Your range rat is a man with a past. He's Bogie—no I pun intended—bent over a bottle of bourbon in the dark of Rick's Caf�. He's James Stewart in Vertigo, tailing a beautiful woman through the streets of San Francisco because she reminds him of a lost love. Your range rat can be charming, even debonair, but golf has made him cynical. Like Sean Connery in a Bond flick, he has wakened too many times with a dead blonde sharing his pillow.
I speak from experience. For more than a decade I have haunted driving ranges from Minneapolis to Miyazaki, searching for a lost golf swing. I have hit balls off carpet squares, vinyl strips and gravel. I have hit off moldy mats into a night rain and watched the ball vanish above the lights and reappear as a splash in black water. I have aimed at trees, tractors, trampolines, yardage signs, fire trucks, bull's-eyes, pinball pods, rainbows and rafts. I have watched low-compression pitch-and-putt balls swoop and dart like June bugs in the floodlights. I have hit balls from wire buckets, drawstring bags and plastic paint cans. I have pushed computer cards into slots and watched balls pop up from underground. I have picked the gleaming white fruit of those elegant ball pyramids at golf schools and resorts.
Being a range rat is an interesting life, but it changes a man. Some years ago I was hitting balls at 2 a.m. at the Randalls Island Golf Range in New York City, when the cry of a baby distracted me. Turning around, I discovered that a Korean family had taken over a nearby bench. The mother was juggling baby bottles and blankets. A preschool girl slept on her grandmother's lap. Between shots, the father—who looked like a middle manager for Samsung—turned to his family and spoke in Korean. The women shook their heads vigorously and used their hands to show that his club face was closed on the takeaway.
A man wearing a sweatshirt and a ball cap walked up with two wire buckets of balls and took the station to my immediate right. The new arrival and I practiced for a while in silence, until he accidentally kicked over one of the buckets, sending balls bouncing down the concrete sidewalk behind the tee line. "Stop!" he yelled at the runaway balls. He turned to me and said, "I can hit O.K. when I'm a little buzzed. How about you?"
He then told me the story of his life. He was 39, married and childless. He loaded trucks for a living and drank beer most nights at a lounge. He said he had been playing golf for two years and, oh, yeah, he hoped someday to play on the Senior tour. "I don't hit it as good as Nicklaus and those guys," he said unnecessarily, "but I used to hustle pool, so maybe I can hustle golf."
He had a 7 o'clock tee time, and that's why he had come to Randalls Island when the bar closed instead of going home. He said, "I could use a few hours sleep, but when my head hits the pillow, I'm gone." He coughed. "Watch this. I can make the ball suck back like Greg Norman." He made a short, choppy swing and hit an ugly knuckleball that flew about 100 yards and hopped down the range like a jackrabbit. He shook his head and said, "Sometimes that's a hard sonofabitch to hit."
That's why I say the driving range life changes a man. You start as a kid, swinging so hard with a cut-down five-iron that you stagger off the mat. You celebrate adolescence by taking your girl to the range and showing her how to hold the club while smart guys yell "Fore!" from passing cars. Before you know it, you're a character in a campy poster, smacking balls at the towers of the Triborough Bridge in the wee hours with James Dean on the mat behind you and Marilyn Monroe just up the tee line hitting soft wedges to the 50-yard sign.
Your range rat is afraid of commitment. He's John Cusack in High Fidelity, tallying the women who have left him. He's Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Your range rat loves driving ranges, but he knows it's dangerous to invest too much emotion in any particular range. The two formative ranges of my youth in Kansas City—Smiley Bell's and Sam Snead's—gave way decades ago to a television studio and tract housing, respectively. (Range balls, oddly enough, linger for years, transmigrating through the soil by a process understood only by geologists. When bulldozers plowed up Smiley Bell's in 1969, old golf balls were found to a depth of eight feet.)
In Ireland this July I found the Ennis Driving Range padlocked and shuttered. In downtown San Diego, in August, I spied the high nets of a range from the window of my harborside hotel. When I drove to the site, I found a closed range overrun with weeds and trash. Even the Wall Street Journal keeps track of driving range morbidity. In May, Family Golf Centers, Inc., which operated 111 golf centers and 19 skating rinks in 23 states and three Canadian provinces, filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Law. Among the Family Golf assets were 21 Golden Bear Driving Ranges, operated under license from Jack Nicklaus's Golden Bear Golf, Inc.
This bleak picture notwithstanding, driving ranges are thriving. A National Golf Foundation study found that range rats spent $722 million for balls at stand-alone ranges in 1999, up more than 50% from 1994. The number of tee stations climbed 16% in the same period, to 73,158; the number of customers rose by 56% to 17.8 million; and the number of range visits jumped from 71 million to 96 million. "Practice has never been so popular," writes NBC golf analyst Roger Maltbie, co-author of the book Range Rats. "The culture is growing like some giant sci-fi creature oozing up out of the ground. It's Range Ratzilla!" A trade publication calls ranges "the golden child of golf."