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A chance to play a PGA-ready course? These golfers flocked to the fairways

Once the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook was canceled, the resort thought: “Why not make it available to the people of Tampa Bay?”
John Astrab, 37, of Clearwater chips onto the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook on Monday in Palm Harbor. With the Valspar Tournament shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, golfers had the unique opportunity to play on a PGA Tour-ready course.
John Astrab, 37, of Clearwater chips onto the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook on Monday in Palm Harbor. With the Valspar Tournament shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, golfers had the unique opportunity to play on a PGA Tour-ready course. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020

PALM HARBOR — This was supposed to be the week professional golf came to Tampa Bay. Instead, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the PGA Tour suspended play for at least the next month.

As crews began breaking down structures already set up for the Valspar Championship on Monday morning, golfers filled the fairways of the Copperhead Course. Their swings were nowhere near that of professionals Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka, but it was hard to pass up a rare chance to play a course that is tournament ready.

Tim Hoss Jr., of Champaign, Ill., pumps his fist after sinking a putt at the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course.
Tim Hoss Jr., of Champaign, Ill., pumps his fist after sinking a putt at the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

And it didn’t seem to matter that there were the sounds of drills and forklifts dogging their backswings.

“It’s in immaculate shape right now,” said George Webster, 75, who owns a condominium at Innisbrook and played the course Monday. “You don’t get this chance very often so I figured I should do it.”

Normally, the Copperhead Course is blocked off from guest play during Valspar. But when the tournament was officially canceled Thursday night, Innisbrook officials got to work.

“We immediately got calls from people who wondered if they would be able to play,” said Ramona Herald, director of public relations. “So we thought, why not make it available to the people of Tampa Bay? All of the work has already been done, someone should be out here playing.”

A tournament package cost $199 per person (normal rate is $369), based on double occupancy. That included an overnight stay, a round on the Copperhead and a same-day round on any of the other three courses for $35.

A golf cart drives under what was a pedestrian bridge along the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. The annual Valspar Championship would have been played this week.
A golf cart drives under what was a pedestrian bridge along the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. The annual Valspar Championship would have been played this week. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

There was no shortage of foursomes ready to tee off Monday. One of the golfers was John Wellard, 72, of North Ontario, Canada. He and his wife spend winters in Florida and he tries to play about 280 days per year.

Playing on a tournament-ready course was a bit of a surprise. But he knew his time to enjoy it was short.

“Our prime minister is going to want Canadians to come back home,” he said. “Normally, we stay here until the end of April. But this may be our last week here this year. I’m in that age group where they say it’s most dangerous.”

Like Wellard, Webster may leave soon. He is from Minnesota and doesn’t usually go home until the end of April. But he feels being home may be prudent.

A threesome of golfers plays the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course.
A threesome of golfers plays the 18th hole of the Copperhead Course. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“It’s beautiful here and I don’t really want to, but it feels like the right thing,’’ Webster said. “I mean, what am I going to do up there right now, stare out at my garage door?"

While in Florida, Webster competes in a weekly league of about 60 players. One concession the group made during the pandemic was not to gather in the clubhouse after the rounds in order to avoid large groups.

“It’s not worth it,” Webster said. “We just decided to suspend meeting after the round. There’s no reason to put people in jeopardy.”