Saturday, December 16, 2017
Bars & Spirits

Golf, both simulated and real, is on tap at three fun local pubs

With the U.S. Open wrapping up this weekend, everyone's attention will be focused on one thing: golf.

What's that, you say? You're not a golf fan and have never played the game seriously, past a few heated rounds at the local miniature golf course?

Well, that sounds a lot like me until very recently. Alas, I've been bitten by the golf bug.

A few weeks ago, it was my dad's birthday. For the past few years, I've been out of town for the occasion, so this was the first time in a while that we had a chance to get together and have some proper birthday fun. I got a tip about some interesting golf-related bar concepts in the area and thought we'd go check a couple of them out — despite my almost comical lack of golf experience.

My dad has dragged me to the driving range in the past, but dozens of 15-yard "drives" in every direction except straight meant that my clubs spent a lot more time collecting dust in the garage than sending balls down the fairway. Besides, golf always seemed too bourgeois for me. It had never occurred to me that golf can actually be pretty damn fun, as well as an ideal way to get in some quality family time.

With Father's Day this weekend, perhaps you're looking for something different to do with the old man, but aren't sure where to start. Maybe he's a casual golfer himself, or maybe you're both golf fanatics. Either way, I've got some suggestions, both for Father's Day, as well as just an ordinary night out.

Let's tee 'em up.

•••

We started out at Golfer's Grail, an "indoor golf and tap" facility in Carrollwood. Two of the words in that title intrigued me (hey, it's hot out) right off the tee. As soon as I walked inside, I knew this was completely new territory. The entire rear wall of Golfer's Grail was taken up with massive projection screens, separated into four separate sections, each depicting a simulation of a golf course, with a green patch of fake grass in front of each screen. I'd never seen anything like this.

Welcome to the world of indoor golf simulators.

Owner Jeff Sproat walked us through the ins and outs of the Golfblaster 3D software — the program that allows you to play a full, extremely realistic round of golf, all in front of a large screen. And while the ambient sounds inside Golfer's Grail include birds chirping to make you feel like you're out on the course, it always stays a cool 72 degrees.

Here's how it works: You pay for the simulator by the hour, and up to four golfers can share. You can start with the driving range, practice putting on the green or even perform accuracy drills by smashing the windows of an old house. When you're ready to hit the course, you select from a list of more than 60 actual courses from around the world. We picked a beginner's course in the Czech Republic.

This is not like the video games you find in most bars. Here, you're hitting real balls with real clubs, and sensors around the turf analyze your stroke, ball trajectory, club speed and other statistics. As a complete novice, this was invaluable, as the stats are available on a separate screen for you to peruse after each shot. I had a tendency to slice right on my drives, and while some people may be able to fix this intuitively, I like looking at numbers. Wouldn't you know it? My stroke angle was dead-on, but my club face angle was atrociously open, as far as 25 degrees at times.

While we golfed, we tried a few drinks. Golfer's Grail carries several craft beers, a handful of wines, and a cool policy of allowing guests to bring their own wine for a $15 corkage fee, but we decided on the $3 shandy special. This traditional beer-and-lemonade cooler is perfect for a round of golf, and at the Grail, you can get it with your choice of beer and mixer (7-Up, ginger ale, lemonade, etc.). And if you get hungry, you can even order food from one of several neighboring restaurants that will deliver it directly to you.

We only managed to make it through about five holes before it was time to go, but if you visit and want to wind down afterward, Golfer's Grail also has a comfy lounge area, the aforementioned 19th hole bar and even a pro shop. Need to work on your game? Three PGA Class A instructors offer lessons at the Grail, as well as two PGA apprentices, including Sprout's son Jason.

•••

Next, we headed down the road to the Golf Club, an upscale bar and lounge in Westchase that also happens to be in the golf simulation biz. With late-night hours, as well as a full food menu and extensive selection of craft beers, high-end wines and premium spirits, the Golf Club is popular as a standalone bar. Indeed, the large front patio is perfect for sipping one of several signature house cocktails, or cracking open a bottle of Belgian ale. But it would be a pity to miss the golf simulation experience here.

Like at the Grail, there are four simulators, but these are positioned into private, dark (to increase projection contrast) rooms that come with their own bench seating and tables. Groups of up to eight are welcome to rent these by the hour. The software here is from TruGolf, which is similar enough to the setup at Golfer's Grail that my dad and I were comfortable jumping right into the first hole at scenic Pebble Beach Golf Links. Sure, it's only a simulation, but it looks great up there on the 10- by 12-foot screens. If you go, allow me to offer a recommendation: Set the display time of the on-screen statistics to 10 seconds, instead of the way-too-short default.

We didn't do much better this time around, but instructor Richard Hall graciously popped in and gave us a few beginner tips that turned out to be extremely helpful. My stroke improved immediately, though I still have a long way to go. Hall offers lessons at the Golf Club, including buddy clinics for two players and outdoor lessons at the nearby Westchase Golf Club.

•••

A week later, I still had a hankering to hit some balls, so some friends and I drove to a place I had noticed a while back, the DeRanged Drinkin Pub n' Drivin Range in Tarpon Springs. The name says it all — this is one of the only places where drinking and driving is perfectly fine.

A small, outdoor bar sits at the back of a trailer, between a trifecta of games that practically demand to be played with a beer nearby: a cornhole court, batting cages and, of course, a driving range.

There are no simulators at DeRanged — it's simply a bar where you can play baseball, cornhole or golf. The range goes back around 200 yards, and there are two targets; hit one for a free bucket of beer, the other for a free bucket of balls. If you don't make it, the drinks are cheap anyway — around $3 for most beers and $5 for wine.

Friday and Saturday nights are big at DeRanged, partly because you can pay a $10 cover at 7 p.m. (6 p.m. on Saturday) and get unlimited free beer, wine and soda until 9 p.m. The cover charge also comes with specials on driving range buckets, as well as discounts on buckets of beer and batting cage tokens. That's a tough deal to argue.

At DeRanged, I was pleased to find that all that work I did at Golfer's Grail and the Golf Club had paid off. Well, a little. I'm still not hitting 200-yard drives, but I'm hitting the ball more often than not, and sometimes it even goes straight!

More importantly, I had a great time doing it and can't wait to get back out on the driving range, and especially the simulator. And as for my dad, he said it was one of the best birthdays he's had in a long time.

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