Manhattan's Chelsea Piers: The Only Game In Town
August 28, 2017
A big summertime storm has rolled into Manhattan —a world-is-ending type, with brilliant lightning flashes, window-rattling thunder and buckets of hard rain. Step outside and you'll be drenched in an instant, even with an umbrella. Hoping to hail a taxi? Ha. Not a chance.
Yet the Chelsea Piers practice range is packed, including a Girls' Night Out event that's at capacity with 70 women. They're whacking balls from covered stalls out onto the range and getting pointers from a couple of roaming professionals, while upstairs in a banquet room they're enjoying drinks and hors d'oeuvres and seeing who can hit the longest drive on a simulator.
It's just another Monday night at Chelsea Piers, a practice range that will not be slowed by something as trivial as terrible weather. OK, if you arrive in the middle of a snowstorm, you probably won't wait long for one of its 52 stalls. But the Golf Club at Chelsea Piers is otherwise nearly always busy. It says that roughly 350,000 customers roll up to its entrance along Manhattan's 11th Avenue every year, hitting more than 17 million balls and absorbing more than 16,500 hours of golf instruction.
To put those numbers in some context, consider that the Golf Range Association of America celebrates the 50 best "standalone" ranges annually. These leading ranges average less than half of Chelsea Piers' volume. And remember, these are the best in the United States. "Chelsea Piers blows everybody else away," says Patrick Cherry, the range association's general manager. "Nobody else even comes close."
What's the appeal? Well, it's a nice practice range. It's reasonably clean, and the balls are in good enough shape. You don't even have to bend over to tee your ball. An automated system ensures that a new one emerges, on a tee, from a hole in your mat after every shot. There's a busy golf academy, with 12 instructors from multiple countries, and areas for practicing bunker shots, chipping and putting.
On top of all of that, you can look out over the Hudson River and into New Jersey while you hit balls. "We have the most ridiculous sunsets," says Marjorie Jones, the head professional here since 2013. "I can't even tell you how many pictures I have on my phone."
But it's also a supply-and-demand thing. Manhattan is home to more than 1.6 million people, and on business days, when you include commuters and other visitors, there are about four million. You want to hit golf balls and watch them fly in the air (as opposed to banging them into a net or a simulator)? See you at Chelsea Piers.*
Where, incidentally, you'll pay $30 to hit 94 balls during its peak hours. Manhattan pricing.
The core customer is a 25- to 44-year-old Manhattan resident, says general manager David Beltre. About three-quarters are male. But one of the joys of Chelsea Piers, for employees and customers, is you never know who you'll encounter. "You'll see people in everything from the stereotypical golf outfit to the punk-rock look," says Tom Bopp, manager of the golf academy. "But they're all golfers."
Jones has taught owners of sports teams, a top concert violinist, an opera star, a leading table-tennis player and a woman who had just adopted a puppy—and brought it with her, asking Jones to hold it during the lesson. Once there was a good-looking young guy who turned out to be the "world's No. 1 male model." Says Jones: "He called me ma'am."
I ask an employee to mention some famous customers he has seen. "Justin Timberlake, Roger Clemens, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy," he says.
A co-worker adds, "Will Smith, Danny DeVito, Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg, Larry David, Nick Faldo, Graeme McDowell, James Spader, Michael J. Fox. That's not even half. Don Cheadle, Mario Batali . . . " His voice trails off.
The range, open since 1995, is part of a multi-use development called the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex. It covers more than 28 acres, or six city blocks of waterfront.
Fun fact: One of its piers was where the Titanic was heading when it went down in 1912.
The team that built Chelsea Piers had little in the way of real-estate development experience. Their goal, recalls co-owner Tom Bernstein, was to find a new home for Sky Rink—Manhattan's only indoor ice rink that was open to the public—which had lost its lease.
They were looking to lease about 50,000 square feet for the rink, but the state insisted that whoever took control of the property took it all: a million square feet. "It was 20 times more space than we wanted," Bernstein says. "But for us it was like a big adventure that came out of the blue."
Bernstein and his partner, Roland Betts, were movie producers accustomed to thinking creatively. Their company produced, among other megahits, "Pretty Woman" and "The Little Mermaid."
"When we looked around, it occurred to us there was a gaping hole in New York: first-rate, state-of-the art, cutting-edge athletic facilities," Bernstein says. "We saw in this million square feet an opportunity to plug the hole, to give New Yorkers what they didn't have and desperately wanted."
Not everyone thought it was such a smart idea. "Conventional wisdom in New York at the time was: You won't get it financed, you won't get it permitted, and you won't get it built, but even if you do, it doesn't matter because no one will go there because of the location," Bernstein says. "What was over here was bloody. It was barbed wire, and it wasn't safe. So the idea of putting up a family sports and entertainment center in a sort of off-limits part of the city was considered a fool's errand."
But Bernstein and Betts and their third partner, former real-estate broker David Tewksbury, turned out to be right: People in Manhattan were hungry for this. As word of mouth spread, golfers started making the trek to 11th Avenue, along with gymnasts and rock climbers and bowlers and ice skaters and TV/film producers and more. Today the whole waterfront area is booming, thanks in no small part to Chelsea Piers.
The golf range is the most visible part of the complex, with its towering, 160-foot nets that you can see from passing cars, boats and even airplanes. "It's sort of an iconic part of the area," as Bernstein puts it. Yet golf operations account for only about 5 to 10 percent of the development's annual revenue.
That doesn't make the practice range any less important to people like management consultant Bharat Sawhney. Every weekday morning, he makes the 35-minute subway/bus trip from his home on Manhattan's Upper West Side to Chelsea Piers, where he hits balls before heading downtown to work (another 30-minute bus/subway combo). "It wakes me up. It's great to be out there in the fresh air hitting balls," Sawhney says. "It's meditative, to be honest."
Financial analyst Becke Buffalo is another one. No matter the weather, she takes the A train from Upper Manhattan to Chelsea Piers five mornings a week. When it snows, she'll bake cookies and bring them for the staff as a thank you for showing up to work.
Do her friends and family think her golf obsession is a little unusual for a New Yorker? "Absolutely; they think I'm crazy," she says. "I guess it's like other things when you run into limitations in Manhattan: You figure out how to make it work."
*There is also a practice range on Randall's Island, which is in the East River adjacent to upper Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood. It's perfectly fine—but harder to reach for most Manhattanites.