Winners-only event attracts champions from sports and entertainment, mixes in plenty of fun and sun and creates a must-see experience
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As the heavy, thumping beat of “Funky Town” pounds across the air, Glenlivet single malt scotch drinks flow copiously in a nearby hospitality tent, and idle cornhole bags ready for flight await just a flop wedge away, on a front tee. You’d never think you were standing on the 18th hole at an official LPGA event. The season-opening Diamond Resort Tournament of Champions touts itself as a bash that transcends your run-of-the-mill tournament, then raises a glass and lives up to billing.
The handheld signs pushed into the air by the volunteers last week near the 18th green at the Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando told a fan all he or she needed to know about the tournament. At other tour events across our land, the signs read “Quiet, Please!” or even “Hush, y’all.” Not these. “Join the Party!” they proclaim. And fans push their chips all in.
Golf usually takes its mail in a stoic, cookie-cutter gated community, so it’s nice to bust free from the box every now and then. On the men’s tour, if they played 44 events a year that had the frenzied atmosphere of the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, we’d all be fitted for straitjackets. But “different,” in manageable doses, can be very good.
Since January 2019, the Diamond Resorts has kicked off the LPGA season with an elite field of female pros (this go-around, 26 tournament champions from the past two seasons) alongside a festive group of athletes, celebs and entertainers who show great warmth and high respect for the talent they witness in the competitive arena.
Country singer Colt Ford is a pretty strong golfer, his game once stout enough to play mini-tour events. Sunday, he played alongside LPGA pro M.J. Hur, watching her make 10 birdies in a round of 63. Ford has shot 60 himself on more than one occasion, but said afterward that Hur’s performance might have been the best round he’d ever seen. As in, anywhere.
“Every putt she hit,” Ford said, “I thought was going in.”
While the celebs were in town to laugh, share stories and have some fun (there also was a $500,000 purse, with winner John Smoltz landing $100,000), the LPGA players came here to work. It’s their job. There’s a tremendous amount of respect between the parties, and so many positives. At last year’s debut, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan recalls watching one of his star players being advised by NBA sharpshooter Ray Allen on how to slow things down in the high-pressure moments. How good is that?
“I realized then,” Whan said, “we were going to get something out of this that was bigger than what we bargained for when we walked in.”
In its 70th season, the LPGA boasts a schedule of 33 tournaments and one big party. Mike Flaskey, CEO of Diamond Resorts, likes to tell people that the company he runs isn’t about moving real estate, but about providing experiences, and this tournament is over-the-top good in the experience department. In addition to four days of competition at Tranquilo, one of Orlando’s strongest tracks, the LPGA players and celebs were treated to a week of nice dinners and cool concerts and fun interactions that leave them all gassed but eagerly awaiting more.
Marcus Allen, Brian Urlacher and Larry Fitzgerald were there from the NFL. Baseball was well-represented by Hall of Famer Smoltz (your two-time champion), Justin Verlander, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Jamie Donaldson, among others. There were actors and musicians who can flat-out golf their ball, and a couple of NASCAR drivers who hit shots that appear as if they’re hurdling out of Turn 2. There were good stories in the celeb camp. TV personality Blair O'Neal, six months pregnant, was in contention on the weekend. Chad Pfeifer, an inspiring military veteran who lost his left leg in Iraq in 2007, would tie for fourth. The LPGA's Brittany Lincicome could cite one shortcoming: when she played alongside Larry the Cable Guy, her ribs hurt from laughing too much.
Golf once was so uncool, and now athletes from other sports cannot get enough of it. You want a sign that the pool of celebrity talent is growing? Flaskey actually turned away 141 players who expressed interest in playing – 141! – and created a committee to finalize the 49-player celebrity side of the draw, taking a little heat off of making all those tough phone calls.
And you thought it was hard to get into the Masters.
Yes, different is good. Diamond Resorts was one of four LPGA tournaments that debuted a year ago, and three of them brought variety to the competition mix. The Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Michigan is a two-player team event, much like the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic. The ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia, established as a men’s event in 1957, was an existing European Tour/PGA Tour of Australasia event that integrated LPGA players into its field. Men and women play in alternating groups, on the same golf course, for equal prize money.
The Diamond Resorts event once was a chummy pro-am run by PGA Tour professional Brian Gay to raise some charity dollars for a local hospital. It morphed from a celebrity-only event to a Champions Tour unofficial “Challenge Season” event to becoming an officially sanctioned LPGA stop. Flaskey could not be happier with the way the tournament continues to thrive. The LPGA competitors really embrace the vibe of something new. The crowd at the golf course, some clad on Sunday in Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears football jerseys, is anything but traditional. That’s a good thing, too.
“It’s bringing people out here, and it's opening the eyes that golf can be cool,” Flaskey said. “I’ve got to tell you, I think the golf media has a tough job, in particular if Tiger's not in the deal. You all have a tough sell. … At the end of the day, when you don't have a Tiger, you'd better figure out something different in golf because the same old, same old is just not exciting the younger generation.”
Adds LPGA veteran Angela Stanford, “It’s a cool event. Obviously, you can see we attract different types of fans here, and the athletes are amazing. They’re so nice, and it’s so cool to watch them try to compete so hard.
“We’re slowly growing. If little kids are walking around here and they’re trying to get an autograph from a baseball player and catch a golfer they really like, they’re either going to get
on LPGA.com and follow that player, or maybe they turn on the TV to watch on the weekend … it’s just another great step for us. Little by little, right?”
Helping Flaskey at the helm of the event last week was 30-year-old Aaron Stewart, the tournament’s first-year executive director and only son of the late Payne Stewart, the two-time U.S. Open champion. He was asked what his father, who died tragically 20 years ago at age 42, might think of an event bringing LPGA pros together alongside athletes and celebrities.
“I think he'd be out here having a blast,” the younger Stewart said. “This tournament is all about having a good time, and I think that's really what he was best at. He was known for having a great time and making people happy. That's what we're trying to bring out to this event.”
Late Sunday, the music blared on, and the fans who decided to stay instead of heading home to watch NFL playoff games were treated to bonus golf: Three players (to start, anyway) in a playoff on that oh-so-demanding, but very festive, 197-yard 18th hole, playing it over and over and over. Five times in all, with Mexico’s Gaby Lopez and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka still unable to determine a winner. Fans chanted “One more hole!” as darkness fell and no more golf could be played.
Lopez didn’t win until Monday morning, making a birdie on the seventh playoff hole (her second of the day). The players apparently were just like everyone else. They weren’t ready for the party to end.
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