LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – To say the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions is unlike any other event on the LPGA Tour is an understatement. It like the Sentry TOC, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Waste Management Phoenix Open rolled into one. It’s a limited-field event, open only to players who have won the last two years on Tour (the last three years for 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic).
It’s a real party. Music blares on the driving range; a DJ entertains competitors on the 18th tee, where they can play cornhole while waiting to tee off. And nothing can begin to prepare a player for the experience of trying to win a Tour event while Larry the Cable Guy is telling jokes.
Brooke Henderson has been a fixture at the event, which features 25 pros and 53 celebrities this year. She competed and beat nearly half the men in the field when it was played as a Champions Tour event prior to becoming an LPGA tournament in 2019. How does she describe the environment to first-timers in the field?
“It's a week full of fun,” Henderson said. “Getting to know some of the celebrities and playing with them, they're really great golfers. It's just a different atmosphere. It's a great way to start the season.”
Madelene Sagstrom is one of six first-timers in this week’s field. Sagstrom earned a spot thanks to her maiden victory at the 2020 Gainbridge LPGA Classic. The Swede, who calls Orlando her home base in the States, got a sneak peek at the event when she came out to watch her fellow pros compete last season. This year, she’ll experience what it’s like alongside the likes of NBA legend Ray Allen and NFL stalwart Larry Fitzgerald.
“I'm really good at golf and talking, so I think this tournament fits me really well,” Sagstrom said with a laugh. “Some of the guys are just phenomenal and they love playing with us. I've asked them about what they think of the event so far, and they love being out here.”
The experience won’t be completely foreign to Sagstrom. Tranquilo Golf Course, which annually hosts the TOC, is Sagstrom’s home course. She shared some insider tips with fellow Swede Annika Sorenstam last week when the pair played a practice round together. Sorenstam is competing for the first time in the celebrity division.
“She has got good insight from all of her years playing professional, and I think it's going to be huge for the tournament to see what she can do against baseball players that hit 350 yards out there,” Sagstrom said about the 72-time LPGA Tour winner.
Sophia Popov is also making her debut at the event. For two years, Popov watched from home, jealous of her fellow pros who got to tee it up with a bunch of celebrities. In August, she earned her spot in the field with her victory at the AIG Women’s Open.
“You know, it's awesome. You're on the range. There is a little bit of music going on. You can tell it's a little bit more of a fun event,” Popov said smiling. “Since holding that trophy in August I've been pretty excited about this.”
This week, Popov will lean on the advice of her fellow pros who warned her that these celebrities have some real game. And they can hit it quite far. But the major champion is committed to sticking to her routine and not getting distracted by her playing partners.
“You have to come to peace with the fact that your golf game is totally different,” Popov said one LPGA player told her. “We hit it straighter and are probably more consistent players, but they'll hit some shots where they're outdriving you by 70, 80 yards. You're going like, ‘My God, who's the pro here?’ I think that's important to distinguish.”