In March of 2003, Tiger Woods was getting ready to defend his Masters championship for the second year in a row, while a 3-year-old gelding named Funny Cide was training for the Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, at Tampa Bay Downs, golf and Thoroughbred racing were about to overlap with the opening of a golf driving range and practice facility on a 22-acre parcel of land directly south of the racetrack.
At the time, management’s decision to add golf to its menu of entertainment offerings raised eyebrows among close observers of both sports. But as The Downs Golf Practice Facility prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary of operation on Saturday, March 23, it is apparent the turfgrass is greener on both sides of the street.
Manager and head professional Jon Johnson said the facility will offer free club fittings and clinics that day, along with specials on food and range balls and pro shop discounts.
“My first reflection on celebrating our 10th anniversary is how fast the time has gone by,” said Johnson, a Class A PGA professional and past President of the West Central Chapter of the North Florida PGA who has been in charge of The Downs Golf Practice Facility since the beginning. “The thing I’m most proud of is how we’ve maintained a high level of service and quality throughout – the quality of the grass, balls, instruction and appearance. That, and the success of Golfest, which has grown every year (since its 2011 debut), are extremely gratifying,” Johnson said.
Last month’s two-day Golfest Presented by Tampa Bay Championship, highlighted by an appearance by LPGA Tour star Brittany Lincicome, attracted more than 3,000 attendees, a 40-percent increase from last year. Previous Golfest headliners include LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam in 2011 and instructor David Leadbetter in 2012.
Since 2003, the facility has developed into a prime year-round destination for golfers of all ages and ability levels – as well as anyone who enjoys playing a few races between sessions on the range, short-game area and putting greens. The fully-lighted complex, which attracts more than 35,000 visitors a year, features 45 all-Bermuda grass hitting stations; two full-size chipping greens; an 8,000-square foot putting green; and a covered range area.
The Downs Golf Practice Facility was named one of the top new ranges in the country in 2004 by Golf Range Magazine and has been ranked among the top-100 ranges in the United States annually since. Johnson and his staff, which includes fellow PGA Class A professional Matt Mitchell, provide quality instruction on a daily basis, as well as offering adult and junior clinics and junior summer camps. For details, call (813) 854-4946.