Nick Harry can be spotted hitting golf balls all the time at The Lakes in El Segundo.

The Mira Costa High freshman heads to the putting green twice a week with his varsity golf team and shows up on plenty of afternoons when the team isn't scheduled to practice. Sometimes he even squeezes in time before school.

The nine-hole course along Sepulveda Boulevard is like a second home to the Manhattan Beach teen, who catches rides back and forth from his parents and teammates.

"All this practice helps me get a lot better," said Harry, 15. "I play in a lot of tournaments all across California, and I realize how good these greens are."

Harry's teammates share his affection for the municipal course that sits on land donated years ago to El Segundo by the Chevron oil refinery. And these days they're among a group of golfers and instructors questioning a plan to overhaul the driving range, add more parking and reconfigure a few holes of the course - out of concern the changes would hurt a community institution.

When TopGolf and the El Segundo development firm CenterCal Properties first presented their plans to the El Segundo City Council in August, members were generally supportive of TopGolf's technology-driven golf concept.

Facing a small audience that night, the Dallas company outlined plans to rebuild the driving range with patented technology that invites golfers to hit special microchipped balls toward targets equipped with sensors.


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TopGolf facilities assign players points for accuracy, and their scores show up instantaneously inside their golf bays. One official described the concept as "almost like bowling" for golfers, because up to six players can take turns and compete against one another while eating and drinking during a game.

City staff members said the venue should bring in at least $75,000 in annual revenues, on top of what El Segundo would see from a new ground lease for the range.

Local golfers are upset about the prospect of a new operator overhauling the driving range at The Lakes in El Segundo. The municipal range would get new
Local golfers are upset about the prospect of a new operator overhauling the driving range at The Lakes in El Segundo. The municipal range would get new high tech equipment including balls with sensors showing distance to markers and a more business like atmoshere including alcoholic beverage service. Junior golf academy students work on their short game. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

But in the days and weeks that followed, professional golfers who teach at The Lakes, their students and others who frequent the course began to voice reservations.

Chief among them are concerns that TopGolf's business plan focuses less on golf and more on running an entertainment venue that serves food and alcohol in the hitting bays.

Scott Robert, a professional who teaches clients at The Lakes, recently flew to Chicago to visit a TopGolf site, where he saw people "drinking, hitting balls and having a blast." In remarks he wrote to the city, he said he decided "TopGolf is not a facility for the serious golfer," and that golf instruction doesn't seem to be a main focus.

Robert and others have said they fear The Lakes could lose its value as a teaching facility and become less accessible to teams wanting to practice there.

The initial conceptual plan apparently didn't factor in the existing putting green just outside the driving range - an area that on one recent sunny afternoon was packed with golfers. Losing it would be a detriment, Robert said.

"Sixty-three percent of a golfer's shots are less than a full swing, so there has to be an area for that," he said while watching one of his young students hit balls into a bunker at The Lakes. "The way it currently is, it's kind of a learning center, a learning environment."

TopGolf, which wasn't expecting the kind of negative reaction that's apparent on a "SAVE the Lakes" Facebook page with more than 700 "likes," has hired a public relations firm to help explain and clarify its proposal.

But some skeptics question why the city is entertaining only this plan and hasn't put out a call for proposals from other potential operators.

CenterCal and TopGolf approached El Segundo about the prospect of opening a high-tech range - a plan staff members wanted to first take to the council to determine whether they should move forward with it, said Ted Shove, a city economic development analyst. Officials have said they'd reach out to Lane/Donovan Golf Partners, which now operates The Lakes, about continuing to run the course itself. 

Although Shove has said The Lakes hasn't been a profitable venture for El Segundo, it's not clear how the budget numbers break down. Shove said he's in the process of preparing a financial report that takes into account revenues and expenditures for the range, course, pro shop, restaurant and more.

In the meantime, TopGolf and CenterCal, which would oversee changes to the golf course, have been making revisions to the conceptual plan.

For one, the putting green, chipping green and sand trap at The Lakes will remain, although they'll likely shift to a new location, city and company officials said last week.

And in response to concerns about proposed revisions to a few holes on the course, the companies next month plan to submit new drawings to members of the city's Golf Course Subcommittee.

Randy Starr, TopGolf's chief development officer, said the changes stem from feedback received at various community meetings.

"We were a little bit taken aback" by the initial reaction, Starr said, adding that he also understood golfers wanting more answers about how The Lakes would change. "What's hurt us is, we don't have a TopGolf in L.A."

Starr maintains TopGolf venues are both "family friendly" and accessible to student golfers. "We have teams practice at each of our TopGolf facilities now," he said.

And he rejected claims that an El Segundo venue offering 102 golf bays spread over three levels would attract a drinking crowd that could push out local golfers. The bar area would make up 3 to 4 percent of the overall square footage, he said.

The company, which operates nine ranges in the United States and England, often reserves the ground floor of the range for "serious golfers" and students, he added.

"We're really excited about the opportunity," Starr said. "I really think that TopGolf will be a great addition to El Segundo."

Of course, the concept will need approval from the City Council after it receives enough feedback from various commissions.

Mayor Carl Jacobson, who did not return a call from the Daily Breeze, has said previously that the plan is not a done deal.

"We're looking at it," said Councilman Bill Fisher, who with Jacobson serves on the city's golf subcommittee. "TopGolf is making changes to their proposal and we'll see where we are."

kristin.agostoni@dailybreeze.com

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