SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Barry Mahlberg and his buddies started out as range rats at the old Stardust Country Club in Mission Valley, where some of them were hitting balls and others were picking them up just to get playing privileges.
They all shared a love for golf, but they were truly young men at the time, still finding their way in life. They had no idea where the game would take them. They just knew they'd like to make a living doing it, one way or another.
More than two decades later, many of them are still together on an almost daily basis, doing what they love, at the Stadium Golf Center and Batting Cages, which has become the "Cheers" bar of practice facilities in San Diego.
Twenty years ago this month, Mahlberg and business partner Mike Strode opened the Stadium driving range on an old construction dump site off Interstate 15, just north of Qualcomm Stadium. Both men were in real estate, both loved golf, and they saw the project as a way to diversify their holdings.
It soon became far more than a business.
"We've had the opportunity to sell it over the years, but it's almost like it's too much fun," Mahlberg said. "Buildings are just bricks and mortar; you can take them or leave them. In this case, a lot of it has to do with the golf and (Stadium's) prominence in the community. And it's mostly the guys who have been round here forever."
Nearly all of the staff and instructors go back to those Stardust days, and most have been at Stadium for all of the time it's been open. The instruction stable of Barry's brother, Scott Mahlberg, Ron Reiss, Mike Nokes, Gary Griggs, Justin Hicks, Bill Barrett, Tom Wischmeyer, Chris Smeal and Lori Brock are among the most respected in the county. Barry Mahlberg estimates they give about 10,000 golf lessons a year.
They are highly regarded players, too. There was a time during the long-running Century Club Matches that Stadium teachers comprised at least half the pro team.
In the golf shop, general manager Monty Leong, an area native who played at San Diego State, has been the Stadium manager since it opened. Coleman Mullin has been the club fitter from the start.
In a business in which some pros change home courses like they change golf shirts, it's unique to have kept so many people together for so long.
"I don't think there's a lot of energy like this at many other places," Leong said. "We want people to feel comfortable when they're here. We're all a bunch of friendly guys who love golf. We want to grow the game, so the relationships mean everything."
There are a handful of large-scale driving ranges in San Diego, but no other facility quite has Stadium's vibe or energy. The pro shop is often alive with chatter between the staff and customers. There are 72 hitting stations, including a double-decked area, that are often full during peak hours. The batting cages are in the back, along with the practice area that can be used all day for $6.
A driving range is a unique property in golf. Stadium truly gets all comers, from those who have never swung a club before to tour professionals. San Diego State and USD's golf teams regularly practice there. The center hosts numerous area high schools, giving them range balls free of charge. They hold a steady stream of charity events, and one of the biggest junior golf teaching programs in the country, Smeal's Future Champions, is based at Stadium.
The trick is smoothly melding all of these constituencies together.
The visit, unlike that to a golf course, is "more intense," Leong said. "There's a lot more touch points that we stay close to. We're not sending them away for four or five hours. We want them to relax and have a good time."
Stadium takes the game seriously. Barry Mahlberg, who tried his hand at playing on the pro tours, laughs when he recalls the early days of going to ranges and having to pick through the worn balls. The least scuffed, he said, were saved for the driver.
Stadium takes pride in replacing all 60,000 of its range balls every 90 days.
"If we were a small operation, there's no way we could afford that," Mahlberg said.
The business of golf has changed in two decades. Stadium happened to open at the most ideal time – just as Tiger Woods was coming to the fore. After his historic win in the 1997 Masters, business shot up as if it were a saloon in a gold-rush town full of thirsty miners.
"In my wildest dreams, I couldn't have imagined that it would be any better," Leong said. "It was crazy. We had people parking down the street."
Leong doesn't foresee a demand like that again, but there's still that ever elusive feeling that keeps folks coming back.
"Once somebody has that feeling of impact ... some are going to get hooked," he said. "That feeling runs right up your arm and into your soul."