ZEPHYRHILLS — Chris Murphy stood before the chewed-up wooden targets and considered the question: Why throw axes?
"It's almost like a primal satisfaction when you throw a sharp object and it sticks into wood," the 46-year-old said. "When it hits, you get it."
Murphy and his wife, Becky, run Molly's Hatchet. It's an ax-throwing joint in downtown Zephyrhills, the only such venue in Pasco County and one of just four in the Tampa Bay Area.
Those local spots are part of a nationwide trend spanning the past several years. A January 2018 article in Forbes pinned the growth of ax-throwing bars to 2011; two professional competitive leagues formed in 2016 and 2017.
Since its April 27 opening, the Zephyrhills operation says it's seen steady business.
"Every week has been successively a little better," said Daniel Sperry, 45, the venue's manager who jokingly calls himself its "ax master."
He and the couple make up the team at Molly's, along with volunteers.
The Murphys first tried ax-throwing while visiting Fort Walton Beach last year. They were walking along a street when a man pulled them aside and egged them into some ax tosses. Chris Murphy realized: "This is something that we want to do more often."
They started heading to places around Tampa, and another realization dawned: Why not skip the drive?
"There's only two things to do in town, and that's going to a bar or going to a movie," Chris Murphy said. "We wanted to be the first in the area that offers something like this."
Ax-throwing is kind of like bowling. Molly's Hatchet features four lanes, all separated by plywood half-walls and fencing and each with two wooden targets. A bed of wood chips rests in each lane.
It follows procedures from the World Axe Throwing League, the team said. The distance between throwers and targets is measured to reduce the likelihood of an ax bouncing too far back — and even if one did, the wood chips catch it.
Sperry thinks about safety like this: "How often does somebody get hit with a bowling ball?"
The league regulates ax weight, length and more. It runs tournaments, too, which the team at Molly's hopes to get more involved in.
"They're working really hard to show a portrayal of this legitimate sport because it's so new," Chris Murphy said.
A coach mans each lane at Molly's to help guide newcomers.
"We're not just here to collect their money," the husband said. "We want to teach them how to throw."
He explained his strategy for sticking a solid one: weak foot forward, a few inches behind the marked line. Strong foot back, with your weight on it. Hold the ax in your strong hand, arm straight out and level. Then cock it back over your shoulder, and in one fluid motion send your weight to your front foot, releasing with all that momentum.
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If you do it right, the ax will spin like a wheel and strike blade forward. And, just maybe, it'll stick into the soft, sometimes wetted wood the team uses for targets.
"It's not about power. It's not about throwing it hard. It's a finesse thing," said Sperry.
"I think they surprise themselves, especially the women," Becky Murphy, 47, said. In her experience, men tend to approach the game with too much macho-power and too little precision.
The Murphys have plans to outfit the empty second room of their Fifth Avenue space with more rustic targets like stumps to add a renaissance fair–style alternative.
They have a partnership with the nearby Zephyrhills Brewing Company to offer two-way discounts, but they want to start serving their own drinks. (Which is pretty common in this business.) And they hope to broadcast pro tournament reruns on overhead TVs to help people get into the competitive spirit they hope to build.
What speaks to their potential? Take the couple's recollection of one of the first times they considered opening their own place.
They were camping with friends in North Carolina last June when Chris Murphy found an old ax he had stowed in his truck. He thought of the time in Fort Walton and started throwing the tool at a dead tree.
Soon, the two recalled, everyone had lined up to get their turn.
The group threw from day to night, until they started losing the ax in the bushes because it was too dark to track.
"It entertained us for hours," Becky Murphy said. "That meant we're either simple, or this is actually fun."
Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.