BRANDON — Evie scratched her name with a heart at the end while B + B encompassed their initials inside a heart. You haven't lived in Brandon unless you've used your mini golf scorecard pencil to leave a message on the white pelican overlooking the 10th hole at Ace Golf Brandon on Kings Avenue. And if you haven't yet autographed one of Brandon's most iconic birds, this weekend will be your last opportunity.
After nearly 26 years, the combined mini golf course, driving range and batting cages will close for good on May 5. The property has been sold to Edward Rose Properties, which plans to build 333 apartments on the site.
Owner Bill Place has many fond memories of the first business he opened with his wife, Su. He oversaw more than 1,000 birthday parties. He once hosted a church group of 90 kids – and fished one of them out of the blue-dyed pond near the shark's mouth. And he once watched his 3-year old son proclaiming to all the driving range patrons that he finally "went poo poo in the potty."
But the decision to close was all business.
"With a decline in golf participation, we have seen revenue decreases almost every year since about 2001," Place said. "Since Top Golf opened, our business dropped by one third and profitability by over half. With the prospect of continued eroding revenues, the need for a complete facility revamp and the attractive prices being offered for the property, it became clear that we should sell and focus our efforts on our second location."
Place invites all patrons with member cards and gift cards to use them at his other Ace Golf location at 12910 Boyette Road in Riverview which has offered the same services since it opened in 2003, 10 years after the Brandon location. Some staff will transfer to that location and others will join local golf courses that Place also owns.
Ace Golf Brandon gained national attention shortly after 9/11 when it erected an 8-foot tall by 8-foot wide bulls eye target in the driving range featuring a picture of Osama bin Laden in the center. The first week of October 2001, the sign was located at the 150-yard marker and Ace Golf Brandon sold buckets of balls and raised more than $3,000 for Silver Shield, a non-profit that benefits the children and families of police officers, firemen, medical technicians and other emergency service workers killed in the line of duty.
Other driving range targets popped up during the 2012 presidential election, when golfers were invited to shoot at Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Four years later, golfers could take aim at Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Place thought he would conduct unofficial polls based on who had more golf balls collecting around their sign, but it quickly became apparent that instead of casting a golf ball vote for a candidate, many people took out their frustrations by shooting at the one they didn't like.
Ace Golf Brandon was a popular stop for former Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman, and the Florida Panthers were known to hold some ultra-competitive rounds on the mini golf course — some may have autographed the pelican as well. Recently the location was featured on the MTV show Siesta Key as a date destination for a couple.
"The mini-golf was and is a popular first-date place," Place said. "I think it is really neat to see their signatures (on the white bird) and declarations of love."