LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Georgia Hall couldn’t help but break into song during a pro-am round with Alfonso Ribeiro, giving the “Fresh Prince” actor a little taste of “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones. She couldn’t bring herself to actually ask him to do “The Carlton” dance though.
“Thousands of people a day probably say that,” she said, “so I just left him to it.”
Ribeiro was the only celebrity Hall knew coming into the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. She had to Google everyone else, taking time each evening to read bios and watch highlight clips. Many international players did the same.
“Some of them are absolute beasts,” an admiring Hall said. “They’re swing speeds are like 130.”
For purists, including this writer, adding a celebrity component to an elite TOC field seemed out of place. After all, it’s supposed to be a reward for having won, and not every professional is a fan of pro-ams.
But after six days at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club, even the purists couldn’t complain about this one. It was flat out fun. The first tee was lined with fans. Music blared on the range and on the 18th tee box. They danced. They sang. They cracked open a beer.
LPGA players soaked it up because, for the most part, the celebrities’ golf games were far better than expected. Conversation seemed to flow naturally. Marina Alex raved about Toby Keith’s world-class flop shots. Lydia Ko called her Round 1 experience with former major league baseball players A.J. Pierzynski and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez hands-down the best pairing of her life.
“I’ve been getting into their games as much as mine,” Ko said.
The LPGA can’t mirror the PGA Tour. To create buzz, to move the bar forward, the women’s tour must think outside the box. One of the beauties of the TOC is that the celebrity element brought new fans to the LPGA.
“If you just had 26 LPGA people here,” Stacy Lewis said, “would you have all these fans here?
“A lot of fans that came,” Shanshan Feng said, “they’re not for us. They’re not for the players. They’re for the celebrities, which is good because it brings them to the tournament, and they actually start falling in love with it, so it’s nice.”
While the TOC is an inaugural event, Diamond Resorts sponsored a PGA Champions event in previous years that featured many of the same celebrities.
Former Green Bay wide receiver Sterling Sharpe has been a regular at Tranquilo. He wasn’t sure what to expect when paired with Asian stars.
“We don’t know, because we just see them on TV, how much English they speak,” he noted.
Sharpe’s assessment after a week with the LPGA helps to dispel a common misconception on tour: “Extremely friendly. They were very welcoming to us. I played with Moriya Jutanugarn the first day, and we had a blast. We exchanged cell numbers, and we had a ball. We bet cupcakes on birdies.”
Willie Robertson of “Ducky Dynasty” fame got a kick out of being outdriven by Brittany Lincicome. He also appreciated the encouragement China’s Feng offered when he suffered a meltdown on the course.
“She is hilarious,” Robertson said of Feng. “Somebody you just want to spend all day with and hear stories.”
Diamond Resorts CEO Mike Flaskey wanted an official event. He couldn’t move the date of the DRI because of spring training, and the PGA Champions has long started its season with the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii, so he couldn’t make headway there. He’d invited several LPGA players to compete against the men at Tranquilo and appreciated that the women went the extra mile to engage.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan helped Flaskey put together the party he desired, while still conducting a serious competition.
“(Whan) didn’t think until this year he was at a point building out the schedule for the LPGA that he could look his players in the eye and say we are going to do a limited-field event,” Flaskey said. “But because they’ve had so much success filling out the schedule, he thought the timing was beautiful.”
The crowds were bigger this year. Flaskey wanted more golf media to cover his event, and the switch to the LPGA made this more than a place for reporters to ask about the NFL playoffs and spring baseball. He liked the fact that the celebrities and professionals played from the same tees. Many Hall of Fame athletes talked about how much they learned playing alongside LPGA pros.
Ariya Jutanugarn took the opportunity to learn herself, asking NBA three-point specialist Ray Allen for tips on how to handle being on top. The World No. 1 played alongside a pair of baseball stars in Kevin Millar and Josh Beckett in the opening round, noting that Beckett smoked it past her some 60 yards.
Jutanugarn noted after the round that while nobody asked for her autograph, the baseball players were quite popular.
“Nobody wants me,” she jokingly lamented, showing off a sense of humor that is lost on many American fans.
That wouldn’t happen in Thailand, of course, where Jutanugarn is a rock star. But that’s what makes the TOC, and its weekend network coverage, an important event in the U.S.
Come for the household names. Stay for the pros you should know. Gwk