It's just that driving ranges have remained unalterably small-time, defying the standardization and consolidation of other businesses. "There's a reason why only 12 percent of ranges are part of multisite operations," says Mark Silverman, editor of Golf Range magazine. "The minute you have to start paying other people to run the property, a lot of the money goes out the door in overhead."
The Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway of Laurel, Md., is one of my favorite ranges, and it is successful because its owners understand that range rats don't care about corporate balance sheets and economies of scale. "I'm the only corporate structure here," says co-owner Gus Novotny. "It's a mom-and-pop business."
Novotny is a legend. He was the first range operator to offer heated stalls to golfers. He was the first to design a mechanical ball conveyor to deliver washed golf balls to the shop. He was, and is, the only range operator to walk the aisles of the annual PGA Merchandise Show wearing a black bowler. That's why I made a special trip to Rocky Gorge—to talk to Gus and to take a shot at his junked car.
First the car. It's parked about 160 yards from the double-deck tee line, a battered '94 Dodge with a giant bull's-eye painted on it. Hitting from a mat on a crisp weekday morning, I launched seven-irons at the car, wondering what a direct hit would sound like. (I am sadly familiar with the sounds that a golf ball makes when it strikes stucco, tile, aluminum siding, brick, concrete, wood decking and various items of lawn furniture, but I had never hit a car.) "We had a green out there," Novotny said, watching me take a few swings, "but if you hit the flag, you didn't hear anything."
So in 1978 Gus parked his '73 Olds convertible on the hillside and invited customers to rain on his parade. The new target was an instant success, and now Gus has to change the car every year. "Newer cars aren't as good as the old ones because there's too much plastic in them," he told me. "You need a '70s car to get that good old clank sound when it hits, instead of a thud." I finally planted one squarely on the driver's side door and was rewarded with the resonant peal of surlyn on sheet metal. "Bingo!" he said.
Novotny is semiretired at 63, but his mark is everywhere at Rocky Gorge. He designed the tractor-drawn baseball/softball picker. It was his idea to build the world's longest miniature golf hole, a downhill, 185-foot par-2. The animatronic figures and the benches? Gus again.
Rocky Gorge used to be a farm. Novotny and a partner leased the land back in 1964, when Gus had to decide whether he would be an industrial engineer (he has an engineering degree from Maryland) or a golf pro. "I thought this would be the ideal business," he said. "Open in the summer, off in the winter." He laughed. "I found out you have to be open in the winter and on rainy days too. You have to start at 6 a.m. and work until 1 a.m."
During his first five years, Gus had no income from the range, getting by only by teaching at a technical high school in a rough area of Washington, D.C. Now he has 23 employees, 13 of them full-time, and he boasts that he pays 100% of their benefits. "There will always be Chevrolet, apple pie and driving ranges," he told me, "but to make a living at it you have to love golf, and you have to give up your life."
Your range rat is a wanderer, an adventurer. He's Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, wooing a beautiful schoolteacher while Chiang Kai-shek's soldiers riot on the Yangtze. He's Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, drinking from the container labeled DRINK ME.
I was driving a desolate stretch of California 371 between Temecula and Palm Desert. The late afternoon sun hit a peeling wooden sign by a ranch gate, and I caught the words...LF RANGE. I didn't hit the brakes until I was a quarter mile down the road. Making a U-turn, I drove back to the gate and turned in at the sign, which read, L C VENTURES GOLF RANGE. No range was visible, but a gravel road ran down the fence line. I followed it, raising a plume of dust. A few hundred yards later, the road turned left into a cluster of sheds and mobile homes. I parked the car between a pickup truck and some rusty barrels and stared out the windshield. A field of prairie grass climbed to the south, bisected by a row of decrepit yardage signs. Unpainted and cracked tee markers pointed up the hill toward a small cinder-block house.