I, for example, lose sleep over the situation outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, where two driving ranges, no more than a mile apart on Highway 333, compete for a very finite customer base. The Goodwood Family Golf Center, the spiffier of the two, faces east on an appealing tree-lined site. The west-facing Halifax Golf Center, by way of contrast, rubs against gritty work-yards filled with chemical tanks and stacked lumber.
I was in the Goodwood shop on a Saturday morning, talking with owner Barry MacDonald, when a woman came in to buy a gift certificate for her husband. She looked as comfortable as a kindergarten teacher at a gun show. She said, "People are content to just stand there and hit those golf balls, are they?"
MacDonald chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't say that they're content."
MacDonald is 53. He was a barber and then a fireman before he took up golf a decade ago. "I got hooked on the game," he told me, "and stupid entrepreneur that I am, I decided to start a range with a fellow fireman." The partner split after three years, but MacDonald soldiers on with the help of his wife, who moonlights as a bank clerk; his daughter, Candace; and golf pro Kevin Reid, a former Mountie. During the golf season MacDonald works 14-to 16-hour days, seven days a week. He picks balls, he mows the range, and when the season ends around Nov. 1, he starts right in on equipment repairs and maintenance. "I'm like a lobster fisherman in the Maritimes," he said. "I spend the winter preparing for the season."
I asked about the range down the road, and MacDonald answered with a tale that sounded like an episode of Northern Exposure. He said he and his partner had bought their land in 1992, but the bank needed time to act on their application for a $40,000 business loan—like, two years. The partners cleared the property and put up a sign that read GOODWOOD FAMILY GOLF CENTER. Without warning, a wealthy contractor launched a preemptive strike, opening a range on acreage he owned in the industrial district. Just to draw the line more clearly, the rich guy opened a bar in his shop. "That's something I don't believe in," MacDonald said. So this formerly golf-free stretch of highway suddenly had two driving ranges: MacDonald's family-oriented facility (flowers in window boxes, soft drinks in the fridge, Dudley Do-Right on the lesson tee) and the contractor's place (pool cues on the wall, bikers on the tee line, Snidely Whiplash behind the register).
Two years ago, the Halifax Golf Center went out of business and Goodwood seemed to have won. But when spring rolled around a new owner, Jae Hang Kim, took over, prolonging the struggle. MacDonald had to consider the possibility that a disciplined Korean businessman might put in the long hours necessary to compete in a range war. "The hours are a killer in this business," MacDonald said.
Goodwood is a delightful driving range and MacDonald is an amiable, hardworking man, so I pledged that I would give him my business whenever I am in Nova Scotia—which is, more or less, never. I then drove down the road to meet Kim. I found him in his shop moving boxes, a gray-haired man of 60 with searching eyes.
Kim's story was familiar. He, like MacDonald, had decided to pursue golf as a kind of exit strategy, in his case from a career as a chemist. He, too, was putting in long hours—in at 7:30 a.m., out at 9 p.m.—and like MacDonald he was getting help from his wife. (Kim's son, a dental student at New York University, planned to work at the range between terms. Kim's other child, a daughter, is a doctor.) "I don't think that I can make any money this year," Kim admitted. "I have to spend more to make the place better."
Moved by his obvious sincerity and his love for the game, I promised Kim that I would give him my business whenever I was in Nova Scotia.
Your range rat is on a quest. He's Ronald Coleman in Lost Horizon, looking for Shangri-La. He's Diogenes with his lantern, Don Quixote with his impossible dream. The range rat knows there is one perfect place to practice, and he will find it: El Dorado Driving Range. Holy Grail Hit 'n' Sit. The tees will be sod cut from Augusta National's fairways. The balls will be Titleists, right out of the sleeve. The target green will resemble the 16th at Cypress Point, with pounding surf and sea lions.