PGA Show, tournaments put Orlando in the golf spotlight

ORLANDO, FL. – PGA Tour Champions opens its season in Hawaii and the PGA Tour has shifted its events to California, but — for the next couple weeks, at least — Orlando is where most of the action is in professional golf.

The Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions – first event of the Ladies PGA Tour season – tees off on Thursday at Lake Nona.  The Golf Writers Association of America Championship starts its two-day run on Sunday at recently renamed Mission Resort and Club (formerly Mission Inn).  The 71st  PGA Merchandise Show begins with a Demo Day on Tuesday at Orange County National and then moves to the Orange County Convention Center for three more days.

After that flurry of activity the LPGA begins its regular season just a few miles away, with the Drive On Championship at a new site, Bradenton Country Club.

The LPGA’s Tournament of Champions, in its sixth staging, starts it all with an event that includes celebrities, but Canadian Brooke Henderson dominated last year with a wire-to-wire four-stroke victory.

Legendary Annika Sorenstam, a Lake Nona member who can still play with the best women, will be competing in the celebrity division. The 72-hole no-cut event has a record 36 LPGA players competing. Only those who won tournaments in the last two years get invitations.

“We’re really, really excited,’’ said tournament director Aaron Stewart, son of the late, great Payne Stewart. “We’re thrilled to have the Tour represented in a little deeper field (the previous high was 29), but that means there’s been a lot more first-time winners.’’

“Winning last year was a huge boost for my confidence,’’ said Henderson.  “This is a great way to start the season.  It’s an amazing atmosphere and a lot of fun.’’

Sorenstam has contended for the celebrity title in the past and entered several women’s senior events in recent years.  She’s not sure what her competitive schedule will be going forward, however.

“I’m going to take it week by week,’’ she said.  “I’m not playing the U.S. Open.  I’m not playing any LPGA events.  I’m not playing in the LET (Ladies European Tour).  Nothing like that.  If it’s a celebrity event, I appreciate the invites.’’

Now starting her 10th LPGA season Henderson changed virtually all her clubs in the last two months and continues to struggle with a thumb problem that has hampered her off and on since 2017. A bad omen for her is that none of the previous Tournament of Champions winners won any tournament in the following year.

The PGA Merchandise Show has recovered from a few lean years caused by the pandemic.  The industry-only event is being held for the 71st time with a staggering array of new equipment and apparel. Over 1,000 brands of golf and golf  lifestyle products will be on display.

Rather than analyze the newest products I’ve decided to take the easy way out and play the name game. Catchy names are nothing new in the golf industry, and this year’s best are the Zoom Broom, a fun-to-use product that is used to blow leaves away from hard-to-find golf balls, and the Caddy Daddy, a cart bag.

After all that the LPGA will hold its first regular season event at the Bradenton Country Club’s Donald Ross-designed course.  The club is celebrating its 100th anniversary and the LPGA player turnout is excellent.

Lilia Vu, Ruoning Yin and Celine Boutier – the top three players in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings – will be there.  So will 31 players who competed in the 2020 Olympics including all three medal winners – Nelly Korda (gold), Mone Inami (silver) and Lydia Ko (bronze).

Inami won the Japan Classic on the LPGA Tour last year but didn’t immediately turn pro.  She made her official LPGA debut at Lake Nona.