Ball hunting season and scooping away. Bill Van Smith

A Range Of Reactions Some golfers love the driving range and some never visit. Where do you stand?

There are two ways to get ready for your friendly, trash-talking weekend golf showdown among buddies and friends before teeing off.

First, you can take your bag and head seriously to the driving range to warm up, carefully hammering away at ball after ball with anything from a driver to a pitching wedge. OK, right at the start, let’s be real and admit the only thing most of you generally hit on the driving range is the driver.

Why? In golf, distance is both a concept, a goal and, mainly, a hope.

There’s a completely opposite preparation. You ignore the range and seemingly, without a care in the world, walk up to the first tee, take a few fake and lackadaisical practice swings and then step up, stick a tee in the ground and whack away.

So, that brings us to the subject of this story – the driving range itself. To use or not to use, that is the question.

Early hint: We are not going to give you a definitive answer.

Recently, we visited one of Miami-Dade’s top-tier driving ranges at Palmetto Golf Course in southern Miami.

There are 22 hitting stalls, teaching pros are doing their “instructing thing” most of the day, and the range itself – covered by some 3,000 yellow balls scattered about and stamped with the word RANGE on them – is in full business. People from 5 to 85 years old converge on the Palmetto driving range in hopes of honing their game.

Admittedly, the range is not as picturesque as the course itself.

That’s normal for a driving range. Not many flowers and trees, but on the plus side the Palmetto range is lighted and open until 9 p.m. At least you can launch a ball on the range and see where it went, while on the course itself you will be sending that ball into the never-never land of darkness.

The range at Palmetto is fully enclosed by netting and fencing. The sign at the end of the range reads 220 yards, so a few balls do clear the fence and escape to a better life where they hopefully are not taking a pounding all the time.

One person particularly fond of the Palmetto driving range is Tom Gibson, age 64. Gibson – official title is “Clubhouse Manager” – is the main person in charge of the course and the running of just about everything at Palmetto.

Tom Gibson scoops up balls galore. (Bill Van Smith)

As is the case at nearly most courses these days, the “main guy” does just about everything and anything – working the register behind the pro shop counter, keeping track of proper maintenance, increasing membership, holding tournaments, making sure the greens are smooth and fast, filling in divots, etc., etc., etc. Too much to do in too little time. And, to alter a Shakespeare phrase, “It’s much ado about everything.”

Gibson knows Palmetto well. He was born and grew up in Miami, going to South Dade High School. As a kid during those years and forever since he has often played and enjoyed the course that he now manages. Gibson knows every crook and cranny of the Palmetto course, and that includes the driving range.

Gibson is particularly fond of the driving range at Palmetto for many reasons. One is that he can shut his eyes and see himself as a kid playing the course, and also hitting golf balls on the range there.

“You have to start on the range to get started in golf,” Gibson said. “You have to develop skills off hitting on the driving range. Golf is a hard game. It takes practice.”

These days, Gibson seemingly even enjoys driving “The Monster.” That is the vehicle that picks up those approximately 3,000 balls that people hit onto the driving range turf each day.

The Monster looks like a vehicle that belongs in a robotic competition, or, to take it one step further, it might even belong in a Monster Truck extravaganza. It is basically an oversized, gasoline-powered golf cart rigged with a cylindrical apparatus in front that scoops up balls and deposits them in a holding area.

Why not send an army of people to pick up balls? There would be a ton of bad backs and the chiropractic bill would be huge. Long live “The Monster.”

Because of the pandemic, Gibson said all workers at the course have volunteered to clear balls off the driving range by driving “The Monster.”

“When you are driving the cart picking up balls, you are completely protected and safe,” Gibson assured, referring to the steel mesh that surrounds the driver. “What many people know, and it’s true, that the people hitting balls aim for the cart as it crisscrosses the driving range.

“Even though the person driving the cart is completely safe, believe me, when a ball hits the cart, that is a sound you will never forget. I sure won’t.”

Here are some other little-known facts about the Palmetto driving range, and they are similar to many other driving ranges throughout South Florida.

  • Driving ranges are a strong revenue producer. Gibson estimates that the range at Palmetto brings in about “a quarter of a million dollars a year.”
  • How expensive is it to use the range? A 30-count bucket of balls costs $4.50 at Palmetto, and a 60-count bucket costs $8.
  • You get the golf balls right behind the range. You put down a bucket, insert your payment, and the machine shoots out the correct number of balls. Interesting fact: The dispensing machine can hold 10,000 balls.
  • Ball manufacturers provide the range balls at a price to the course. Palmetto uses Wilsons.
  • The range can build friendships. “People are in the stalls next to each other and they talk,” Gibson said. “They get to know each other. It’s a social thing.”
  • Some people are totally driving range golfers. “That is all they want to do and they do not want to necessarily play the course,” Gibson said. “I have one person who shows up at the driving range seven days a week. That’s what he likes to do.”

So, bottom line, should you use a driving range? Well, that’s up to you. Our final conclusion:
Whether you use the driving range or not before taking on your friends in golf combat, that is up to you.

Sure, it might help groove your swing before starting and loosen some muscles up. Others might argue you’re taking things too seriously and need to stay loose – physically and mentally.

No matter, have a good round.

Guilty As Charged

I am one of those people who ignores the range and goes to the first tee, takes a few faux swings and likes to get to the nitty-gritty of the 18 holes ahead. I want to get to the fun and games and beauty of a course as soon as I can. Don’t want to work at the game getting ready, so no driving range for me.

Golf is fun, not work.

That said, the best golf advice I ever received came on a driving range nearly a decade ago. Lee Trevino, one of many legends playing in a charity event at the famed Floridian Course in Martin County, walked up to the driving range and went up and down talking to his fellow golfers – actually, legends. Trevino, in his typical joking fashion, told Arnold Palmer he was getting old and wrinkly. He then moved over to Jack Nicklaus and said, “Hey, Jack. You’ve put on more weight, guy. Then he walked up to Gary Player and told him he was still short.

At that point, Trevino moved to his spot on the range and 15 or 20 people gathered behind him to watch him hit. Trevino hit a few balls and then turned to address the people watching him. He dramatically dropped a ball into the grass.

“Look, folks, golf is a gosh-darn easy game,” he bellowed. “Look at that golf ball just sitting there. It’s not even moving. It’s just sitting there. It’s waiting for you to do something to it. So, just do it.” – BVS

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