There has always been something mysteriously alluring about parallel 300-yard strips of 50-foot-tall nets off in the distance, rising from a suburban concrete jungle or barren patch of earth where there couldn’t possibly be a golf course.
Maybe it’s the thought of golf without consequences. Where the sensation of club meeting ball is all that matters. Where mishit shots can be justified as a means to an end. Where nobody has to know your name, nobody judges you and there is no scorecard. Where you don’t need a tee time and can stay 15 minutes or five hours.
Where it’s just you and a bucket of balls.
Standalone driving ranges used to dot the Sacramento region. Some had familiar names: Sheld on Golf Center and Granite Drive. Most were known by their location: That one on West El Camino or that one off 65th near Sac State or that one at the Roseville fairgrounds.
Four remain: Leader in North Sacramento, Vineyard in South Sacramento, Home on the Range in Newcastle and The Ranch in Davis.
The men behind the mats
▪ While so many others are folding, Ryan Chua is going all in. He bought a half interest in Leader Golf Complex two years ago and has been the driving force behind a name change from Natomas Golf Center and upgrades that make it a pleasant oasis off Interstate 80 where golfers of all abilities not only want to practice but hang out.
If you’re looking to build a driving range to become rich, don’t do it. If you’re looking to nurture your passion for the game of golf and spread it to other people, 100 percent do it.
Phil Green, owner of Home on the Range
“We want to provide a more personal experience,” Chua said. “A place where people can relax and talk to friends – where golf partners are made.”
Leader is the area’s only standalone range to offer a quality turf putting green. It has a short-game practice area with bunkers. It has a grass hitting area, a covered hitting area and lights. It has club repair and lesson options.
It also has two fire pits, four 65-inch televisions, a putt-putt course for kids and loads of covered seating.
“We’re not trying to drive turnover,” Chua said. “We want people to stay.”
Chua, a 35-year-old graduate of Kennedy High School, is a golfer with an old soul. He has a romantic notion about the game that he’s trying to further through his driving range.
“The game of golf should be available to everybody,” he said.
▪ Phil Green had a vision and access to family property in 1992.
“I thought if I build myself a practice facility and work on my game, I can make it to the PGA Tour,” he said. “My vision was distorted.”
Green’s game didn’t elevate to touring pro status, but his story has a happy ending. He has owned and operated Home on the Range Golf Instruction and Practice Range, its nets visible from I-80 in Newcastle, since it opened. It was recognized in 2015 by Golf Range Association of America as among the top 50 in the country.
“It’s been an incredible 25 years,” Green said. “I really couldn’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing. I’ve probably given 5,000 lessons in the past 12 months, counting groups.”
Green, 49, is a PGA Class A professional and his range is a haven for junior camps and instruction. He grew up in Penryn, graduated from Del Oro High and has been a pillar in the golf community.
A lack of grass-hitting areas was the impetus to build his range. Ironically, Home on the Range’s practice green is synthetic with lines drawn on it, which he said better serves instruction.
“It’s fast, like what the guys faced at Oakmont,” Green said. “Quality wise, it’s a 5 out of 10. In teaching, it’s just huge.”
▪ Will Smith keeps a log with the names of his customers and the make and color of their car so when newbies return he can give them a personal greeting.
The notebook is filling up, but it took time. After Smith opened The Ranch on family farmland in Davis two years ago, there were 12-hour days when he sold two $5 buckets.
“It was a slow go for the first 18 months,” he said.
Think of Smith, a 37-year-old former pro golfer, as a left-handed Roy McAvoy. The Ranch, which sits on a 200-acre parcel owned by his mother amid alfalfa and tomato crops, is a cross between McAvoy’s West Texas range in “Tin Cup” and something out of “Field of Dreams.”
The sawed-off storage container that serves as Smith’s office sits between the gravel parking lot at the end of the gravel road that leads in from County Road 99 and 18 artificial hitting mats. The range isn’t fancy, but it’s nicely coiffed. An irrigation ditch – water feature, in golf terms – runs behind the hitting area and adds to a peaceful setting.
There are cutouts of sheep and chickens for targets, and an American flag at 300 yards, but no netting. Davis Muni, which has a driving range, is visible through the trees on the horizon.
“I wanted to provide a place where families could come in a low-key atmosphere and hit an affordable bucket of balls,” Smith said of his decision to build.
The bottom line
Standalone driving ranges are rarely intended to stay in business for the long haul.
Bill Ayres, a land specialist with CBRE who was involved in the sale of the parcels that once were home to Champions Golf Center and Granite Drive driving range, said that, best-case scenario, driving ranges are minimally profitable while the value of the property appreciates.
Land banking, he called it.
We want to provide a more personal experience. A place where people can relax and talk to friends. Where golf partners are made.
Ryan Chua, co-owner of Leader Golf Complex
“You hope you break even, and in 10 to 20 years the property is worth twice as much as you paid for it,” Ayres said.
Typically, driving ranges are close enough to population centers to be convenient, far enough away to have a buffer zone in which misguided balls aren’t problematic, and in the anticipated path of development.
After finding nobody to speak on behalf of Vineyard on multiple visits, a sign hung on the closed office door Monday that read: “Please pay after you finish. Be honest please.” A phone call was finally answered Tuesday.
With junk stacked everywhere, more holes in the bordering nets than net, Vineyard had the look of a placeholder.
In 2003, then-Vineyard owner Pat Burns speculated that home development would swallow the range within five years. Leader Golf Complex’s Chua predicted that his range would be gone in 10 years despite all the improvements and investment.
It remains to be seen what the impending opening of TopGolf, an interactive video-game driving range of sorts, in Roseville will have on business.
Said Home on the Range’s Green: “If you’re looking to build a driving range to become rich, don’t do it. If you’re looking to nurture your passion for the game of golf and spread it to other people, 100 percent do it.”
The final four
Home on the Range
- Address: 671 Newcastle Road, Newcastle
- Size: 7 acres
- Stalls: 38 (32 grass; six covered)
- Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
- Best value: Punch card for $115 (1,800 balls over 30 visits and a 30-minute lesson)
- Opened: 1992
Leader Golf Complex
- Address: 3060 El Centro Road, Sacramento
- Size: 10 acres
- Stalls: 35 (20 grass; 15 covered)
- Hours: 8 a.m.-2 a.m.
- Best value: $15 for 160 balls and four beverages (beer or soda) after 7 p.m.
- Opened: 2005
- Address: 25603 County Road 99, Davis
- Size: 6 acres
- Stalls: 18 (all artificial; none covered)
- Hours: 9 a.m.-dark; closed Mondays
- Best value: $5 for 105 balls (one yellow; hit it in a net and get a free bucket)
- Opened: 2014
- Address: 7311 Elk Grove Florin Road, Sacramento
- Stalls: 30 (10 grass; 10 covered)
- Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.