Before I came across Tampa's Golfer's Grail — an indoor golf simulation facility — I thought golf only came in four flavors: courses, driving ranges, putting greens, and, of course, miniature golf.
The first three are generally the realm of the "serious" golfer — the person who owns clubs, takes the game seriously and doesn't mind dropping a few dimes on an early morning tee time — and the latter a place where you'll find children, teens, and 20-somethings, whose concept of golf involves windmills, caverns and elaborate water traps.
Then I heard about Topgolf, which I gathered was some type of high-tech driving range on the outskirts of Tampa, near Brandon. Topgolf is a chain founded in 2000 by brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe, who opened the original British facility after musing about various ways to optimize their driving range experience. According to its website, "It's not golf — it's Topgolf." Huh?
It turns out that Topgolf is a massive, sleek entertainment complex — think about a really big and popular local club and multiply that by five — centered around a proprietary driving range concept. The 240-yard range has dozens of bays, stacked three stories tall, and there are colorfully-lit targets positioned at various distances. More on that in a second.
It's a surprisingly ambitious business. There are three bars, full food service, a dance floor with DJs and a game room — and this is all apart from the central focus of the driving range. It's a big, flashy production, and I was skeptical the actual experience would live up to the hype. It did.
The place is huge. So huge, in fact, that a shuttle cruises the parking lot, giving rides to the front entrance. Once inside, you'll need to buy a lifetime membership card ($5, and it keeps track of your game credits and scores) before heading to the concierge and booking a bay. If you show up on a weekend night, expect a long wait, especially if you want to go to the third floor. Pro-tip: the first-floor driving range is also really cool and rarely has a long wait, if any.
If there is a wait, you're free to lounge around in the downstairs game room, which features free pool, table shuffleboard and Nintendo Wii. There are sprawling lounge sofas and flatscreens showing whatever game is being played, so you won't be bored.
The name stands for Target Oriented Practice Golf, and that kind of explains how the games work. You get a bay, which has a table for six, its own TV (you can change the channels using the Topgolf smartphone app), clubs and a game console. The various games work using real clubs, real balls and a real range, but the balls contain a microchip. In most games, the goal is to aim for big, colorful targets scattered across the range. It's kind of like darts.
There's a strong party vibe, with tunes, the occasional live DJ and even lights synched to the music on the driving range targets. It's unlike any bar, club or golf experience I've ever had. Some serious golfers will scoff, but this is a rare crossover, where the amateur will have just as much fun as someone capable of reaching the net 240 yards out.
The bays rent by the hour and can get pretty pricey when the rate doubles after 6 p.m. If you want to keep it cheap, visit in the daytime. You won't get the flashy lights, but you'll have little or no wait. Day or night, bring a group. During peak hours, bays are $40 for an hour. When you split it six ways, that's nothing. Balls are unlimited, too.
Of course, there's lots to eat and drink. There's a wide variety of signature cocktails, a few beers and a rotating draft selection — which includes some solid local options. The cocktails aren't bad, either. I had a whiskey smash made with Makers and fresh blueberries, and it was on par (sorry) with what I'd expect at a legit cocktail bar.
Wines are available by the glass and bottle, and you can even spring for a $250 bottle of Dom. Fortunately — and somewhat surprisingly, given the almost theme-park level of production at this place — drink prices are entirely reasonable. Beers are about $5, and cocktails are only a buck or two more. If you've got a group, punchbowl drinks and beer buckets are a great option.
It's surprising that a place so slick, heavily-produced, and, well, corporate, comes across as anything other than a lame pastime for people with too much money to burn. But this place has a novel concept and an execution that delivers exactly what's promised. I couldn't help but have a great time, and I expect most people would, whether they're serious golfers or used to putting balls across the deck of a miniature pirate ship.