No one was quite sure what to expect from the inaugural Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions Presented by Insurance Office of America, held Jan. 17-20, 2019 at Tranquilo Golf Course at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Its unique format – bringing together LPGA Tour winners from the past two seasons to play alongside sports and entertainment celebrities – is unlike any other tournament in the golf world. And as the LPGA Tour’s official season opener, some were worried the celebrities might distract from the professional game.
But after the first day, it was clear Diamond Resorts and the LPGA had created something special.
“We had thousands of fans out here on Saturday experiencing and watching the best female golfers in the world play alongside of celebrities like Cole Swindell, Lee Brice, Colt Ford, Toby Keith,” said Mike Flaskey, Chief Executive Office of Diamond Resorts. “It’s an event that people find interesting – not just in the golf world, but also the casual fan and when you put that together, we kind of caught lightning in a bottle.”
The unique format proved successful for four-time LPGA winner Eun-Hee Ji of South Korea, who won the inaugural event by two strokes, finishing the four-day tournament at 14-under par with a 270. Afterward, the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open champion credited the relaxed atmosphere and sports star partners for her impeccable game.
“I just enjoyed my game with my celebrity partners,” Ji said after her win. “It makes it more fun and I relaxed more. So I didn’t get nervous.”
Her final round partner, baseball Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, might not have been quite as relaxed the last day.
“I was playing math the last five holes,” said Smoltz, who qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Open. “I was counting in my head. I was trying to figure out which points would put me over the top. I played real defensively for obvious reasons. A par for two points is valuable. We went in today saying par is our friend.”
But his strategy proved successful, as Smoltz claimed victory in the celebrity division by three points over former All-Star pitcher Mark Mulder under the modified Stableford system.
“This is a great event, and it was a grind,” Smoltz said in a post-win press conference. “I’ve learned a lot. This feels good.”
The 72-hole tournament featured 26 LPGA winners from the past two seasons playing for $1.2 million in official prize money and 49 sports and entertainment celebrities competing for their own $500,000. All four days were televised live, with Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel and Saturday and Sunday on NBC.
For Ariya Jutanugarn, the No. 1 player in the world in 2018, the tournament was more than just a season opener – she ended up learning a few things from her round two partner, basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen.
“Actually, I asked him how to manage when you’re like the best player, like how to manage everything,” Ariya said after their round together. “We talked all 18 holes.”
Numerous LPGA players, including Ji, said they can’t wait for the 2020 event, which will feature winners from the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In fact, Lydia Ko, who has won 15 LPGA titles, enjoyed the tournament so much she said she wants to win a 2019 event – not just to win, but to qualify for the 2020 Tournament of Champions.
“I think they do such an amazing job of hosting not only us, but the celebrities and the family members,” she said about Diamond Resorts. “It’s not that many events that you’re allowed to bring in four guests and they’re treated well. I think the fans are treated really well. I think that’s the really cool thing about an event like this.”
Details about next year’s event are expected to be released later this year. Stay tuned to DiamondLPGA.com and #DiamondLPGA on Twitter for information.