It’s only 4:30 on Friday afternoon, not even official quitting time for most white-collar workers, but 25 cars have already pulled into the parking lot of the La Ma Golf driving range on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Catalina Street in the heart of Koreatown.
Within a mile and a half or the distance Tiger Woods could cover in a half-dozen shots are two more of the net-enclosed ranges.
It’s very much of an L.A. phenomenon: Taking advantage of the popularity of golf among Koreans, each of these driving ranges pulls in enough customers to fill up all their stalls (which range from 24 to 44) by late afternoon.
Despite the crowds, all three businesses face challenges.
One of the ranges, Hansohl Healthland (which also offers a private health club, restaurant, karaoke bar and nightclub) has experienced financial problems and other, more-dramatic challenges. About a year ago, the owner of Hansohl, Tae Hyum Kim, was shot and killed by one of his employees, who then killed himself.
The business was apparently having financial problems prior to the incident and the property has since gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. California Korea Bank (which held a $6 million loan on the property) has assumed ownership of the property, according to title records.
Lisa Bae, general counsel for California Korea Bank, said the institution “is title holder, subject to certain conditions.” If any other party offers more for the property than the outstanding balance on Hansohl’s loan, “we may have to transfer the title back,” Bae said.
Sun Roh, who with her husband Won, owns La Ma Golf and four retail shops that sell golf apparel and supplies in the L.A. area, also said that business is not exactly booming.
Roh says she would cash out of La Ma if she had any takers. “If somebody was really interested in that business, I would sell,” she said. “Right now I have people to run the business. If the owner runs the business (themselves), they may be more profitable.”
Could it be that with so many driving ranges within, well, driving range, competition is just too stiff to support three ranges?
“We don’t pay too much attention,” said Robert Ha, vice president of Olympic Golf Driving Range.
Sun Roh said that despite the differences in bucket prices at the three businesses (they range from $4 to $7 a bucket), owners of the three ranges do not consider the competition fierce. “There are no bad feelings. We just run our own business,” said Sun Roh.
La Ma’s Pae, however, admitted that the range (which, at seven years old, is the oldest of the three) suffered a temporary drop-off in business when Hansohl opened four years ago and again when Olympic opened in July, but said La Ma’s customers eventually came back.
“We had two or three months of hard time when others went up, but now we don’t have space after 4 (p.m.),” said Pae. “(The three ranges) have enough players to go around.”
These players, however, only crowd onto the ranges at certain times of the day and week, leaving other times at the ranges slow.
“Certain periods of the time are crowded after work, lunch time, right before they go to work,” said Sun Roh. “It’s not always crowded.”
On weekends most golfers head to a golf course. So, unlike driving ranges that are combined with golf courses, Koreatown’s ranges are left primarily to depend on weekday business alone.
Some real estate experts also question whether driving ranges are the highest-value uses for the one-to-two-acre parcels on which they are situated.
“It doesn’t seem like the highest, best use to me,” said Maury Gentile, senior vice president for Grubb and Ellis Co. “It seems like there’s a better, higher use for the zoning, such as an office building, retail space or mixed use.” But Gentile added that without inspecting the businesses’ books, he cannot be certain.
Phillip Park, also a broker with Grubb and Ellis and an insider in the Korean community, said the owners of the properties may not have the “financial backbone” to redevelop the properties to alternate uses. He says that, for now, he believes the businesses are doing well. “I am certain they are profitable for what they are doing,” he said. “That’s what they want to do.”