WESLEY CHAPEL — Down a dirt road in a metal building behind the Pasadena Hills Golf Center's clubhouse and driving range sits the ultimate golfer's hideout.
It is basically a climate-controlled wooden box with synthetic turf and a few stools in the back.
But when the lights are on, it's clear why golfers flock to the box. They are there for the GolfBlaster indoor simulator. They can play nine holes in an hour without worrying about the weather, a slow foursome in front of them or being quiet during shots.
All they have to do is put the ball on the mat, swing away and let the GolfBlaster track their shot on a projector screen. Since the center got the simulator in March, its popularity has mushroomed from a few players to a simulator league.
"At night sometimes there's 14, 16 guys in here all ribbing each other and having a good time,'' Pasadena Hills co-owner Fred Bender said. "Some guys don't come to our range to hit balls, but they'll come in here and do this.''
Bender said about 30 players are in the league, which just finished its 12-week season. Another league is set to begin in a week. Players have a week to complete nine holes. There are winners for lowest score, skins, closest to the hole, sand saves, low net score and other categories.
When the room isn't being used for league play, it can be used as a virtual driving range. Golfers can rent the room for $30 an hour and hit balls at the screen. Bender and fellow co-owner Tim Polce, both PGA professionals, give lessons in the room as well.
"It's remarkably accurate,'' Polce said. "If you hook (the ball) or slice it out there, you'll hook it or slice it in here also.''
How it works
Golf simulators have been around for years, but the technology continues to get better.
They used to be treated as games to have at home or at golf shops to test clubs. But they have evolved into useful tools for players and teaching pros. Not only do the simulators have courses that allow players to use every club, they also have driving ranges. Each shot can be analyzed for distance, club head speed and club face position at the point of impact.
"The thing that we liked about it the most is that good players like playing it,'' Bender said. "If good players like playing it, then you've got something. If only people who shot a 110 liked it, then it's a Wii game or something. But the shots are good enough to keep them happy. It's still a game. It's still a computer. But it's also pretty doggone realistic.''
The simulator works by projecting the course or range onto a big screen. (The bulb on the projector has a life span of about 2,000 hours; a replacement costs $400.)
The tee mat has sensors to pick up the club action. Two more sensors are on the floor about 4 feet from the mat. One more in the box's roof creates a triangular gap for the ball to travel through.
As the ball passes through the triangle, the computer measures speed and spin to determine it's path. By the time the ball smacks against the screen, the computer has read the data and gives the ball its path. For putting, the ball rolls toward the screen and through the path. The screen is 9 feet from the mat.
All this technology is not cheap. GolfBlasters retail for $50,000.
How it started
Polce and Bender started working with each other at the Golf Grove driving range in Tampa. Both wanted to own a range, and in 2000 they bought a track of land off Eiland Boulevard in Wesley Chapel.
They bought houses on the land and slowly started creating the driving range. The range opened full time in 2008, and they have been tinkering with it since.
Last year the duo met Jan Burger, who would hit balls at the range occasionally while vacationing in the winter. He mentioned that he sold simulators in the Czech Republic, and he offered to loan them one to help spread the word in the United States.
"I saw some of the simulators at the PGA (merchandise) show last year," Bender said, "and I told Tim we had to get one. Then this offer came along, and we just had to do it.''
Because their simulator is from Europe, it has only European courses. But the players don't seem to mind. Each week Bender sets up a different course with the same wind and weather conditions.
Where it's headed
Polce and Bender have bigger plans for what they think is the next big thing in golf.
They bought space at the Shops at Wiregrass mall in Wesley Chapel and plan to open a bar with at least one simulator. Their goal is to have four simulators, with people playing in leagues or using them while their families and friends shop.
"I can see it being set up kind of like a bowling alley,'' Bender said. "You have simulators set up next to each other, with room for people to sit and watch behind it. I mean, somebody's there while their partner shops, and they've got nothing to do, they can come in there. Have a place to hide out. To us, it's a no-brainer.''
Another idea is to establish leagues throughout the Tampa Bay area and link them. Players would pay $20 per week, with $10 going into a shared pot for the winners.
"If you get 50 people per league, that's $5,000 in the pot,'' Bender said. "And then if you add more leagues, who's going to drop out? If you kept expanding and kept the leagues joined together, it would be really something.''
What would also be something, Bender thought, is to get simulator programs for all the courses played on the PGA Tour and have golfers play the same courses tour players are playing every week.
"Think about it. If the PGA is at the Bob Hope Classic, you're playing the Bob Hope Classic,'' Bender said. "If they're at Augusta that week, so are you. I think people would go nuts.''