LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | “Are you enjoying the format, playing with the celebrities?”
That question was posed to Céline Boutier before the final round of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club located a not-too-difficult walk from Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida.
Boutier, who was in the tournament by virtue of her lone LPGA victory at the Vic Open in 2019, said, “I’m enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would, yes. It keeps everything relaxed. It’s really a lot of fun.”
That was always the point. When Diamond Resorts, a timeshare company, became a title sponsor for the LPGA season opener, the plan was to make it different, “chill” as more than one player said last week. There were concerts every night – Sister Hazel, Colt Ford, Counting Crows, Boyz II Men – and rock ’n’ roll on the driving range that made warm-ups sound like a block party. On Saturday morning, Jessica Korda was in the middle of hitting 3-woods when the DJ mashed up the indecipherable lyrics of a current pop tune with Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, starting at the drum solo.
Korda stepped out of her backswing, looked at her caddie and said, “I did not expect that.”
There were a lot of those moments. The 18th hole looked more like a tailgate party than a golf tournament, with loud music and louder crowds. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking. “My personality is pretty outgoing, but golf is a bit different,” Danielle Kang said. “I have to kind of slow my heartbeat down and all that. Sometimes the music just thumping in the background kind of gets you a little bit more anxious than normal, but you just kind of have to embrace it, go through it, and kind of tune out a lot of things.”
Some of those things included autograph seekers. At a normal LPGA Tour event, the gallery ropes behind the scoring area are lined with kids extending hats and pin flags. They politely ask for autographs or photos, and players oblige. The autograph seekers at this one were loud, large, adult, and interested primarily in the celebrities. When Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz finished his third round, the crowd pressed against the barricade and became so loud that they could be heard 150 yards away on the 18th green. Most had baseballs or photos they wanted signed. How much of that stuff ends up on eBay is anyone’s guess.
Other players quibbled that the tournament seemed to be secondary to the party. But two years in, most LPGA Tour players have embraced the celebrity component. Larry the Cable Guy was back cracking jokes on the first tee and using the 18th green as a stand-up stage. NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald was a hit everywhere he went. Actor Jack Wagner got a lot of photo requests (and was gracious with every one). Michael Peña, the ubiquitous actor who has been in everything from Ant-Man and My Little Pony: The Movie to Narcos and The Mule, played with Lexi Thompson last week, which took a lot of pressure off of both.
“It’s really chill,” Sei Young Kim said of the celebrity experience. “The music is fun. And the celebrities keep you relaxed. You know that you’ve got people in your group who are pulling for you. When you’re playing with other pros, you’re friendly but you’re also competing with each other. Having the celebrities out there is like having a cheering section in your group.”
There’s nothing on any other tour that compares. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, even when it was the Crosby Clambake, was quieter. By Sunday the celebrities at Pebble do their best to stay out of the way. At the Diamond Resorts, the celebs outnumbered the LPGA players 49 to 26. And the non-pros had their own modified Stableford tournament, which was won by Smoltz.
“We’ve hit our mark as it relates to the tournament speaking to a different demographic than just the traditional golf fan,” said Mike Flasky, CEO of Diamond Resorts. “The intent of this, when this golf tournament was built, was (for it to be) a celebrity-only tournament and (during that iteration) we saw television ratings through the roof.
“Then when we added the element of professional golf, the strategy there was to get the traditional golf media to start covering the event. Once we made the decision for this to be a partnership with the LPGA and for them to be kind of in the Tournament of Champions role, at that point, we knew that we would get the coverage and the credibility from the traditional golf media, which we honestly had never had when it was just a celebrity tournament.”
The LPGA Tour players think of it as more than a celebrity event with a golf media hook. Inbee Park played in January for the first time since 2016 because she wants to make South Korea’s Olympic roster. And, sure, there were only 26 players in the field, but the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour has only 30. Nobody discounts Rory McIlroy’s victory there in 2019 or Tigers Woods’ in 2018.
“The idea, as we look out into the future, is to continue to tweak and get better,” Flasky said. “But really, I think, the LPGA embracing playing music on No. 18 and the atmosphere that we've created and the fun and the excitement, it's bringing people out here. It's opening eyes that golf can be cool.”
Top photo: Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz signs an autograph for a fan during the second round.