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Different Strokes : Irvine Putting Course Builders Put Fun First

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lou Moore planted his wingtips in the sand trap, gripped the putter and promptly dispatched his golf ball across a carefully manicured putting green into the nearby rough.

“Yeah, I’m a duffer,” the 49-year-old mortgage banker from Lake Forest acknowledged as he brushed sand from his polished shoes. “But this is fun. I don’t feel intimidated like I probably would on a real golf course.”

Moore and two co-workers were whiling away their lunch hour at the Greens, an 18-hole, $1.5-million executive putting course with real grass that’s mowed daily, as well as sand traps, ponds and rough modeled after the real thing at full-length championship golf courses.

Critics might dismiss the Greens as a miniature golf course for yuppies with too much time and money on their hands. But customers will find no windmill obstacles to tilt along the course. And players like Moore, who negotiated the course in a business shirt and tie, won’t risk scuffing their dress shoes on artificial turf.

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“This is not miniature golf,” insisted Jack C. Hopkins, co-founder and president of Putting Courses of America Inc., which opened the Irvine course last September. “As architect Ted Robinson, who designed the course, says, ‘It’s golf in miniature.’ ”

More than a third of the Greens’ customers are, like Moore, non-golfers. Based on that turnout, Hopkins and his partners at Irvine-based Putting Courses of America are making plans to expand around the country and, eventually, offer stock to the public.

“Our goal is an IPO in two or three years,” said Hopkins, who co-founded Pacific Sunwear, the Anaheim-based retail chain. “We hope to have five of them up and running by then and have another 10 deals rolling along.”

Some observers might question whether these courses are going to be feasible because it’s more expensive to maintain a real putting surface than the artificial turf at a miniature golf course, said Mike Rittell, a Buena Park consultant who arranges corporate golf events. “But these courses seem to be catching on,” he said.

The dozen or so upscale putting courses that already exist elsewhere in the country generally are integrated into golf courses or driving ranges. There’s a putting course, for example, at the Fullerton Golf Training Center, where local golfers hone putting and driving skills.

The Greens broke with tradition and opened in a location that’s not adjacent to a golf center. Instead, Hopkins opted for Park Place, a commercial and retail tract that includes an Edwards Cinema, several upscale restaurants and office buildings.

“The Greens works well with what we’re developing here, which is an upscale shopping and entertainment center,” said Tom McDonough, a principal with Trammel-Crow Co., co-owner of the Park Place development. “Everyone in the development industry is looking for something in the entertainment niche and that’s what we’ve got with the Greens.

Some observers question whether the putting courses will generate enough revenue to cover hefty development and maintenance costs.

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Duplicating the Greens won’t be an inexpensive proposition: Putting Courses of America spent $1.5 million to build the course to U.S. Golf Assn. specifications.

Course builders, for example, trucked in the same kind of sand and gravel used to ensure proper drainage at regular greens. The greens are planted with Crenshaw bent grass, the same putting surface found at some upscale clubs.

Each month, the course spends $45,000 to maintain putting surfaces and care for the trees, bushes and ponds lining the course.

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The putting park, which sits in the shadow of Fluor Corp.'s headquarters, includes 18 holes--the shortest measuring 53 feet and the longest 127 feet.

The sand traps, ponds and rough are modeled after hazards golfers might find at Tijeras Creek and Tustin Ranch, two 18-hole courses in Orange County that Robinson designed.

Some golfers wonder whether the greens, which are mowed daily, will hold up as more patrons putt their way around.

A professional greenskeeper maintains the grounds, which incorporate ponds, waterfalls, trees and flowers. Hole locations are changed regularly to keep the course fresh, and each week groundskeepers must replace 50 or 60 divots dug by free-swinging duffers.

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It’s also uncertain how the pricey concept will fare in locations where inclement weather will shorten the playing season.

But some golf professionals believe that executive putting courses might click in retail and commercial settings--especially if they offer more than just a place to knock golf balls around.

Tom Vold, head professional at Angel Park in Las Vegas, reports that a pair of 18-hole putting courses at the golf resort draw 30,000 people each year. That leads him to conclude that a stand-alone operation like the Greens would play well in a non-golf setting.

“We get everything from corporate tournaments to birthday parties for a dozen or so people,” Vold said.

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The Greens isn’t for everyone: Its $10 green fee is twice the price that neighbor Palace Park charges for 18 holes of miniature golf.

And while the nearby Palace Park family entertainment center courts patrons with a McDonald’s restaurant, the Greens encourages patrons to exercise their charge cards in a clubhouse that’s stocked with $7 cigars, $145 Ping putters and Nike sports shirts that retail for $64.95.

Hopkins said the Greens’ revenue stream is being augmented by an increasingly aggressive tournament schedule, which is patterned after tournaments hosted at full-length golf courses. The Greens is also courting corporate group events.

Hopkins tells of an Orange County law firm that recently switched a corporate event to the Greens from a local golf course. The move, Hopkins said, was driven by grumbling from non-golfers--including an increasing number of women who don’t play golf.

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“After corporate events, we check with the customers and the one word we keep hearing from non-golfers is that they didn’t feel intimidated,” Hopkins said. “People say they had a good time and they weren’t excluded like they would have been at a regular golf event.”

McDonough, the Park Place co-owner, said the Greens isn’t going to make economic sense in every retail or commercial setting.

“I think it will work in places like this, which are very scenic,” McDonough said. “What the Greens gives you in Irvine is a sense that you’ve escaped the world . . . that you’ve gotten away for an hour or two.”

Rob Hagerty, a mortgage banker who rounded out Moore’s threesome, said he’d be back soon: “I could never get my wife out on a big course, but I could probably get her out here because this isn’t intimidating. She’d probably love it.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Latest in Golf

Putting Courses of America

Founded: 1993

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Headquarters: Irvine

President: Jack C. Hopkins

Business: Develops upscale putting courses.

Expansion plans: Considering La Jolla, Santa Monica, Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz.

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The Greens at Park Place

Opened: Sept. 23, 1995

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

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Price: $10 per round

Membership: $25 annual membership provides $1 discount per round, discounted merchandise, guaranteed starting times, handicap calculation and tournament play

Course: 18 holes; Crenshaw bent grass; lights for night play

Par: 56, including three par-4 holes, one par-2 hole.

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Time on course: usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours

Architect: Ted Robinson

Features: Waterfalls, sand traps, grass bunkers

Source: Putting Courses of America; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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