Golf with guns

Sporting clays at Tenoroc hits the mark

Story by Jarrett • Photography by Jason Stephens

The first target streaks in from the left just twenty-five yards away. With his shotgun already mounted on his shoulder, the shooter swings his barrel across the target’s path and slaps the trigger. The shotgun pops, and suddenly the orange blur explodes into a starburst of orange and black shards. We’re on the sporting clays course at Tenoroc Shooting Center just outside Lakeland, and it’s fair to say we’ve just been bitten by the sporting clays bug.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOLF WITH GUNS

For the most part, shotgun sports can be divided into three categories: trap, skeet, and sporting clays. Although important differences exist, all three sports share the same hunting heritage, given they were each developed as a way for hunters to keep their shotgunning skills sharp in the off-season. Each one also involves shooting at fastmoving targets called clay pigeons, or clays, for short. The clays, which resemble miniature ceramic Frisbees, are thrown by mechanical launchers known as traps — or if the trap is covered by a small shed — a house.
Of the trio, trap and skeet are the oldest and also the most similar. Both trap and skeet enjoy long, tweed-clad histories that date as far back as the early 1800s and 1920s, respectively. In both sports, shooters take turns shooting from different stations along a crescent-shaped course. In trap, the clays are thrown from a house that lies directly in front of the shooters. In skeet, the clays are thrown from two houses — a high house and a low house — that sit on either side of the course.
Although trap and skeet are a great deal of fun in their own right, in some ways they’re the old, slightly stuffy fraternal twins of the shotgun sports family. Sporting clays, in contrast, is the young, sporty, kid brother.

Imported from England during the 1980s, sporting clays differs from trap and skeet in a few important ways. Whereas trap and skeet fields are laid out in precise configurations,
sporting clays courses ramble on across acres of natural terrain, much like golf courses. That’s a comparison that isn’t lost on sporting clays enthusiasts, by the way, who commonly
describe their sport as “golf with guns.”
Instead of eighteen holes of golf, a typical sporting clays course might have ten to fifteen stations (Tenoroc currently has twelve) spread out across a few dozen acres of wooded property. And, like individual holes in golf, each station presents shooters with a novel challenge. The only real limits are safety, the designer’s imagination, and the laws of physics.

MIXING IT UP ON TENOROC ’S SPORTING CLAY S COURSE

“Sporting clays was developed to give people practice for bird hunting during the off-season,” says John Michael, groundskeeper at Tenoroc Shooting Center, “so it’s always supposed to keep you off balance.” Take a run through Tenoroc’s twelve-station course, and you’ll see that course designer Dale Walker has managed to do just that. Every station is different from the last, and each one finds a new and novel way to test your reflexes, timing, and aim. “You’re usually not just going to come out here and ‘get it,’” Michael explains. “It’s a lot like golf in that it takes some time.”

That said, Michael is quick to point out that beginners don’t need to be intimidated. “We get a lot of beginners out here,” he explains. “Safety is our number-one priority, obviously, but we try to make everyone as comfortable as possible.” That attitude clearly permeates the course’s design, which features something appropriate for every ability level. Intermediate and advanced shooters get the challenge of ultra-fast, odd-angled shots, while beginners can take a crack at slow incoming clays that hang in the air like flying saucers. And everyone, regardless of skill level, can get a kick out of the rolling clays, known as rabbits, that bounce along the ground like over-caffeinated day-glow bunnies.
When asked about the specific rules of sporting clays, Michael isn’t in a rush to get technical. “Of course, there are safety rules that everyone has to follow, but after that, it’s really just dealer’s choice.
Novice shooters can hang out at one station and practice the same shot over and over. More advanced shooters might shoot three or four pairs [of clays] at each station and move on.”
Perhaps the biggest testament to Tenoroc’s approachable attitude to an otherwise challenging sport is the number of local organizations that use the sporting clays course to host fundraisers and other outings. According to Michael, Tenoroc regularly sets up fifty to one hundred bird shoots (meaning each participant gets to shoot fifty or one hundred targets) for large groups. Each shoot includes a safety briefing from range officers along with access to shotguns, tents, and caterers, if needed. “We have all the equipment you need right here, and we’ll take as much time as we need to make sure people know how to be safe,” says Michael. “All we need is one or two phone calls and you’re good to go.”

LAKELAND’S SPORTING PLAYGROUND

The Tenoroc Shooting Center is part of the larger Tenoroc Fish Management Area, a 9,700-acre stretch of pit lakes, marsh, and grassland just two miles northeast of Lakeland that’s managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Tenoroc features outstanding freshwater fishing opportunities, but over the past few years it has earned at least an equal reputation as one of the premier rifle, pistol, and shotgun shooting venues in central Florida. In fact, when there’s a National Sporting Clays Association sanctioned meet, it’s not unheard of to draw participants from as far away as north Florida and Georgia. Fortunately for Lakelanders with a sporting inclination, this already excellent shooting center is about to get even better.
It turns out the FWC has big plans to upgrade the facility starting this fall. Plans include a brand-new clubhouse, including classrooms for hunters’ education and gun safety classes, and an entirely renovated rifle and pistol range complete with ceiling fans for the muggy summer months. The plans also include major upgrades for shotgun sports, including two complete sporting clays courses (one for novice shooters and one for intermediate and expert shooters), top-of-the-line traps, two trap fields, a five stand, and a new fleet of golf carts for use on the course.
So, as the oppressively humid days of summer fade away and the thought of venturing outside our climate-controlled cocoons starts to become more enticing, consider dusting off that old Mosberg or Winchester shotgun and busting some clays at one of Lakeland’s finest sporting attractions.