PGA Tour fans were treated to an exciting finish in March at the 2015 Valspar Championship at Florida’s Innisbrook Resort where rising superstar Jordan Spieth won in a playoff. It might never have happened if it weren’t for a couple people with strong connections to New England.
Innisbrook Resort, the sprawling 900 acre destination located in Palm Harbor, just north of Tampa Bay, is home to four golf courses including The Copperhead where the Valspar Championship is contested. The Copperhead is consistently held in high regard by PGA Tour pros and is always ranked in the top 100 courses in the United States and in the top 5 of Florida’s best by national golf publications.
The Copperhead, along with the other three courses at Innisbrook; North, South and Island were all designed by the late Larry Packard who passed away at age 101 in 2013. Packard was born and raised in Northampton, Mass, educated at the University of Massachusetts in nearby Amherst and worked as a young man in various government jobs in greater Boston, Mount Desert Island, Maine and Westover Air Force Base near Springfield, Mass. where his innovative air strip camouflage work caught the attention of military and civilian planners.
After helping design and build O’Hare International Airport in Chicago post World War II, Packard joined Robert Bruce Harris’s golf course architecture firm learning the profession over the next eight years. Packard went out on his own in the early 1950’s and would design or renovate over 600 golf courses in the ensuing 50 years.
Much like Donald Ross at Pinehurst in North Carolina, Packard considered The Copperhead his masterpiece and lived the last 40 years of his life at Innisbrook amongst his proudest creations.
Innisbrook has hosted professional tournaments of various stripes for the past 25 years going back to the old JC Penny PGA Tour/LPGA Tour mixed event. Despite having a great venue in The Copperhead and a strong market in the Tampa area the event has had a difficult time holding onto a title sponsor.
Since 2000 it has been named the Tampa Bay Classic, the Chrysler Classic, the PODS Championship and the Transitions Championship. The PGA Tour had to float the boat along with Ever Bank in 2013 just to keep the tournament alive when several possible sponsors fell through.
Although the PGA Tour had a vested interest in keeping the event on their March “Florida Swing” schedule since they moved their Players Championship to May, it was not interested in putting up the $6 million or so it takes to sponsor a Tour event any longer.
The Tour then enlisted a gentleman named Hollis Cavner to help them secure a viable title sponsor. Cavner has operated many Senior/Champions Tour events over the years through his Pro Links Sports in Minneapolis and has his finger on the pulse of potential sponsors.
Cavner knew that Valspar, a Minneapolis paint manufacturer who did contract label production for large retailers wanted to market direct under their own name and was looking to raise their national profile. Cavner and the Tour convinced Valspar to sign on for four years at Innisbrook in May 2013.
Enter the next New England connection. Cavner knew who he wanted to be the new Tournament director for the Valspar Championship and that was Tracy West.
West, a Michigan native and Michigan State grad, started in the golf tournament business by volunteering at Cavner’s Senior Tour event in Grand Rapids while working as a forecast analyst for a couple corporations. Cavner needed help at his new Minneapolis event and hired her at her first interview, eventually made her a partner in Pro Links Sports.
West was given her own tournament director job in 1998 when she signed on for the Bank Boston/Bank of America Senior Tour event held at Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, Mass. She moved her family to Boston and ran the event until the financial services meltdown of 2008 lead to Bank of America’s exit and the demise of the event.
Not wanting to leave Boston, West took on a much more serious role in the community when she was hired by the Boston Red Sox Foundation and the Massachusetts General Hospital to start the Run to Home Base fundraiser. The Home Base Program is dedicated to healing the “invisible wounds” of war for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. The goal at Home Base is to help veterans and their families regain the lives they once had. The clinical staff provides caring treatment each day for Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, depression, relationship challenges, military sexual trauma, substance abuse, and the stress and anxiety that result from wartime military service.
When Cavner called offering the Valspar Championship tournament director job West couldn’t say no. “Hollis asked me to come back to Florida where I had worked on the Tampa Bay Verizon Senior Tour event in the early 2000’s. We had been in Boston 16 years. It’s where we raised our kids. We love New England, love Boston but when you have an opportunity to come back and work for someone like Hollis and be a part of PGA Tour, the big show, I had to take it.”
That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision to leave Run To Home Base. “Those are two terrific organizations,” said West. “It doesn’t get any better in the world than Mass General and the Boston Red Sox. I was there from the beginning. Raising funds and helping veterans who need assistance was a great honor. It was difficult to leave.”
Helping to ease the decision for West was the fact that the PGA Tour donates money to worthy local organizations. “The beauty of PGA Tour events is you are still involved in raising a significant amount of money for charity. You are able to help a lot of worthy groups. I’m still doing something that is going to give back to the greater good.”
Unknown to most people is Valspar saved the Innisbrook event with its last minute sign up as event sponsor. They were literally down to a couple days before losing the event to Puerto Rico who had an opposite field event on the Tour schedule and wanted its own stand alone tournament.
Although West and Valspar had a short window to get organized they went at it with a vengeance.
“Valspar only had 6 months to get involved. We needed to make sure they got more fully immersed. We expanded management and raised the profile of the event,” she said
The efforts had immediate results. “We added over 50 new sponsors and did some innovative things like adding a family fun zone and a free concert with The Band Perry on Saturday night,” said West. “Attendance was way up, the field was better and we attracted some different demographics. We were very pleased with the crowd and our television ratings were the best ever.”
With everything on the upswing Innisbrook is stepping up its commitment. In May The Copperhead course will be shut down and is set for a complete restoration over the next six months.
“Our vision is to respect and protect the vision of Larry Packard and his signature design, and continue to elevate the golf experience for our guests, members, partners and playing professionals,” said Sheila C. Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, and owner of Innisbrook. “Our exciting restoration will accomplish this goal in an environmentally sensitive fashion and help maintain Innisbrook’s reputation as one of America’s top golf destinations for years to come.”
The course’s fairways and rough will be replaced, and each green will be rebuilt to United States Golf Association specifications with TifEagle Bermuda grass, and many will be restored to their original size to allow for additional pin placements. The bunkering will also be reshaped to stay true to Packard’s original design.
The course’s tee boxes will be rebuilt and laser leveled, and several will be expanded. A new irrigation system will also be installed and is expected to save the club 11 million gallons of water each year.
Wadsworth Golf Construction Company will oversee the work, with the firm returning to a course it originally helped construct back in the 1970s when they were in a partnership with Packard.
“The Copperhead Course is a jewel on the schedule and this restoration will only enhance its standing among our players,” said Andy Pazder, executive vice president and chief of operations for the PGA Tour.
With a vibrant owner in Sheila Johnson at Innisbrook, a strong sponsor in Valspar, a dynamic tournament director in Tracy West, a completely renovated gem of a golf course in The Copperhead and a great young defending champion in Jordan Spieth the future looks very bright indeed at Innisbrook and the Valspar Championship for 2016 and beyond.