC Sawgrass practice range. From putting down new grass to re-doing the back of the range to including a short-game area where you can practice all those shots from funky lies that will face you on the course, the practice range was widely praised by competitors.
“Incredible,” Matt Kuchar said. “It’s as good as we’ve got.”
Todd Anderson, the acclaimed golf instructor, was lured from Sea Island, Georgia, to become the director of instruction at the TPC Sawgrass Performance Center. Right after THE PLAYERS concludes, TPC Sawgrass will officially open a two-story, state-of-the-art teaching facility, but the range has been up and running for weeks.
“They did a really good job. It is in perfect condition and you can create at the range what you want to work on to prepare for the golf course,” Anderson said.
Indeed, the additions made to the facility should prove beneficial to pros this week. There are now real USGA greens that allow players to see how their golf balls will react when they land. White sand bunkers and trees break up the expanse of flat green grass and help players better envision shots by creating targets and fairways. The back end of the range has an area with small humps and bumps so players can practice from uneven lies, and also provides small wedge targets.
Oh, and if you’re nervous about playing one of golf’s most iconic holes, the new practice facility could put some of those fears to rest. There’s a bulkheaded green approximately 130 yards from the tee area that simulates the look of the par-3 17th.
One of the many PGA TOUR members who lives in the North Florida area and makes the TPC Sawgrass practice range his second home, Jonas Blixt didn’t hesitate last year when TOUR officials asked him for input.
“I said I wouldn’t mind some trees (for shade) at the back of the range,” the Swede said, “and some uneven lies for the quirky short shots that you have here.”
You ask and you shall receive, at least with the TOUR being committed to constantly improving its signature event.
Certainly, it reinforces the notion that when it comes to practice ranges, there have been enormous strides made from the days of yesteryear. You know that by just listening to the stories.
There was a time when you had to caddie on the course and at the range. “It was bad enough that you had to carry an enormously heavy golf bag,” Billy Harmon said, “but at some places like Westchester (Country Club), we used to have to shag balls so our player could warm up.”
Not ideal, but Harmon figures that Bob Goalby had it rougher years earlier. “He had a late fourth-round tee time one year at the Masters. He might have been leading,” Harmon recalled. “He was one of the last players to get to the range and after he hit a few balls, they told him they had to close the range to park cars.”
Harmon laughed, recalling how Goalby got to hit one driver “up and over Magnolia Lane.”
Players today would shudder to think of a pre-round practice session with just one swing of the driver. Imagine, then, if they had to pay for their practice balls, which used to be the norm.
“I played in the 1979 Byron Nelson and I paid $5 for range balls,” said Jimmy Johnson, a caddie for Justin Thomas these days, but a fledgling TOUR player back then. “Hardly anyone practiced, because it could get expensive.”
Blixt got a chuckle out of that. Were that still the rule, he figures “it would probably be a million dollars” for all the balls he’s hit at TPC Sawgrass.
Funny, yes, but on a serious note, it reflects the diligence to which TOUR members are committed when it comes to practice ranges. “You are constantly trying to get better,” said Blixt, and he noted that other TOUR venues are matching that with the weekly practice ranges.
In another era, it wasn’t that way -- as Billy Andrade, a four-time winner who broke onto the PGA TOUR in 1988, can surely attest. Recalling cozy quarters on the range at Riviera, Andrade said he and Willie Wood were able “to play home run derby” as they attempted to get it up and over the net.
Olin Browne, on more than one occasion, had to wait for a spot to open up at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut. “[There were] maybe 15-20 spots for guys to hit,” he said, “and when the ball started going farther, people playing the 17th hole started getting shelled.”
But Andrade and Browne understood the tight quarters. Each of them had played many of the classical courses in New England that had been built at a time when practicing wasn’t part of the golf culture.
“I understood that courses back then didn’t have practice areas, and as a result I don’t think a lot of pros from that generation were of a practice mindset,” Andrade said. “They practiced on the course.”
Even if courses did have a range, the sizes were varied – and sometimes limiting. Kuchar remembers his first big-time national tournament, the Northeast Amateur, played at Wannamoisett Country Club in Rhode Island. He was surprised upon seeing the range for the first time. “You could only hit irons,” he laughed.
Wannamoisett just happens to be one of Andrade’s favorite hometown courses, so he was used to a tight range. That made it easier when he played at Las Vegas Country Club, one of the venues for the old Las Vegas Invitational. “You could only hit irons there, too,” Andrade said.
Ah, but from the That Was Then, This Is Now Department, great attention is paid to practice ranges now.
“We have it very good out here,” Kuchar said. “So many great tournaments, so many great ranges.”
TPC River Highlands would be a shining example. Once one of the PGA TOUR’s smallest ranges, it was renovated and enlarged to 23 acres, including a 10,000-square foot putting green, a 13,000-square foot chipping green and 110,000-square feet of tees. When it was unveiled in June of 2008, the new practice facility was the second largest among all TOUR venues behind TPC Sawgrass.
At the TOUR's home course, the practice range already was a large and quality facility. Still, TOUR officials insisted on making it better. It’s showcase stuff, for sure, and one that speaks to the modern-day landscape where practicing appeals to golfers of all levels.
“I think people desire improvement, pros and amateurs,” Anderson said. “If you provide them with good balls, good turf, good targets, they get enjoyment.”
Kuchar concurs. Casting his gaze out over a wide expanse of green grass and flagsticks blowing in the wind, the winner of THE PLAYERS Championship in 2012 pointed out the best indication of a quality practice range.
“You see guys hanging around, guys you wouldn’t normally see here this late working and practicing,” Kuchar said. “It’s that good.”