This Driving Range Was 12 Years in the Making : Golf: The debates and delays over, Saddleback College on Thursday will open its $2.4-million, state-of-the-art facility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Reising finally will have to discard his favorite piece of golfing attire.

A worn-out, lucky sweater? Hardly.

Three times a week all semester, Reising has arrived for Bill Cunerty's golf classes at Saddleback College wearing a cardboard sign around his neck.

The sign reads: " The driving range will open . . . " And underneath is a revolving calendar.

Reising started the dial at November and has rotated his way into March. But he'll only need April for one day.

Thursday, after more than 12 years of debates and delays, the $2.4-million state-of-the-art driving range will open at Saddleback.

"I've seen it develop so slowly," Cunerty said. "It's kind of like watching your kids grow up. If you went away for a year and came back, you'd say, 'My God, have you grown.'

"But seeing it day by day, it didn't ever seem like it was happening fast enough."

Cunerty hit the first balls in August of 1991 after the first earthmovers leveled a hill on the south end of campus and, thanks to a wealth of winter rains that have caused one construction delay after another, he's been alone on the range through months of postponed openings.

But Thursday--really, no April Fool's joke here--12 years of waiting and wondering will end.

"Actually, the first germ of the idea came before I even came here," Cunerty said. "Bob Lombardi, who was the Saddleback chancellor in 1975, was quite a golf enthusiast, and he was the first one to bring up the idea. But at that time, the school's master plan wasn't even set yet.

"When I got here in 1980, Bob and I started talking more about it. Back then, Moorpark College had a small one and College of the Desert had just built one.

"We were talking about how much money they can generate and what a great teaching facility it would be."

At the time, they didn't discuss what a headache building one can be.

Cunerty's brainchild was anything but an instantly popular plan.

Did he have to do much lobbying?

"Only every day for 12 years," he says, managing a tired smile. "We ran into every kind of obstacle. At one point, somebody said, 'Well, there must be a gnatcatcher out there.' So we had to have the Department of Fish and Game come down and take a look."

The world of academia doesn't always see the positive aspects of athletics and the district board of trustees and many members of the Saddleback staff reacted predictably.

"The misinformation was the hardest thing to overcome," he said. "Lots of people on the faculty, as well as on the board, would look at me like, 'What are you trying to do?'

"They'd say, 'We can't even fund our biology program properly and you want to build a golf course ?'

"I'd explain that it wasn't a golf course and then, from a selfish standpoint, I'd say, 'You have a classroom. I have to drive 12 miles off campus (to Laguna Hills Driving Range) to teach my class.'

"But when you finally get people to listen and to understand that it wasn't costing the district anything, that the bond would be paid off through funds generated by the range and that everyone will benefit, most people were for it."

The 16-acre facility includes a lighted range, putting and chipping areas, a pro shop, physical education faculty offices, a 2,200-square-foot classroom, equipment storage areas, restrooms, parking, a softball field and two grass volleyball courts.

The money will come from certificates of participation, a type of bond funding. After the certificates are repaid, revenues from the range will go into the general fund.

"It's a beautiful facility," said Keith Calkins, Saddleback dean of physical education and athletics. "And it's win-win for everyone."

The 700 or so students who take a golf class at Saddleback each semester aren't the only golfers who are winners. The two-ended driving range--golfers hit balls from both ends of the range toward each other--is also open to the public.

OK, John Daly should stay home. The two sets of practice tees are only 337 yards apart.

Cunerty envisioned more than just an ordinary driving range, and with a decade to plan and design it, he's put together a full-service practice facility.

There are 46 tee areas on each end offering both grass and mat hitting surfaces. There are bunkers near the practice tees which allow golfers to simulate both green-side bunker shots and fairway shots. And there are two large putting greens.

"You can see we made the interior of the range lower than tee areas so you can easily see the three target greens out there," Cunerty said. "The target greens are Astroturf, like most of them are these days, but most are built on cement foundations and when you hit the green, the ball just bounces off. These have a sand base so the ball holds like on a regular green.

"I wanted people to be able to play a whole round without moving. You can take a scorecard from any golf course. Let's say the first hole is a 400-yard par four. You hit your drive and you say, 'OK, I've got 180 yards left to the green.' Then you pick the target green that is closest to that distance and hit your second shot. If you hit the green, you come around (to the practice green) and putt.

"I wanted it to be more than putting the ball down and beating it."

Cunerty admits that he also is very happy for the members of his golf team, who have perfected their ability to hit wedge shots through the goal posts on Saddleback's practice football field but have had to practice other shots at various facilities throughout Orange County.

Few are pitying the Gaucho golfers, however. They have won 10 the last 11 Orange Empire Conference titles, five Southern California championships and three State titles under Cunerty.

"We've had some really terrific young players here and we don't need the facility to attract good players," Cunerty said. "This is just a bonus for the kids.

"The main focus of the project has always been as an instructional facility. I've always wanted to develop the best golf instructional program in the state."

And Saddleback's driving range might become the prototype for a number of similar facilities. Representatives from more than 20 community and state colleges have already toured the facility.

"Driving ranges are a great source of revenue," Cunerty said. "And schools have the one thing that keeps a driving range from popping up every other corner in Southern California--available land."

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