Tuesday, April 24, 2018

PGA tourney nearly left Tampa Bay

Sheila Johnson is not used to losing.

Her business portfolio is packed with successes, from being a founding partner in Black Entertainment Television to owning shares in the Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics.

As CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which includes Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, she oversees all activities at the resort. The biggest annual draw is the PGA Tour event, which has been played on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course since 2000.

And she was in serious jeopardy of losing it.

Transitions Optical completed its four-year contract with the tournament in 2012. Last year's event was played without a title sponsor, although EverBank stepped in as a presenting sponsor just before tournament week.

It was made clear that the PGA would not allow the tournament to go sponsorless for a second year. If a title sponsor wasn't secured before the 2014 schedule was finalized, the PGA Tour would leave town.

"We'd get to the 1-yard line and then it gets dropped,'' Johnson said of trying to woo a sponsor. "I told myself that we have to get a tournament here. I can't give up.''

After months of disappointment, Johnson got the news she wanted in September. Valspar, a global paint company based in Minneapolis, would be the title sponsor for the next four years.

The PGA was staying, and Johnson breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"You have no idea,'' she said. "That's an understatement.''

Not only was Johnson in limbo for much of last year, so, too, were players and local golf fans. Defending champion Kevin Streelman spent the summer wondering if he would be able to defend his title.

"There was talk last year that Tampa was having difficulty finding a sponsor,'' Streelman said. "(PGA Tour commissioner) Tim (Finchem) always kind of winked at us and said, 'I think I have something in the making.' When they released Valspar had come through with a four-year sponsorship, we were all ecstatic. It's a great tournament and it would've been a shame to not have it go on. Hopefully we have 25 more coming and maybe more after that.''

NBC golf commentator Gary Koch, who attended King High and has played on the PGA and Champions tours, has seen several tournaments leave the area. Tampa Bay used to host LPGA and Champions Tour events. And this year the LPGA Legends Tour failed to find a title sponsor for its season-ending tournament at Innisbrook and will not return.

Koch did not want to see the PGA Tour leave his hometown.

"There was some talk about other tournaments taking this date,'' Koch said. It was rumored that the event in Puerto Rico could have been moved back a week to fill the Tampa Bay slot. "There was a very real possibility there wasn't going to be any professional golf in the Tampa Bay area. It was really close.''

Koch said that when a tournament leaves, it generally doesn't come back.

The hope of organizers is that this will be a long-lasting relationship. History is not on their side.

Since becoming a PGA Tour event in 2000, there have been four title sponsors. There has been no title sponsor three times (2000, 2002, 2013). There was no tournament in 2001 due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

No title sponsor has lasted more than four years.

Valspar tournament director Kevin Krisle said he just wanted someone to step forward so they could continue to keep professional golf in the Tampa Bay area.

"What we've always wanted was that commitment, and now that we've got that, we can move on and do more things,'' Krisle said.

In the end, Johnson got what she wanted.

"It breathes life into this resort,'' she said. "It puts us on the map.''

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