East Lyme — Bill Simons had the impulse to pick up a stray, green beam of wood from the ground. A few seconds later, he was compelled to reach for a dirty towel near it.
These items, along with a few yardage sticks staked into the thickening grass and the huge 310-yard sign hanging at the far end of the property at 298 Flanders Road, are the last remnants of the East Lyme Driving Range. The pro shop and storage rooms in the building have been emptied and padlocked.
“I don’t know why I’m picking up things,” Simons said as he wandered around the property during an interview on a recent Saturday morning. A resident of East Lyme for 36 years, he recently turned 75 years old and confirmed that his golf range had closed permanently. “I’m not happy about it. I accepted the fact that I was forcibly retired.”
The range took up about 29 acres of the 35 acres Simons leased annually from 296 Flanders LLC. Now, the state has taken 7 acres of the property in condemnation, which allows the government to take private property for public use with compensation — a move that Simons says was devastating for his business.
Connecticut Department of Transportation plans to transform the area into part of a new highway interchange with the goal of improving traffic congestion on and off Interstate 95 at Exit 74. A wide, looped ramp will traverse the main section of the former range — engulfing the property’s entrance, building and area where golfers once practiced swinging their clubs and watched their golf balls sail toward their targets.
Simons said the state’s compensation of $26,000 was a “drop in the bucket” compared to what the business had brought in. The money did not cover the wages he paid staff or other expenses, like the new zero-turn mower he had just purchased for $8,000 and almost 25,000 new golf balls he had acquired for the next season. He added that business was thriving after his six years of ownership, when he was told in October 2021 to vacate the property within one and a half months.
On Dec. 3, 2021, he announced on the golf range’s Facebook page that he had decided to “discontinue operations” with the hope of reconfiguring the range using 200 to 300 yards behind the tree line at the rear of the range, but there was not enough space for a new entrance. He would have had to wait until the state completes its construction, which could take another couple of years.
‘Community of golfers’
Five months after he posted his business farewell on Facebook, people still wonder on social media if the golf range is open for the season. Simons said he receives six calls a day from people asking if it’s open and where else they should go.
There is no signage yet to inform the public of the change in ownership or to discourage trespassing.
Before Simons arrived for the interview, a couple sat in their car, waiting to see if the range would open. The couple eventually left, heading for 100 Acres at Cherrystone in Old Lyme.
Don White, 54, of Waterford decided to hit a few balls at the range Monday. A state employee stopped by the property, spotted him and told him to leave. White had started taking golf lessons from golf instructor Jerry Frechette at the range eight years ago and enjoyed being at the range three or four times per week.
“It was a really nice community of golfers. All these guys are my friends,” White said by phone. “Instead of going to the bar, we went to the driving range.”
Jim Littlefield, 77, a retired East Lyme history teacher who enjoys writing and has his own blacksmith workshop, helped Simons with carpentry projects at the range. He made the large wooden heart sign that hung on the front of the building to honor COVID-19 health care workers. More recently, he helped Simons recycle some material on the grounds. He moved a split rail fence into a neighbor’s yard and reused pieces of a metal rod as railings for his classic sleigh from 1887.
“He had the best balls, Pro V1s, the Cadillac of golf balls,” Littlefield said. He enjoyed coming to the range to talk with friends about family. “It was the Waltons kind of thing. Bill cut the grass, his wife ran the shop and the girls picked up and washed the balls,” he noted, referring to the Simons’ adult daughters.
For Frechette, 74, a resident of East Lyme for 25 years and a golf instructor who taught many clients on site, the closing dramatically impacted his business.
“I think it’s a travesty. Thousands of people are displaced,” he said. He now instructs golfers at the Pequot Golf Course in Stonington. “My passion is golf. My passion is teaching. Now I have to recreate myself.”
Frechette estimates that about 2,000 people went regularly to Simons’ range each season. Practicing with any club on real grass rather than mats was more helpful to their golf game, he said.
“It’s a big loss for the community of golfers,” he added.
‘A cut above’
Rudy Bago, 51, a resident of Ledyard and golf coach at East Lyme High School, appreciated Simons’ accommodations for up to 40 students. Simons also would block off an area for golf team practices and on Fridays for physical education classes designed to introduce students to the sport.
“I was sad to see it go,” Bago said. Not being able to practice on a range meant the students could practice fewer swings on the course because there was always pressure to move along with more players behind them. At the range, the students could work on developing their swing and target weak spots.
“It hurt our practice plan,” he said. “It was something you could count on if we couldn’t use the course at Old Lyme Country Club.”
Katie Pesko, 35, a resident of Waterford and golf coach at Waterford High School, said not having access to a golf range nearby means new golfers won’t develop as well with less practice, and interest in the sport will decrease.
“We’ve been really struggling this year. Great Neck Country Club is extremely busy and we’re not allowed to use their driving range,” Pesko said. East Lyme Driving Range was convenient, familiar and much more affordable than taking the students on a bus farther away, such as to Groton or Old Lyme. To compensate, she said, the athletic director purchased some driving nets and mats but students won’t “get the same feedback factor” or “see the impact of the ball’s full flight.”
Robert Tobin, a resident of East Lyme for over 50 years and owner of Pequot Golf Course in Stonington, says losing the golf range “will really change the character” of that part of town.
“It was a great asset to the community and it provided a recreational opportunity to hundreds and hundreds,” he said. “It was in open air, well kept, just a cut above a lot of ranges. The people were part of it.”
Joel Bruce McClelland, 58, also a resident of East Lyme, remembered learning how to putt at 6 years old in a lesson from Lee Springer, the owner of the first golf range business that opened in 1960 in this spot. Springer had fashioned a putter out of wood for McClelland. McClelland’s parents owned the hot dog stand next door called The Drift Inn, which was later replaced by The Shack.
“Lee Springer was the pro at the time. He encouraged me, taught me and set me up,” McClelland said. “I got to know the breaks and I was hard to beat.”
Mark Erwin, owner of 100 Acres at Cherrystone as well as Cedar Ridge golf course and other ranges and courses on the shoreline, plans to take Simons’ advice to put up a sign on the building at East Lyme Driving Range to help redirect people to his range in Old Lyme. Erwin can accommodate eight to 10 players on the grass and 14 on the mats.
“Driving ranges are going to become a product of the past,” he said, pointing out how valuable the land is to commercial developers. He said the Kleins’ Golf Range in Madison is exploring a deal with a solar farm. “The only driving ranges that will probably exist in 10 years are those incorporated by golf courses.”