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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: We’re Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice … at Sunset Golf!

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A friendly entrance for last week's visit to Sunset Golf. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

SOUTH PARK, Pa. — During a recent PGN Course Review, my tour guide commented to me that “driving ranges are an afterthought in Pittsburgh.”

He was more referring to the lack of proper warmup facilities at many courses across the region, as opposed to businesses that are strictly for practice, but I’ve found his observation to be the case across the board.

As someone who needs to make a few dozen swings a day to feel like I have a shot to play good golf, this subject hits home for me. Some of my most enjoyable days in this sport have been experienced while searching for something at the range, experimenting and (sometimes) discovering an effective adjustment or thought. The pursuit of competence and mastery compels me the most about the game.

I’ve long been an admirer of Ben Hogan’s legacy — who wouldn’t be? — but his ‘dig the answers out of the dirt’ work ethic always resonated with me the most. (Although today, that maxim might be adapted for the increasing quality of artificial turf.)

As such, when I started his site several weeks ago, I wanted to make sure to highlight the region’s top practice facilities in addition to the courses that garner so much attention. Shout out to the grinders and the searchers.

That’s why I was so excited to find what I now believe to be one of Pittsburgh’s hidden golf paradises: Sunset Golf.

Located on Brownsville Road, a couple of centimeters below South Park Golf Course on your road atlas, Dave Scandrol’s haven doesn’t look extraordinary when you first pull in, but trust me when I say that it is.

Like most area ranges, Sunset Golf adapted to the topography it was presented, but unlike most area ranges, there’s not much elevation change at all from where the golfer hits to where the ball lands. As someone who’s looking to nail down carry yardages for all my clubs, that’s always been my biggest complaint at the places I’ve frequented over the years.

North Park Driving Range? Too far uphill. Miller Golf Center? Too far downhill. Scally’s Golf Center? Too far downhill with the shorter shots, and too far uphill with the longer ones.

At Sunset, the range is oriented on a sidehill; there’s no avoiding slope in Western Pennsylvania. But when you hit a shot with one of the premium (not reduced-flight!) practice balls, you can trust the number.

Oh! And speaking of numbers, each hitting stall is equipped with a device that measures ball speed and estimated carry distance. Talk about burying the lead! I’ve gotten accustomed to the idea of that kind of data being available only at expensive, premium facilities, but all this came with purchase of my $10 large bucket.

I had to do a double take when I saw this. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

A non-golfer wouldn’t get it, but the hour I spent dialing in my yardages at Sunset was one of the most enjoyable of 2020. Nothing like real-life digital feedback when you spend most of your practice hours hitting into a net in your driveway, trying to figure out through feel how good you hit that last one.

Now, there are more advanced tools at Sunset for the golfer who’s so inclined to explore. Included in that is a cozy indoor hitting environment that makes Scandrol’s lesson services a year-round venture.

But the fact that I can get basic launch data at Sunset for an extremely reasonable price is a huge checkmark in one of the PGN’s primary values: Accessibility. All the technological advances in the world are of little good if they’re only for people of a certain means or financial status.

So I say ‘bravo’ to Scandrol and Sunset Golf for investing in the resources to provide extraordinary value to their customers. The game is healthier for it.

By the way, this was all a very pleasant surprise. I never would’ve made the trip to South Park last week if Sunset hadn’t become PGN’s first Eagle Sponsor on our Practice Facility Directory, so thanks to Scandrol for the faith in what we’re doing.

Judging from my visit, this is precisely the kind of place we’re proud to be associated with.

Oh, I never mentioned the 27 creative holes of mini golf. Hi, Batman.

A stern greeting from the Caped Crusader. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• In case you missed it, PGN’s coverage of the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown was greatly enhanced by direct input from fourth-place finisher Connor Schmidt.

Thanks to Connor for sparing some time on one of his best days as a golfer to chat with me and give us some insider insight on a tournament we were unable to cover in person.

• As far as this week goes, there’s much more by way of amateur competition.

First of all, the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association today hosts its 100th Junior Championship at Grove City Country Club. Then, on Thursday, the WPGA presents the Isaly’s Women’s Amateur at Green Oaks Country Club in Verona.

The week wraps up in familial fashion Friday at Shannopin CC in Ben Avon Heights, which is the annual site of the WPGA Brothers Championship. (The Gajtka brothers will have to wait until 2021 to enter as Mark has been dragging his feet on getting an official USGA handicap.)

• As far as the Isaly’s Junior Tour goes, they’ll be at Green Oaks today for the final ‘regular-season’ tournament of the year, a.k.a. the Dr. Charles Cuden Memorial.

On Wednesday, it’s another family affair with the Parent/Junior Championship at Westmoreland CC in Export.

• The Tri-State PGA continues to roll through the meat of its schedule, with the Dr. John Aber Memorial Classic today at Allegheny CC. The National Car Rental Assistant Pro Championship commences Tuesday at Shannopin.

• The field was much less star-laden than the previous week at the Memorial, but the 3M Open in suburban Minneapolis still provided a strong story. Seven years after his first PGA Tour victory, 35-year-old Michael Thompson converted a share of the 54-hole lead into a two-shot win at TPC Twin Cities.

While there weren’t a ton of elite players in the tournament, Tony Finau enjoyed a brief lead in the middle of Sunday’s round before falling off to an incredible nine-way third-place tie. Finau is hoping his wait for an encore PGA triumph isn’t as long as Thompson’s, but it’s now well beyond four years.

Thompson and second-place finisher Adam Long both earned berths into September’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Long made the cut by a shot at 2 under, then went 15 under for the weekend to nearly steal the title.

Now seven weeks into its COVID-19 restart, the Tour travels south along the Mississippi River this week, settling in Memphis for the WGC-St. Jude Classic, the final event before the year’s first major, the PGA Championship.

• The LPGA Tour returns to the course this week as well, with the 54-hole Drive On Championship at famed Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

Following that, it’ll stay in northwest Ohio with the Marathon Classic, to be covered in person by our own Zac Weiss.

• As usual, let me know at matt.gajtka@gmail.com or on Twitter (@MattGajtka & @PghGolfNow) if you would like to join Sunset Golf in the ranks of PGN advertisers! Let us help get the word out on your brand.

Until next time, hit ’em straight. Or if you can’t do that, at least hit ’em long.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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