Like so many driving range facilities, Falls Golf Complex has a folksy feeling.
A red sign on the front door says, “Come On In!” Regulars know the lay of the land, and they sometimes recognize fellow customers who are better known for sports other than golf.
“Eric Cole comes in here pretty regularly,” says owner Benny Dean, ticking off a list of Carolina Hurricanes who have discovered the facility. “We’ve had Rod Brind’Amour, Paul Maurice, Ron Francis. Sean Hill used to come in here all the time when he played here.”
On this particular afternoon, retired Kansas City Chiefs defensive end John Browning is out on the range, lofting short irons into the hot summer air.
For Dean, the Falls Golf Complex, located on Falls of Neuse Road near Interstate 540, and its companion facility, Triangle Golf Center on Leesville Road, are just part of his interests. He is semi-retired from the insurance business. He continues to do consulting work out of his cramped office at the Falls Golf Complex, but golf is his passion. The two driving ranges earn most of his attention.
“It’s a nice hobby,” he says, “but a driving range has a lot of moving parts.”
At least 50,000 parts, if you start with the golf balls. When Dean bought the Falls Golf Complex in 1990 — known then as Double Eagle — he would sit on the porch and watch golfers dot the range with practice shots.
“I would watch people hit balls, and I’d ask, ‘What’s the most important thing about the range?’ Invariably, it was the golf balls.”
So Dean threw out the entire inventory of balls and started over. He replaced them with Top Flite balls. Since then, duffers and competitive golfers alike have been knocking around a quality ball.
“We have a lot of beginners who don’t know a good ball from a bad ball,” says Dean. ” But with a bad ball, when it goes off the club face, there’s a good chance it’s going in all directions. And an old ball might flutter, where a new ball would go straight. I want a beginner to hit as good a ball as an accomplished player. It’s a continuing job.”
Indeed, even range balls go in and out of circulation. Dean replaces up to 30,000 balls each year at the two facilities. Some get nicked and scuffed, but the main issue is another type of wear and tear.
“With range balls, the dimples disappear,” he says. “When we can feel the dimples are slick, it’s time to throw it away.”
Actually, the worn out balls have one more crack at the practice life. Dean routinely gathers “orange bags” as he calls them — the grocery store sacks that citrus fruit is packaged in — and fills them with 150 out-of-commission range balls. At $15 a sack, he sells them as fast as he can fill them. Where they wind up is anybody’s guess. He’s had cruise ship companies inquire about the retired balls, with an eye toward vacationers who dream of whacking shots into the ocean.
Just as importantly, Dean takes pride in maintaining both turf and hitting mats for the ranges. His stance mats are a non-slip surface suited for picking a ball cleanly, while fiber-built mats are thick and meant for a clean sweep under the ball. “It looks like a flat top haircut, and when you hit, you never feel a vibration,” he says.
Dean staffs the two facilities with two Class A teaching professionals. Todd Benware (Falls Golf Complex) and Brian Ondrako (Triangle Golf Center) both handle the everyday duties of teaching, custom fitting, clinics, playing lessons and club repair.
“Todd is outstanding at conveying to students what strengths you need to improve your golf game. Brian does a phenomenal job teaching. He also knows the (custom) fitting systems inside and out.”
Dean prefers to fade into the background of the two operations, but if you get him talking, he’s got a few stories to share. At age 66, he has already shot his age three times. You will have to pry to get the details.
But he’s more nostalgic about a bygone era of golf. In the late 1960s he was the caddy master at Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte, the long-ago home of the PGA Tour’s Kemper Open. Dean was assigned to cart Arnold Palmer from the locker room to the practice tee each day.
“For most of the players, you’d wait for them and then shuttle them to the first tee,” he says. “But I never took him to the first tee. He always walked, so he could sign autographs.”
If you don’t bump into Dean on your range visit, his staff has your golf needs covered. They stock Nike, Titleist, Callaway, Ping and other top brands. Benware and Ondrako can not only custom fit their clients, but they have elaborate swing-analysis equipment to provide a little fine tuning.
Eventually, most folks find their way to the driving range, which is the heart of the operation. Dean has that covered — literally. To beat the summer swelter, many of the 55 hitting stations are under canopies and mounted fans. And of course, there are those high-end range balls.
The emphasis on quality is an easy choice for Dean.
“I know what customers want,” he says.