May 31, 2006 - Golf is a game of discipline and success doesn't come overnight, not even if your first name is Tiger. Instead, the way to master this game is on driving ranges and putting greens. In the Northwest - an area that has 17 lush private and public courses - only one such place exists specifically designed to hone those skills. Its name says it all: The Practice Tee.

For more than a decade, The Practice Tee, 4050 W. Costco Drive, has catered to the gamut of golfers, from recreating families to boys and girls' high school golf teams. Its lifeblood, however, are avid golfers, who tirelessly work on improving their game.

"You'll hit until your hands are bloody," said Practice Tee creator, designer and owner Mike Romano.

Since opening on Jan. 1, 1996, The Practice Tee has lived up to Romano's vision of what a driving range should be. The range features 100 tee stations and one of the largest and well-manicured putting greens and chipping areas in Southern Arizona. Each year between 75,000 and 80,000 golfers tee off at the Marana course.

"Our original concept was to look like a country club but feel like a neighborhood pub," said Romano, who also owns an electronics company and a real estate business.

That friendly ambiance has attracted 20 boys and girls high school golf teams, plus the men and women golf squads of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College.

"There are a lot of golf courses that don't have turf as nice as this," said Mark Polich, head coach of the Catalina Foothills High School girl's golf team. Polich's team will work on its long and short game at The Practice Tee and play its practice rounds at Randolph Golf Course, the only other course with a lighted driving range.

Randolph's driving range is connected with its public golf course. Romano's Practice Tee is the lone freestanding driving range in town. He escapes the public municipality laws that Randolph must adhere to because his range is industrial zoned. This allows him to stay open as late as 9 p.m. in the winter and even later in the summer.

Romano purchased the 20-acre parcel when it was just a flat chunk of land behind Costco and what is now the Sportsman's Warehouse. Instead of just simply throwing up a net and tee stations, Romano did his homework. He devoured every piece of literature on driving ranges he could get his hands on and attended countless seminars on golf course design. The result is a business that far-outweighs the "stop and sock" driving ranges that used to dominate Arizona golf.

"That's all that Tucson really had," said Romano about ranges like Jack Conrad's Driving Range, formerly located on River Road. "In fact, when we built this there wasn't anything remotely like this in Phoenix. Since then, they've built some more elaborate ones."

Because of the amenities that his course offers, The Practice Tee is able to charge a little more than the average driving range. A large bucket of 165 balls goes for $13.

To keep business fresh, Romano is always looking to expand on the subtle nuances of the course. His real claim to fame, says Romano, is the range's demo club offers.

Golfers are encouraged to choose from more than 700 demo clubs. In addition to the factory models, the shop offers a wide variety of used clubs purchased off the Internet. Romano's staff will buy the clubs used, re-grip and shine them up and sell them for a little more than they would fetch online. By doing this, golfers can feel confident in the product they are buying instead of purchasing it blindly from an auction site such as eBay. To ensure customer satisfaction, The Practice Tee offers a 90-day exchange program on used clubs and 30 days for new ones.

"We try to make it risk-free," said Romano, "and the prices are competitive."

Despite his love for the game and the course he created, Romano is still a businessman at heart. Conrad eventually sold his 30-plus-acre piece of land to developers who are converting the land into housing. With the cost of land being what it is these days, Romano will eventually travel down the same road, he said, once a good offer comes along.

If you're thinking of taking home a memento from The Practice Tee before that fateful day arrives, think again. Romano estimates the facility loses upward of 60,000 range balls a year and more than 600,000 since opening 10 years ago. To combat this, anyone caught stealing range balls has to talk to the police.

Perhaps, it's better to leave the balls to the pros and instead work on remedying those bloody hands.

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