Keep up your game in NY at the Big Apple's top launching pad

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Forget what you've heard. Golf balls can indeed be launched from the concrete jungle known as Manhattan.

Not from a golf course, per se, but the Golf Club at Chelsea Piers is the closest on-the-links obsession within this borough.

One of two Manhattan driving ranges - the Randalls Island facility on the East side of town is the other one - Chelsea Piers qualifies as possibly the most unique place in the country to hit golf balls. There is even a machine that will tee up the ball for you on every shot (for a price, of course).

Like those tiered driving ranges most popular in Japan, you can take aim here from one of four levels. All 52 stalls are covered and equipped with heaters for year-round play.

The third level is also the home of Chelsea Piers golf school, complete with more than a handful of PGA instructors, including one who has played in the U.S. Open.

The Golf Club is only a portion of the $120 million project attached to four piers on Manhattan's West side. Ice skating, bowling, basketball, gymnastics, indoor soccer, roller hockey and rock climbing as well as other sports are included in this 30-acre sports village. But golf is its most recognized activity.

"New York is a powerful place and it has a powerful image," says Tom Sutter, head teaching professional at Chelsea Piers. "When I'm out traveling and playing golf, people really don't know what New York is about. Sometimes they have a negative idea of what it's like. But often when they do come, they really enjoy it.

"We've got 6 to 8 million people who live here and 12 million who are here during the day. They need to have recreation just like people who live in Kansas. You've got to have some places to have fun and play sports.

"We've got a lot of facilities, and this one is really the premier recreation facility in the city - maybe (other than) Central Park."

Some of Sutter's teaching staff takes advantage of the other options offered in the sports complex, with some playing in basketball leagues or rollerblading.

On the range

Unlike most reaches, where your shots soar to an unending expanse of green, here you will be hitting toward the Hudson River. A towering net encloses the hitting area, deflecting golf balls onto an artificial surface. Bordering Pier 59, the net covers the sides and ends 250 yards from the teeing areas.

It's run like a semi-private golf facility. Anyone can drop by and work on their swing. However, there is a good chance that after work and on weekends you may have to wait in line.

Memberships are available (the Golf Club has approximately 300 members) and there is club storage, rental clubs and locker rooms available.

"We get some players who like to sneak out (of work) and don't let anyone know," says Sutter, who played in the 1998 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. "They don't want to have to walk across town with their clubs."

Downstairs is a well-stocked pro shop managed by New York Golf Center. People who are regulars, tourists, taking lessons or there for corporate outings help fill the teeing areas.

Ernie Els, Nick Faldo and Casey Martin have joined corporate outings at Chelsea Piers. And, prior to this year's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, teaching guru Butch Harmon was there to promote his latest training gizmo.

The downtown location makes it a natural fit for the financial district. Other major clients come from Broadway and nearby restaurants, as well as firemen and policemen.

No matter the occupation or salary level, one thing they all share in common is hitting golf balls, and plenty of them. Bates Gregory of Chelsea Piers says last year more than 10 million golf balls were blasted toward the Hudson River. And Sutter estimates he and the 15-person teaching staff annually provide 11,000 hours worth of lessons.

On the waterfront

This privately financed project restored life into the historic waterfront, where the docks first opened for business in 1910. It's where the Titanic was scheduled to dock on its fateful maiden voyage in 1912. And it's where the Lusitania departed in 1915 for the last time.

The original blueprints for transformation in the 1990s included only an ice-skating rink. But that was dismissed when the city demanded all four piers had to be included in the lease.

Sutter, who started here just two months after it opened in October of 1995, remembers the early days when golfers could hit balls past the midnight hour.

"The first few months it was open until 3 in the morning," Sutter recalls. "That just caused too many problems, from keeping everyone here with the workers and the shifts."

Today, during the active season (April to September) players arrive at 6 a.m. seven days a week for early-bird specials. Balls continue to bounce on artificial greens until midnight. From October to March, hours are from 6:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

The biggest complaint about Chelsea Piers is the substantial cost. The public can purchase a variety of pre-paid cards to be used until they - the cards, not the golfers - are maxed out. It's best to use these cards during non-peak hours: on week days before 5 p.m. and after 10 p.m.; on Saturdays before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m.; and Sundays before 9 a.m. and after 8 p.m.

You can hit 118 balls for a $20 card during off-peak hours. That same card during peak hours nets only 80 balls. Cards can be purchased in value from $20 to $100.

What do you get for $100? During off-peak hours it's a 589-ball value compared to 400 for peak hours.

"It's the demand of the whole thing," Sutter reasons. "We still have a wait at night. During the day if you come over it's less expensive, and during the morning there are (discount) programs. If you're practicing every day you probably don't want to come at night, unless you want to spend a whole lot of money."

These days, Chelsea Piers is enjoying more golfers. "This is the first year it feels more like pre-9-11," Sutter says. "It's busier. More people are coming out after work and there are more events. It's a different volume of people and a different attitude on top of it.

"Our business was down. But this last year it's much better. We get a lot of people after work. That's our main group of people. This is when they have their recreation and that's when they hit balls. They're working, they're young and they can afford it - in their mind they can. They pay extra for everything. They are fearless when it comes to that."

The Verdict

This is a must-see attraction for the golfer/sports enthusiast/tourist. Since there are only two driving ranges on Manhattan, keep in mind the following: Chelsea Piers is more expensive and has fewer hitting areas than Randalls Island, but it provides more cover and heaters.

There is something for everyone at Chelsea Piers. It's an entertaining place to go, especially for tourists. The entrance puts patrons in front of a postcard view of the NYC skyline, highlighted by the Empire State Building. While hitting balls toward the Hudson, you may get a glimpse of the Queen Mary 2.

If it's your first time and your stuck on the fourth floor, take a few warm-up swings before hitting the first shot. It's takes several swings to get comfortable to hitting from four stories above the ground. Because New York's versions of John Daly or Tiger Woods may be on the property, players are not allowed to hit drivers from the fourth floor for fear of a 290-yard shot soaring over the net and splashing into the Hudson. It's been done before, including by Sutter.

Fast facts

You're within par-5 range of some of the city's major art galleries, especially on nearby 24th and 25th streets. There is plenty of shopping in the neighborhood, including Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney (fashion designer and daughter of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney) on West 14th Street. The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is nearby and offers daily tours, including an on-site museum and the Concorde. Next to the Golf Club entrance is the Micro Brewery & Restaurant, a great place to order a burger and brew.

Other details:

  • Non-peak hours: $20, 118 balls; $25, 148 balls; $50, 295 balls; and $100, 589 balls.

  • Peak hours: $20, 80 balls; $25, 100 balls; $50, 200 balls; $100, 400 balls.

  • Early-bird special: unlimited balls for $25 per person (6:30 a.m.-9 a.m., April-September; 6:30 a.m.-9:30 a.m. October-March).

  • Ask about senior, ladies, junior and other specials. There are weekday all-sports packages from $15-$50.

  • Golf Club annual memberships range from the $325 for a standard member (including up to 48-hour advance stall reservations) to a $5,000 Platinum member (including unlimited balls year-round).

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