Raising the Bar at Innisbrook

By Ian HutchinsonMarch 9, 2008, 4:00 pm
PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- A mischievous smile crosses the face of Sheila Johnson and her eyes twinkle as she gently pulls the tape recorder thats been under her nose for the last half hour close to her.
 
If youre listening to me right now Tiger Woods, I would really like you to come see the facilities, said the owner of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, near Tampa. He would be my ace in the hole.
 
Im going to work on that, she added.
 
Of course, Tigers an ace that every self-respecting entrepreneur in the golf business would like to get a piece of to represent a product, but theres a big difference between big talk and reality and the reality is that he was absent from the field at the PODS Championship at Innisbrook.
 
That fact wont discourage Johnson, who leaves you with the knowledge that she doesnt relent once she sets her mind to something and raising the stature of Innisbrook to one of the top resorts in the United States is on top of her to-do list these days.
 
It was exactly a year ago that Johnson began scoping the property in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area just after the 2007 PODS Championship concluded.
 
From the moment I decided to buy Innisbrook, the bricks and mortar were great, the grounds were wonderful, but what moved me to buy it were the employees.
 
I have never been to a facility where the employees were so passionate about a property, said Johnson, who closed the deal in mid-July, when her new employees found out quickly that their passion would be returned by the new boss.
 
She had already prepared with the team on site the first improvement and that was the enhancements to the Island golf course, recalled Doug Schmidt, director of membership and golf public relations for Innisbrook.
 
Within 22 hours, the earth-moving equipment was on the golf course and in a little more than 90 days, we had completely renovated the Island golf course and modernized it, added Schmidt.
 
Probably the greatest compliment (director of golf) Jay Overton ever received was from our long-time members who said, You didnt change a thing. I dont see the changes, even though we added 300 yards to the golf course.
 
In other words, the changes were subtle, not overpowering, some dedicated to dealing with the effects of modern equipment technology.
 
The golf course now plays 7,310 yards, par 71, said Schmidt. We have a par four 11th hole now, one of the longest par fours, certainly in Florida.
 
Other changes included new Tif Eagle greens, cart paths, signage, irrigation systems, tree plantings and landscaping on a course that can leave you with plenty of awkward shots should you be even slightly awry.
 
The members will tell you that yes, the pros say Copperhead is one of the best golf courses on the PGA TOUR, said Schmidt. Theyll tell you its the second-best course because they believe Island is the best course and its their favorite course, so its great to have two courses of that stature.
 
Ernie Els, for one, likes what he sees at the Islands more renowned sister course at Innisbrook. Its a very demanding golf course. You can play any major tournament here, said Els.
 
Theyve got great par 3s, five par 3s on this golf course. Youve really got to try to keep your score down on those and then, its got some hills unlike the rest of Florida golf courses. Its really an old-fashioned tree-lined golf course, very demanding.
 
Whatever course turns out to be your favorite, Innisbrook now has a one-two punch with the Island and Copperhead, which is why the work on the Island course became the foundation of an overall improvement to the resort that is still a work in progress.
 
I had those machines out there ready to go. I wanted to send a message, said Johnson of the Island course.
 
Other improvements yet to come in the near future include construction of a full-service spa, seemingly mandatory at any modern golf resort these days, a new fitness centre, extensive renovations to the tennis centre, improvements to the clubhouses and meeting spaces, among other changes.
 
Johnson says she is a firm believer in the old adage about spending money to make money.
 
I want to make money, too. Im not stupid, but I really believe that, if you put the quality into something and you really put your heart behind something, its going to come back to you, said Johnson, who can back that up with personal experience.
 
An accomplished violinist and music teacher, Johnson is best known for starting Black Entertainment Television along with former husband Robert L. Johnson, a former cable industry lobbyist, with the support of investor John Malone, in 1980. While the rise of BET resulted in her current fortune, it wasnt easy.
 
Its just like any new idea, she recalled. We thought our idea would catch on among all African American businesses.
 
Still there was that unbelievable doubt that we dont trust what youre doing, we dont quite know what youre doing, we dont understand what youre doing and the fear factor of committing advertising dollars to a network that may or may not work.
 
It was really, really tough in the beginning to get any kind of advertising and even though you would give them a statistic that African Americans are probably the largest consumers of products, that we are a significant force out there, there was still the racial barrier of not wanting to put money into an African American business.
 
I think we just assumed, being an African American network, that especially African Americans would jump on this, she said.
 
Such was not the case and she says the backing of Malone played an integral role in the development of BET, including getting the network on satellite. John Malone was really smitten with the idea of starting a cable network targeted at African Americans, she recalled.
 
However, she recalls looking under cushions to find change to do her laundry and cutting out coupons to do the grocery shopping. My goal was to try and buy a weeks worth of groceries for $25 and when I could do that, I was just so excited, she recalled. It was lean, let me tell you,
 
The drive and passion paid off over 20 years later when BET was sold to Viacom for a reported $3-billion, which was split when she and her husband divorced.
Now the chief executive officer of Salamander Hospitality LLC, she runs several luxury properties that now include Innisbrook and is believed to Americas first black woman billionaire,
 
The reason she chose Salamander is that its a lizard that can walk through fire and still come out alive. That perseverance is an example that she has set for her employees with her dedication in the past and in her current efforts to raise the status of Innisbrook.
 
Her efforts dont end with golf. She is hoping to attract a high-profile tennis event that will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Billy Jean King versus Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes. Next month, the WNBA will hold its draft at Innisbrook.
 
Johnson, who is president and managing partner of the WNBAs Washington Mystics, as well as having interests in the NHLs Washington Capitals and the NBAs Washington Wizards through Lincoln Holdings, is also planning a WNBA exhibition game in the area.
 
Id like the young girls here to see some real professional, extraordinary women, she said.
 
The first step for those youngsters might be to look up the extraordinary accomplishments of the woman who runs the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.
 

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Toronto Sun Editor's Note: Ian Hutchinson is golf columnist for the Toronto Sun. He is also a frequent contributor to Golf Scene and Golf Canada Magazine, the official magazine of the Royal Canadian Golf Association.
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Day WDs from Farmers pro-am because of sore back

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:07 am

SAN DIEGO – Jason Day has withdrawn from the Wednesday pro-am at the Farmers Insurance Open, citing a sore back.

Day, the 2015 champion, played a practice round with Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau on Tuesday at Torrey Pines, and he is still expected to play in the tournament.

Day was replaced in the pro-am by Whee Kim. 

Making his first start since the Australian Open in November, Day is scheduled to tee off at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday alongside Jon Rahm and Brandt Snedeker.

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Farmers inks 7-year extension through 2026

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:04 am

SAN DIEGO – Farmers Insurance has signed a seven-year extension to serve as the title sponsor for the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, it was announced Tuesday. The deal will run through 2026.

“Farmers Insurance has been incredibly supportive of the tournament and the Century Club’s charitable initiatives since first committing to become the title sponsor in 2010,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.


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“We are extremely grateful for the strong support of Farmers and its active role as title sponsor, and we are excited by the commitment Farmers has made to continue sponsorship of the Farmers Insurance Open for an additional seven years.

In partnership with Farmers, the Century Club – the tournament’s host organization – has contributed more than $20 million to deserving organizations benefiting at-risk youth since 2010. 

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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told PGATour.com afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.


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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told ESPN.com, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”


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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.