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Original Issue

Home on the Range

The Long Knockers Driving Range, in Philadelphia, is one urbanite's field of dreams

The country escape or beach house is a fine thing, but what some of us who live in the city need are places that remind us of why we wanted to be urban dwellers in the first place. These places should not be replicas of country life within the city limits—say, enclosed gardens with no view to the outside. No, it is better when they brush right up against the concrete.

One such place for me is a driving range in Philadelphia. The sign tacked to the chain link fence at the entrance to the range reads: STRAWBERRY MANSION DRIVING RANGE, HOME OF THE LONG KNOCKERS GOLF CLUB, but I have never heard it called anything but Long Knockers.

There is nothing pristine about Long Knockers. It is set on the edge of the city's vast Fairmount Park, which is beautiful in some parts and neglected in others. Across a city street is a grim stretch of North Philly, where once-grand brown-stones stand dilapidated and boarded up. The grounds outside the driving range are a tangle of overgrown weeds and litter—an empty plastic transmission-fluid container, drained bottles of Colt 45, sun-yellowed newspapers and crack vials that are identifiable by their distinctive crunch underfoot.

The "pro shop" at Long Knockers, where buckets of balls are dispensed and some gloves and clubs are sold, contains an ancient cash register and a couple of overstuffed chairs with torn upholstery. There's a shoeshine stand there, although I've never seen anyone shining shoes. Usually there are several men standing around talking golf or baseball or politics, and it's often hard to know who's actually working. Whoever is closest to the register rings up the sale.

Conditions on the range are not the best. You spend the first five minutes or so searching for a spot to place a tee that isn't too chewed up. Only rarely at Long Knockers do you hear the whoosh of a ball that has been well stroked off grass. More often, there is a thud or a scraping sound followed by a puff of dust.

You can take lessons at Long Knockers—from a one-armed septuagenarian, a younger fellow who plays crosshanded, or a woman pro. Or you can get advice from any number of others who will adjust your swing for free. The one-armed pro, Dick Forest, has an excellent reputation for teaching beginners.

As an enthusiastic but inept golfer, I tell myself I come to Long Knockers to practice, although I probably succeed only in grooving my flawed swing. Mostly, what I like is its rich mix of people—from doctors and golf bums to judges on extended lunch hours, teens on cheap dates, whites and blacks, young and old, rich and poor. Still, Long Knockers is a real club, incorporated 20 years ago as a nonprofit group.

"We started out in 1969 as four [black] guys who just liked to play golf together," says Bill Stevens, who manages the range and is also the club president. "At that time, no black guy would go out on a golf course without getting dressed like he was going to church. So when we entered tournaments, which was just about every weekend during the season, we had matching everything—pants, shirts, shoes, golf bags. We even had matching blazers for when we went out at night. Other guys started noticing us and wanted to join, but the club has never had more than 18 members, which, according to our bylaws, is the maximum limit."

An eight handicapper, Stevens, 60, is a big man whose nickname as a kid was Heavy. He is mostly bald, has thick gray sideburns and a bushy gray mustache, and nearly always has a fat cigar clenched between his teeth. A former long-haul trucker and semipro football player with a gravelly voice and a big heart, he has a soft spot for boys. "I have three well-adjusted daughters," he says proudly, "but I never had a son." He took one troubled youth into his home, in hopes of straightening him out.

"I didn't preach to him," Stevens says. "I told him there's only one rule: You've got to take a shower before you go to bed at night and you've got to take one when you get up, because that's what my wife makes me do, and if you're going to live in my house you've got to do the same thing, because otherwise she'll kick you out. And if she don't kick you out, I will."

In a roundabout way Stevens's soft spot for kids is what led to the creation of the driving range. About a dozen years ago he overheard a high school golf coach at one of Philadelphia's municipal courses giving bad instruction to some students. He took the man aside and told him that the young players wouldn't advance with what he was telling them. One thing led to the next, and within a couple of weeks the members of the Long Knockers Golf Club had begun tutoring a couple of dozen inner-city high school golfers.

They also provided them with gear and golf clothes, because, as Stevens said, "They were looking awfully raggedy. They weren't looking like black guys are supposed to look on the course."

What the Long Knockers club lacked was a place to teach the young players, so in 1979 the club members persuaded the city to let them restore an abandoned driving range in the park.

"Our original purpose was to teach poor black kids the game of golf, because we had found it to be a helluva lot of fun and we wanted to give others that same opportunity," Stevens says. "A couple of kids who've come through here have become pretty good players and stuck with the game, but not too many. But the opportunity's there."

What the driving range has become is a magnet for adult golfers and a bright spot in an otherwise uninviting corner of the park.

On this midweek afternoon about half a dozen golfers are practicing on the range. A man with a red ponytail halfway down his back is playing in jeans and no shirt. He has an enviable, relaxed swing and consistently drives the ball to near the 240-yard marker. Near him is a chunky Asian-American man, a duffer, who on his backswing lifts his front leg like Mel Ott. He wears a tie which he has stuffed inside his business shirt; that in the Long Knockers lexicon makes him a "necktie." Further down the line two middle-aged black women in smart-looking golf skirts share a bucket of balls, and a man who has pulled his clubs from the back of a Bell Atlantic van rushes through a small bucket before scurrying back to work.

Stevens is not the type who needs to be prompted with a lot of questions. He has been talking about his effort to get Charles Barkley out to the range—"Have you ever seen him play? He's a slob on the course. I played behind him once. I told him, 'You're a great basketball player. You should be a great golfer, too. Come out to the range. We've got some people who could help you.' "—when he abruptly cuts himself off.

"Hold on just a second, I've got to take care of something."

He has spotted someone hitting off the grass, in front of the stalls, where golfers are supposed to use plastic mats. It turns out the rule-breaker is a Philadelphia judge, a Long Knockers regular, practicing for a round later in the day at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, a tony course just over the city line.

"Yo, your honor!" Stevens bellows. "You are in the wrong jurisdiction to be hitting balls. You know better than that."

I return a week later to Long Knockers on a breezy 75° day. The sky is perfectly blue except for a few puffy white clouds. Out on the range an old car zigzags along, gobbling up balls in a rack attached to its front bumper. The car, purchased at a junkyard for $150, is operated by a frighteningly thin youth, one of Stevens's reclamation projects.

Working through a small, $2 bucket, called a chip shot, I hear traffic, sirens, dogs barking, the ring of the cash register, other golfers hitting, an occasional whoosh. When I hook the ball and follow its flight (there are times I don't), the Philadelphia skyline comes into view above the tree line on the left side of the range.

I consider what attracts me to this range and think back to driving through the city many years ago with my parents. Usually we were on our way to old Connie Mack Stadium, which was about 20 blocks from here. I would look out the window of the Studebaker and excitedly point out baseball fields—they might be weed-strewn and rock-infested—and say, "I wish we had fields like that at home."

This became something of a family joke. We lived in the suburbs. We had better fields at home, but none better to my eyes. I liked a rightfield that ended at the trolley tracks.

There are probably better driving ranges than Long Knockers, with snack bars, video games, adjacent batting cages and easy access off four-lane highways. But there are none I would like better.

Always, my field of dreams has been an urban landscape.



Stevens (center) was one of the original foursome that started the Long Knockers club.



The welcome mat—with a tee—is always out for kids at Long Knockers.



Golfers can take lessons from Forest, who has a knack with beginners.

The author also wrote "Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose."