BELLEAIR — Just the thought of it gave Annika Sorenstam goosebumps on Tuesday.
She and Marci Doyle, executive director of the Pelican Women’s Championship, first connected when Doyle worked for an agency that represented a company sponsoring Sorenstam. Then the pair reconnected when Doyle became the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s chief operating officer and tournament director, coordinating an event where Sorenstam eventually served as an ambassador because of her personal connection to Palmer.
Starting in 2023, Sorenstam and Marci Doyle — along with Dan Doyle Jr.’s Pelican Golf Club and Gainbridge — will team up to pioneer the LPGA’s version of that tournament.
They’ll create the “dream team,” said Dan Towriss, president and CEO of Group 1001, which is the parent company of Gainbridge. The tournament will be renamed The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican, making it the lone LPGA Tour event with a namesake attached. The purse will increase from $2 million to $3.25 million.
And Sorenstam, with her 72 LPGA Tour victories and 10 major titles, will be at the center, trying to establish her own version of an event that held a special meaning.
“This is obviously not a trophy for me,” Sorenstam said at a news conference Tuesday, “but it’s close. It’s a different type of trophy that nowadays, that’s what I play for — and this certainly belongs at the very top.”
Sorenstam joked that hearing the purse increase from 2022 to 2023 tempted her to think about getting her clubs out — “maybe not that committed,” she said. She had wanted to get her name on a tournament, continuing to give back to the LPGA while sparking growth within the sport. Marci Doyle added that it is a “long time coming” for Sorenstam to have her own event.
The vision to build a tournament inspired by the Arnold Palmer Invitational meshed with Dan Doyle Jr.’s vision of the event when it first began. He wanted to create the women’s version of the Masters. Dan Doyle Jr. thought he could provide a facility at Pelican Golf Club that could hold and replicate it, but a missing piece included a purse that competed with those offered by other top events.
Dan Doyle Jr. also wanted to improve the event each year, gradually progressing from the first year to the second and now into the third. An example, he said, revolved around the three Lamborghinis they gave out last year — one for each hole-in-one that a participant sank. He realized the golfers took the cash instead because they couldn’t fit the clubs inside the car and also didn’t want to pay for the insurance.
So this year, they upgraded to the SUV Lamborghini while also paying for the insurance. And in 2023, the winner will benefit from the $1.25 million purse increase. The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican will have the largest purse for an LPGA Tour event with the exception of major championships and the CME Group Tour Championship.
“$3.25 million is a lot of money to be playing for, and it matters,” said Mollie Marcoux Samaan, the LPGA’s commissioner. “It really matters for our players.”
When Marcoux Samaan was elected as the LPGA commissioner in 2021, one of the first courses she recalled visiting was the Pelican Golf Club. Dan Doyle Jr. welcomed her, she said, and the course’s attention to detail struck her. The “beautiful” facility impressed her, too.
Sorenstam said that the event will help her continue to build a legacy within the game, and the event comes “full circle” because of her ANNIKA Foundation, which promotes healthy lifestyles for children and seeks to develop women’s golf around the world. Some proceeds from the event will go toward her foundation, she said, allowing for an investment in future foundation alumni that could one day play in Belleair.
Between Pelican, Gainbridge and Sorenstam, they have all the right ingredients, Sorenstam said. The next step is to “cook it and put it together” for 2023.
“Hey, we’re in the Tampa Bay area, so we’ve got one GOAT,” said Dan Doyle Jr., referencing Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. “Now, we have two.”
Where: Pelican Golf Club, Belleair
Field size: 120 competitors, including seven of the world’s top 10 players
Purse: $2 million