Placed on tees by an unseen, automated machine, the white balls pop up through small openings in the green practice mats, their dimpled surfaces a study of shadows under the stadium lighting. A chorus of whoosh-thwack echoes through Haggin Oaks’ driving range, where a handful of night owls and a security guard occupy the largely desolate facility.
Golf balls soar (and slice) into the open field where they are swallowed by 3 a.m. summer darkness.
A few loud hackers huddle on one end of the range; two construction workers inhabit the other, with Sengkeo Luangrath of Natomas in a nearby stall. Laungrath, 43, is tinkering with a knockoff Callaway he purchased at a yard sale. The clubs shows its experience through its dings and scuff marks.
He hunches over the ball, swings and sends it right. He observes its flight for a few seconds and then sighs before lining up on the next ball.
As a truck driver, Laungrath works unconventional hours. He said he’s been golfing for 10 years and hits the range during the early morning hours a couple of times a week.
“It’s convenient for me because it’s (open) 24 hours,” he explained.
While it’s not unusual for driving ranges to operate after dark, staying open around the clock is more of a rarity. The range at Haggin Oaks (3645 Fulton Ave., Sacramento) embraces Denny’s-like hours May through September, closing only on Tuesdays from 3-8 a.m.
The warm nights draw an eclectic mix of golfers, with skills ranging from duffer to pro. Reasons for attending during off-hours vary. Many are there because of windows in work schedules. Others find the relative solitude helpful in enhancing focus and improving swings. Still others find nocturnal golfing a better pastime than counting sheep when insomnia strikes.
The range’s relative affordability adds to its diverse clientele – a bucket of 40 balls costs $5; 64 balls cost $8; 100 balls are $11.
Haggin Oaks added lights for late-night golfers in the late ’80s. However, the staff still was turning people away at closing time, so the owners decided to keep it open 24/7, said Mike Woods, director of golf at the complex.
On a recent day, Woods, who has worked at Haggin Oaks since 1996, sits at his desk surrounded by papers and group photos. A window to his right overlooks the vibrant practice green and golf course.
The course was buzzing.
By day, there’s essentially a fixed number of golfers who warm up on the range, work on their game and play on the course, Woods said.
But during the summer, a spike in evening activity brings in more revenue to the driving range.
“You think of golf as a daytime, morning activity,” Woods said. “But when that sun goes down … our prime time starts.”
The range is busiest from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., he said, but there are people practicing their swing at every hour, which comes as a surprise to some – including burglars.
A few years ago, there were about 20 customers at the range at about 2 a.m., Woods said. Four of them were police officers who had just finished a shift.
“It’s pretty common for law enforcement to come out and just unwind,” Woods said.
Glass shattered and an alarm sounded. Someone was breaking into the Player Performance Studio that sits at the end of the range.
The officers responded and caught the burglars, who were attempting to steal clubs.
“It’s very fortunate on our part that that’s who was hitting range balls,” Woods said. “It was pretty amazing, and I think the criminals felt pretty stupid at the end of the day.”
In addition to off-duty officers, doctors also are known to populate the range.
“When you come out here at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, we’ve got a really wild group of people who are hitting range balls,” Woods said. “You have, certainly, some people who work really different, unconventional hours who like to hit range balls before they go to work or after work.”
Daniel Awe, 28, drives with his wife from El Dorado Hills to practice late nights because it’s one of the few places where he can work his magic.
At the range, Awe, who is a long drive competitor, pulls one of the many drivers from his bag and starts pounding range balls into the darkness.
“This is officially the only place I can practice because other places I get kicked out,” Awe said.
Awe said his drives average more than 400 yards (depending on conditions) and can reach the other side of the range where other golfers practice during the day.
Awe works as a golf instructor at Cold Springs Golf Club in Placerville. But at night, he returns to his usual stall at Haggin Oaks. On this July evening, he was preparing for the regional finals of Long Drivers of America in Orting, Wash.
A few hours later, Erin Hill, 38, has the range to himself.
Hill, a range attendant, walks into the field littered with balls and bats the outliers toward the center of the range.
His earbuds tune out “Waterfalls” by TLC being played on the loudspeakers, filling his ears instead with rhythm-and-blues artist Maxwell.
Hill incorporates swinging practice into his work by hitting balls to a certain part of the range; he’ll later pick them up with his cart.
“They somewhat encourage it out here,” Hill said.
Around 10 p.m., the range starts to transition from more accomplished golfers to recreational players, he explained.
“During the day is when the real golfers come out,” Hill said.
College students and new golfers who don’t want their game seen by the light of day are part of the early-hours crowd, Wood said. Many are just looking for something else to do with their night, other than watching a movie.
“We certainly get a few people when the bars close down (who are) extending their night,” Woods said. “It’s always a very unique group at those odd hours who are out here.”