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Innisbrook owner Sheila Johnson cautiously optimistic about a Tiger return

Johnson was at the Palm Harbor resort on Tuesday to promote this year’s tournament, which so far has not secured a commitment from Woods.
Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, stands near a clock, provided by Shinola luxury watchmaker, of Detroit, near the practice green at the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in preparation for the Valspar Championship. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, stands near a clock, provided by Shinola luxury watchmaker, of Detroit, near the practice green at the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in preparation for the Valspar Championship. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Feb. 19, 2019

PALM HARBOR — Sheila Johnson has owned the Innisbrook Spa and Resort for 11 years. In that time, the PGA Tour event on the Copperhead Course has gone from a spring tournament to a more prominent March date in the “Florida Swing.’’ Last year it drew a record 150,000 fans for the week, thanks in large part to the commitment of Tiger Woods.

The Valspar Championship was moved back two weeks this season and is now the last stop in Florida, wedged between the Players Championship and the WGC Match Play event. There have still been some notable commitments, but as of now Woods isn’t one of them.

Johnson talked about last year’s tournament, getting Woods back and her commitment to Innisbrook:

In all your years of coming to this tournament, have you ever seen anything like last year?

Last year was exceptional. It was my final year with the United States Golf Association and I got a call from them. They could not believe how successful this tournament was. It really put us on the map. I hope we can top it.

Of course, that would mean getting Tiger back. Can you pull any strings?

I have no pull. He’s a last-second decision-maker. Of course, we’d be honored to have him back. I’ve known Tiger over the years. I used to sit on his foundation board. He’s a wonderful talent.

I said it to him last year. I said ‘Tiger, please come back.’ It’s not going to have any impact. He’s his own person. I can’t push him. But I’d be honored to have him back here.

What did he say when you asked him to come back?

Nothing. He’s smart. He didn’t want to make a commitment. There’s a big difference in a year. You never know.

You’ve owned Innisbrook for 11 years. Has it gone by fast and do you see yourself here for the long run?

I personally have made some huge financial commitments in this place. We’re constantly keeping our eye on the golf industry. There are a lot of courses that have closed. We want to make sure that we can sustain all that we have built up. This is a tough business. I’ve got to constantly keep an eye on it.

I’m committed completely, but in the end it’s a business. It’s got to be successful. We have had good years and we have had bad years. It’s not only up to me as the owner, but it’s also up to the membership. They’ve got to be vested in this place as well. It’s a two-way street.

But I’m going to be in this for a while.

Doing his part

Trivia question: Who won last year’s Valspar Championship?

Many fans may not remember that it was Paul Casey due to all the Tigermania. He finished an hour before Woods in the final round in front of maybe a hundred fans. But he beat Woods and Patrick Reed by a shot.

Casey is in Mexico City this week for the WGC event, which Woods is playing. He said he has talked to Woods about last year’s tournament and he was “very complimentary.’’ Casey isn’t sure if he’ll see Woods in Mexico, but if he does he promised to talk up a return to Innisbrook.

“I’ll try to put in a good word for you,’’ Casey said. “I know it all depends on his schedule, but I’ll work on it. Of course, everyone would love to have him back.’’

Noteworthy

Tampa native and current NBC golf analyst Gary Koch was named the Copperhead of the Year for his work with the tournament. … There is a brand new clock between the first tee and the practice putting green. There will also be two bridges installed for players to get to the new scoring buildings off the ninth and 18th greens…The Monday qualifier for the tournament will be played at Southern Hills GC in Brooksville.

Quote of the day

“Please come back, Tiger. Please come back, Tiger.’’

— Innisbrook Director of Golf Bobby Barnes

Contact Rodney Page at rpage@tampabay.com. Follow @rodneyhometeam