The 2019 season was sensational for the LPGA Tour as the KPMG Women’s PGA, AIG Women’s British Open, Solheim Cup and CME Group Tour Championship were all decided by the last putt on the last hole by the last player on the golf course. If it’s true that past is prologue, then the table is set nicely for 2020, the Tour’s 70th anniversary, starting this week with the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions presented by Insurance Office of America at the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club Orlando.
In that inaugural year of 1950, the 13 LPGA Founders served up 15 tournaments with a combined purse of barely more than $40,000. This year, the best women golfers in the world compete for more than $75 million in 34 events plus the Olympics in Japan. The growth of the women’s game has been staggering and the Diamond Resorts event is a shining example.
The memorable 2019 season that closed out the decade began when Eun Hee Ji won the inaugural Tournament of Champions as the excitingly innovative event joined the LPGA Tour schedule. The Diamond Resorts is really two tournaments in one, as 26 Tour champions from 2018 and 2019 compete this week for a $1.2 million purse while nearly twice as many celebrities chase $500,000 in a modified Stableford format.
Joining Ji in this year’s field are six of the Rolex Rankings top 10 – No. 3 Nelly Korda, No. 4 Danielle Kang, No. 5 Sei Young Kim, No. 6 Nasa Hataoka, No. 8 Brooke Henderson and No. 10 Lexi Thompson. On the celebrity side, defending champion John Smoltz competes against fellow baseball Hall of Fame members Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, former NBA world champion Ray Allen, perennial NFL all-star receiver Larry Fitzgerald and comedian Larry the Cable Guy.
The week is an entertaining mix of grins and game faces as the pros compete alongside a wide array of entertainers and athletes. It’s an atmosphere that requires some adjustment but, if last year is any indication, a terrific time was had by all among the LPGA players, the celebrities and the fans.
“I loved it,” Nelly Korda said after last year’s tournament. “All these people are so down to earth. I had a blast. I mean, I wasn't sure how it was going to be going into this week. I knew I was probably going to have fun and it was going to be super light, but I didn't expect everyone to be so kind and so outgoing.”
Korda, who played with tennis star Mardy Fish and baseball pitchers Derek Lowe and Mark Mulder, was impressed by the quality of play by the celebrities.
“They were all really good,” she said. “I mean, they were striping it.”
As for the celebrities, they were blown away by both the talent of the LPGA Tour players and the passionate way with which they embraced the unique format.
“I mean, straight, long,” Fish said about the pros. “Brooke Henderson, I played with her three days. All of them were so nice, and every one of them that I asked loved the idea of playing with the athletes and celebrities and stuff. So it seems like everyone had a blast.”
The tournament, in only its second year as an LPGA Tour event after several years on the PGA Tour Champions schedule, is clearly growing and as the Tour players who compete tell others about the fun time they had more of those who qualify for the event will compete in the future.
“Every year, it gets better and better,” says Mulder. “Diamond Resorts has done an incredible job. What they've created now with the LPGA is something special. It's fun to be a part of. I feel very lucky to be a part of it and fortunate all at the same time.”
The Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions is a week in which LPGA Tour winners, stars from sports and entertainment and the fans all have a ball. That’s a win-win-win situation.
At a time when the game is looking for innovative formats to entertain its growing legion of fans, Diamond Resorts serves up just the right stuff – a twin competition as well as a tasty smorgasbord for autograph collectors and star gazers.
Quickly, the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions has established itself as a uniquely entertaining tournament. There could be no better place to kick off the season that marks the 70th birthday of the LPGA.