Raising the Bar at Innisbrook

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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.