Home on the Range

 

When I was in the medical sales business I had a lot of downtime to find a golf range and work on my swing.  As my territory encompassed all of Canada I was able to visit a wide variety of facilities. Through the years I’ve come to two conclusions; all of that practice didn’t help much, and driving range owners are strange people with issues far greater than an over the top swing.

But each range has its own flavour, from the free coffee and donuts I enjoyed at the facility near Vancouver airport to the 120 hitting stations in a three storey stadium range with 25 golf teachers overlooking an underpass in New Jersey.  And deer munching away at the 200 yard markers at an old range in Pickering.  There used to be a range in cottage country that let you bring your own golf balls.  Hard hats were also available free of charge. The owner obviously wanted to offer his patrons a virtual minefield experience.

What can really add flavour to a golf range are the idiosyncrasies of the range owner.  For a while I taught at a range owned by a lonely soul with obvious issues who could only be described as, sorry to borrow a phrase from one of my favourite TV shows, a golf range Nazi. If any of her long list of rules were broken it was “no golf for you…ever.” No children under 12, no tank tops, gym shorts, sharing of balls, profanity, walking a foot over the line to pick up balls or tees.

One of the worst days of my life occured when I gave a lesson to a 10-year old girl who broke one of the sacred commandments and walked onto the field to pick up a ball. The range Nazi galloped over to me in seconds and the lesson ended abruptly. I was called into the office to face the board of inquiry (she and her co-managing sister) and had to plead my case for being allowed to stay on and teach.

In some ways she wasn’t as obsessive as the owner of a golf centre in upper New York State who insisted you pass a playing test in order to use the grass tees. If you are unknown and don’t have an official handicap index card on your person, ‘Carl’ will have you hit a ball or two to determine whether you can play on his pristine Augusta like grass or be relegated to the lowly mat. Your divots have to be neat, orderly, and no more than a quarter inch in depth, Vijay Singh like in design. When Carl isn’t asking for playing permits you will find him at the far end of the range with his rifle shooting quail and other small critters 300 yards out. No patron dared question Carl’s motives.

If you travel to the outskirts of Calgary you will find a real life Tin Cup. A very friendly guy with hands of steel, his ‘golf centre’ sits on a gravel pit the likes of which Neil Armstrong has never set foot on.  (Except perhaps a certain range in the downtown Toronto area).  His office is a small 60’s style gray trailer with a garbage pail containing clubs from Old Tom Morris’ golf shop.  For two hours one afternoon I was his only guest as he kept filling me up with free beers from his cooler while we both tried outdoing each  shooting at old cars and tires in the field. Twenty years later I am still envious of his lifestyle.

It seems that no matter what age we are the game of ‘who can hit the tractor’ remains an international favourite. At one particular GTA range you wouldn’t dare.  The short tempered retired Irish owner who loves driving his rusting, held-together-with duct tape 100 year old picker will charge you with that tractor as if it were a Humvee in Afghanistan attacking the enemy through a cement compound.  Once when a ball rocketed off his tire, the energetic 75-year old got out in the middle of the field amidst a barrage of balls and stormed the poor 16-year old kid who got him.  I heard the kid has since given up golf.  And I’ve never seen a 75-year old in such fantastic shape.

Ranges love golf teachers. Teachers are good for business. They get a cut from each lesson and students buy additional buckets and practice frequently. For some reason one particular owner where I taught had a hate on for teachers. He would give his weekly ‘sermon on the mount’ speech to the five of us about the immorality and fraudulent ways of the entire teaching profession that included the Jacobs brothers, all of the Harmons and Mr. Penick.

His disdain was underlined by the manual he wrote for his teachers.  Twenty pages of rules that included minimum buckets to be purchased weekly, the length of a lesson, fixing of turf following each lesson, and absolutely no discounts on balls. I think that his being around golf for forty plus years and being lousy at it irritated him to no end. The day when I had had enough and was leaving the parking lot for the last time I saw him on the range topping ball after ball. My last shout from the car window still puts a smile on my face; “Why don’t you take a f…g lesson!

My favourite range owner was an eccentric and refined gentleman of nobility and his barn was the pro shop. One fine sunny morning I was looking for him and walked into a half open door in the back of the barn only to find him and a beautiful woman half his age lying on a straw bed in their birthday suits. As I made my apologies and headed for the door, she politely asked if I wanted to join them for a drink. Sorry the story ends here.

It’s rumoured that dentists live in dark places but it seems many golf range proprietors have their own mysterious existence. Could it be the continuous sounds of topped and chunked shots for hours and days on end gnawing at their brain? Perhaps it’s the daily fear of an audit from Revenue Canada.  No matter, the next time you visit a small town, stop at the local driving range. You might come away with some interesting stories of your own to tell.

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