JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sheila Johnson is quietly giving women a stronger voice in the golf industry.
Johnson, the first black woman to become a billionaire, is CEO and founder of Salamander Hotel & Resorts. She has built a network of golf resorts across the central part of Florida called “Grand Golf Resorts of Florida.” They go from Innisbrook near the Gulf Coast to Reunion in the Orlando area to Hammock Beach in Palm Coast along the Atlantic shores.
Hammock Beach has two courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, while Reunion has three courses designed by Nicklaus, Watson and Arnold Palmer. Innisbrook has four courses, including the popular Copperhead, where Luke Donald won two weeks ago.
Johnson also wants an LPGA event that would rotate among her three resorts.
The key, as with Innisbrook, is finding the right sponsor.
“I think we’re in a time now where sponsors are making us work for their money,” she said. “It’s a case of trying to put the right package together and finding the right sponsor that believes in the sport.”
She sounded optimistic and said it was “possible” to get an event in 2013.
Johnson, though, is looking beyond tournaments. She was at the PGA Merchandise show in January, meeting the equipment companies about apparel and with the PGA of America about their “Golf 2.0” program, which includes an effort to attract women.
“Golf is in a transition. Things are starting to pick up again,” Johnson said. “The PGA has recognized that we’ve got to get women into the game of golf. It’s a good revenue source. I’m taking it upon myself with my properties to bring that commitment and excitement.”
Annika Sorenstam held a clinic during the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook, and Johnson referred to the Swede as a “partner” in her projects. Sorenstam has an “Annika Academy” at Reunion, and Johnson said Sorenstam would be making appearances at other resorts.
Sorenstam asked Johnson to be on her board, without knowing the billionaire was in the process of buying Reunion.
“Three weeks later, I told her, and she about jumped out of her skin,” Johnson said. “We get along so well. We’re able to focus on her goals and missions, which marry up with mine. We want to bring more junior programs out here. We’ve got to start building from the foundation.”
Johnson didn’t make any hard sells when she met with equipment companies at the merchandise show. At this point, it’s about building relationships. Most of her work, however, will take place at the resorts.
“There are a lot of holes everywhere that need plugged,” she said.
Johnson, who also serves on the board of the Tiger Woods Foundation, plays a little golf herself. And she has been to the Masters, which she called a bucket-list experience. She was the guest of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2009 and got the whole tour of Augusta National—a look inside the Eisenhower cabin, lunch in the clubhouse.
“She left before the last day,” Johnson said. “Once she left, I had to go to the back gate, get there at 5:30 in the morning. I waited in line with my green chair and ran to the 16th green to get our spots. I love the honor code, how you put your name on the back of the chair, and it will not move.”
Did she leave her purse on her chair, as some patrons do?
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Johnson said. “It was my first time there.”
TOP 100 WORLDWIDE: Royal County Down in Northern Ireland remains No. 1 in “Golf Digest’s” latest ranking of Top 100 golf courses outside the United States.
The list will be in the May issue. It’s the first worldwide “Top 100” ranking since 2009. It was compiled based on 609 panelists who provided 11,426 golf course evaluations, along with input from 30 international editions of the magazine.
Royal Melbourne (the West course, not the composite used for the Presidents Cup) moved up 20 spots to No. 2 and was followed by the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Rounding out the top 10 were Royal Dornoch (Scotland), Muirfield (Scotland), Cape Kidnappers (New Zealand), Turnberry (Scotland), Hirono (Japan), Kingston Heath (Melbourne) and St. George’s, which hosted the Canadian Open.
The magazine also includes course rankings for 203 different countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
PADRAIG FOR SALE: Three companies have signed up to advertise through Padraig Harrington in a unique, part-time sponsorship to raise money for his wife’s cousin, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident.
Harrington decided to auction the branding on his clothes that he wears at the Houston Open, the Masters and the Heritage. His regular sponsors have endorsed his effort.
IdentityX, Clune Construction and Blarney.com have taken him up on his offer. They have offered more than $200,000, which will go to the Padraig Harrington Charitable Foundation for Gerard Byrne.
IdentityX gets his cap and clothing, while Clune Construction and Blarney.com are taking spots on his clothing. Barney.com also has pledged a percentage of its website sales.
“I hope I will repay their support with some good results over the next three weeks, while wearing their branding,” Harrington said. “I am also very grateful to my current sponsors for allowing me to do this. I know this assistance will help Gerard and his family, who have shown so much courage during this difficult time.”
DIVOTS: Tiger Woods is among the top 10 in seven of 10 statistical categories on the PGA Tour. He leads in total driving (distance and accuracy rankings combined) and the all-around ranking. He is second in scoring average behind Rory McIlroy. … Phil Mickelson will be wearing a blue hat at golf tournaments to promote a project with sponsor KPMG aimed at buying books for children in low-income families. The public can buy the same hat, and each hat sold will go toward the purchase of three books. … Golf Channel has agreed to a three-year extension to show the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Eight of the top 20 players in the world have won this year on the PGA Tour. A year ago, only four players from the top 15 had won on the PGA Tour or European Tour.
FINAL WORD: “This will be my 54th trip to Augusta. I got $20,000 for winning the Masters. Now I get $10,000 to go there and eat a free steak.”—Bob Goalby, 1968 Masters champion.