This Driving Range Has Everything, Including a Tree

From Associated Press

Howard Urban stands at one of the hitting stations in his driving range and points to a replica of the famous island green at the 17th hole of The Players Championship at Sawgrass.

Between the station and the green lies a obstacle familiar to many golfers, a tree.

"How many times do you get that shot over a tree when you're playing golf?" Urban asks. "How many times have you practiced it?"

It's impossible to practice that shot at just about any driving range--except Urban's Eagle Crest Golf Center.

Eagle Crest, carved out of 13 acres of forest 25 miles northeast of Buffalo, is to the average driving range as your average public course is to Pebble Beach.

"It's like buying a front row seat and buying one up in the balcony," Urban explains. "You're both at the same event, but you enjoy one a lot more than the other."

The 70 stations open into several simulated fairways lined with mature poplar, maple and elm trees. In addition to the island green, there are 10 other greens at distances ranging from 60 to 260 yards.

There are no fences, no nets and no ugly signs marking distances. This range has the feel of a golf course, not the field-like settings at most ranges.

"When a golf architect formulates a golf course, he tries to make it creative, challenging and exciting," Urban said. "Typically, when a range owner builds a driving range, they've never taken into consideration the things I just mentioned."

"They never talk about aesthetics, of giving you the effect that you're on a golf course," he said.

Urban, 57, said the idea came to him after years of frustrating visits to driving ranges.

"I always felt when I went to a driving range that I walked away feeling that I really didn't improve myself," he said. "I just proved to myself that I could hit the ball, but it didn't mean that it went straight. I didn't have any idea if I was trying to hit a target."

"What I wanted to do was create an effect of not only learning how to hit the ball long, but straight," Urban said. "And determine distances, using every club in your bag. (Different stations provide) a different view of the range."

Turning woodlands into a golfer's dream range wasn't easy or cheap. State-of-the-art lighting and a mile of underground drainage pipe were installed. The initial grass seeding didn't take and had to be redone.

"When you build something like this, there is no plan," Urban said. "Every tree you take down, you can't replace, so we had to be very selective in picking out the right trees to give us the right visual effect as far as a golf course is concerned."

Trish Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Golf Foundation, said Urban is breaking new ground in an business that is booming. An unofficial survey by the foundation listed about 800 stand-alone driving ranges in the United States in 1990. The figure is 963 now.

"Because of the scarcity of land and more people wanting to play and practice, driving ranges are gaining in popularity again," she said. "The trend is to more and more unique types of driving ranges."

Golfers at Eagle Crest were impressed, with most saying they'd gladly pay the extra 25 cents a bucket Urban charges over other area ranges.

"I like it because of the trees. It gives you some definition to where you're going," said Tom Everett, 30, of Buffalo. "It's especially nice for your woods. You've got somewhat of a fairway to shoot at."

"It's a lot better than going out and looking at a bunch of nets hanging there," said Bill Schaefer, 55, of Lockport, N.Y. "I think it's really a good idea."

So good that Urban says he's had about 15 or 20 people come and take pictures. "It's going to be reproduced by people (because) it looks simple to do," he said. "It's not."

Urban, a successful insulating contractor who went into the golf business because he "got a little bored and wanted to do something exciting," is confident he'll be rewarded for his investment.

"As a golfer, which would you prefer to go to, an open field or this kind of setup?" he asks.

"I just want them there the first time," he said. "After the first time, if they like golf and they like practicing, there's no reason why they should go anywhere else."

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