Pods Away!



The golfpod at Horsham Golf and Fitness




The golf range at Horsham Golf and Fitness was compromised for space when Neil Burke and his co-owners decided to sell a parcel of land   to Horsham Football Club. The deal created the exciting opportunity to work with the local football club to develop a ‘sporting hub’ on the site with ambition to further expand this concept over time, whilst at the same time introducing some welcome capital to further develop the business. The range was busy and popular with locals in its own right as well as members and visitors of the golf club topping and tailing their round with some practise.

The range also facilitated a great teaching academy, headed by Mike Yorke, along with a busy independent golf shop specialising in custom fit. The proximity of the newly created football facility meant that netting had to be installed, once the netting had been completed and the range re-opened for general use it became clear fairly early on that for absolute certain protection against ball escape particularly from the negligent user, a more comprehensive solution had to be considered.

Simply extending the height and/or extent (within reason) of the netting, was never going to stop a powerfully hit deliberately negligent shot. Neil had overseen the original development of the range, so it was a bitter pill when he realised that it had to be so drastically downsized. Ball escape issues quite often can be overlooked as they often present an uncomfortable, expensive truth to the range operator. Neil took the decision that for certainty this was the best way forward to retain his facility.

However, problems are often the inspiration for breakthroughs and what Neil and his colleagues have just re-opened is the biggest netted golf range in Europe. It is 50m deep, 20m high and covers the entire width of the old range building with two majestic spans, reducing the number of bays by just one, so that the central stanchion can spread the load over the entire width. The golfpod at Basildon Golf Course was the first engineered golfpod of its kind to made in recent years, but with just 9m of height and 15m of flight, it was nothing like the scale of the Horsham structure.

The back netting is double skinned, with impact baffles taking the majority of the shots and the back net, ensures that no other shots get through. The baffles wave in sympathy in the breeze, and linear targets will soon be installed for additional golfer feedback and interest. There is also a long pause between the golfer hitting their shot and the ball hitting the back (or side or roof) netting. This is the critical feedback that golfers need to consider whether or not their shot has been properly executed and matches their intentions. Hitting into the original golfpod at Basildon also provides feedback for the golfer and a time before the netting is hit, but the depth of the Horsham structure is over three times greater and more than twice the height. It gives the impression of being in a huge golfing hangar and an unlimited shots can be played – all in complete safety an in a relatively contained space.

The man behind golfpods is Andy Weeks. His company, Hi-Nets, is the leading manufacturer and installer of very high ball stop netting systems; he is without question the leading expert in Europe for these super high structures. At the heart of his success has been the manufacture of his own towers and stanchions. These latticework structures have proven ability to withstand the strongest winds and have been certified by structural engineers to allow Hi-Nets to reach further into the sky than any of their competitors.

With a factory capable of churning out large numbers of such stanchions, it was only a matter of time before Andy realised that he could put them to other good uses. He spoke to Golf Features:

“We realised many years ago that we needed to invest heavily in the design of the steel supports to give us a future proof structure to cope with the heights and spans we invisaged would be needed going forward. We also made the decision to manufacture our own latticework stanchions to ensure that the quality and finish were as near perfect as possible. To achieve this the manufacturing facility is set up with specialist equipment and jigs specifically for the manufacture of lattice steel structures. We simply could not trust others to do this vital work for us. In addition to having the manufacturing capability to increase the number of towers we made, we also noticed that there was a growing demand for people wanting practice facilities in small areas. The only solution to the issues of ball escape was to have these structures made with the roof. This may sound simple, but the additional weight and engineering to safely add a roof net and join it to the back and side ball stop netting was much more complex than even we at first realised. The pressure on the stanchions increased dramatically and other factors, such as snow and ice, were also capable of ruining the roof of the net.

“Over the last decade, we have worked with Colin Jenkins and others in the range industry to refine the concept of the golfpod. There is a huge market for these types of facilities, as it allows practise, tuition and just the enjoyment of golf to be carried on in areas where golf was not previously possible. To date we have just a handful of installations, with the first golfpod in Basildon, one in Hampshire and another in Surrey. Following on from these successes, we have got a tremendous amount of interest for other golfpods and we look forward to building lots more in the coming years.”

What was also interesting with regard to the Horsham installation was that the stanchions for the golf pod had been previously used as backstop ball fencing on the golf range. The fact that their stanchions are so versatile as to facilitate this type of development was an important factor at Horsham.

From an operator’s point of view, the vitally important ingredient is whether golfers will still continue to use the golf pod with a similar intensity to the way they used the original golf range. This is important for many reasons, one is the obvious financial consideration, but with a gifted team of teachers happily ensconced at Horsham, a compromised practice facility would be damaging to that side of the business. Also custom fit golf clubs make up a large part of the shop turnover and Neil and his team are particularly keen that retail sales were not hit when the range was changed to a golfpod. He elaborates:

“Not many people want to be a guinea pig in business, but we had no choice as the range could well have had to close due to the potential danger it would have presented to those using the football club. So far, the reaction to the golfpod has been extremely favourable, with many of our regulars using it more than they did so in the past. We realise that this may just be a honeymoon period and once people have got used to it, we will only then get a true indication. So far we have had good positive feedback with only a few who feel that a restricted ball flight of this nature does not fit their practise. We are in discussions with the leading technology companies to put ball-tracking technology into the bays to further enhance the enjoyment of the practising golfer, once we have this facility installed that we will appeal to all golfers, our goal is then to look beyond this traditional market with a truly modern, fun environment that is not just aimed at golfers trying to improve. Andy and his team have done a phenomenal job in creating the structures. They were sensitive to our needs as a working golf business and have been completely professional throughout.”

So far the responses have been first class, with golfers returning for more balls and happy to pay a normal range price for their practice. This is, of course, at the crux of the viability of the Pod. Put simply, will it take enough to make an economic return? It is too early to tell yet, but things are looking very good so far. Golf Features will return to Horsham regularly of the next few months and years to monitor the development of the golfpod.

Horsham Golf and Fitness was first opened as a nine hole golf and gym complex by Michael Williams and Judi Dench in 1992. At the time, Neil Burke was working for the then owner John Lane. Many years passed, and Neil and his other investors bought the business from the Lane family and subsequently added a substantial amount of adjoining land. This new land and the original 9-hole layout were transformed into the beautiful Oaks golf course, which opened a few years ago. The site has always benefited from an excellent location, just outside the booming town of Horsham in West Sussex. Until last month it was by far and away the busiest golf range in the area and now this looks set to continue, despite some comprehensive changes to the golf range.

One huge benefit for Horsham Golf and Fitness is that the golfpod has created several acres of additional room close to the heart of the clubhouse. Adventure golf is an obvious candidate to fill some of the space, and the combination of adding this to the existing mixture of leisure offerings will probably be too irresistible for Neil and his colleagues. Other golf range operators will be watching with interest to see how Neil’s golfpod performs in its first few years. The wider impact for the golf industry could be immense and golfpods are definitely here to stay.

A netted golf range in Horsham may not sound like a ground-breaking revelation for world golf, but it will allow golf to come to city centres and the game can be developed more easily. Commercial operators will be able to invest in growing the game, retailers will love the additional opportunities that it brings and most councils will now be able to add golf facilities to urban locations, knowing that they will be safe and viable. In the words of the wonderful Sir David Jason: “The world, Rodney, is your lobster....” We could be seeing golfpods popping up all over the planet.

For more information, please contact Andy Weeks at: info@hi-nets.co.uk and the website: hi-nets.co.uk
and Horsham Golf and Fitness: horshamgolf.co.uk