Pandemic just postponed the party at Innisbrook; now the good times are back

The flower bed on the Copperhead course sets the tone at Innisbrook Resort.

PALM HARBOUR, Florida – Golf, maybe more than any other sport, likes to celebrate anniversaries.  The pandemic took a toll on those.

The PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic was poised for its 50th anniversary in 2020.  Now it’ll be staged this July, pandemic restrictions permitting.  The International Network of Golf was to mark its 30th anniversary at last year’s Spring Conference.  That event remains in limbo.

None were more affected than the Innisbrook Resort, however.  The Valspar Championship, the PGA Tour’s annual event at Innisbrook, was the first to be called off when the pandemic hit in force.  Not only that, but Innisbrook was to celebrate its own 50th anniversary in 2020. Through it all, the resort had to close its doors for 59 days before re-opening in July.

All’s well now, though.  The Valspar returns in April, with new – and I think better — dates from previous years and managing director Mike Williams says the resort’s anniversary events have been rescheduled for November and December as a 50-plus-one celebration.

Now, speaking almost a year to the day when the dark days hit Innisbrook, Williams can look back on it as a bad memory that won’t be much longer-lasting.

“Last March 11 we learned that the Valspar would be played without fans,’’ recalled Williams.  “The next day we learned the tournament had been canceled.  The entire build-up at the course had been completed.  The entire staff was here.  Even some of the players were on site.  It was just devastating to have the rug pulled out from under us.’’

Icons of Innisbrook: the Coppershead snake and a plaque honoring course designer Larry Packard.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the bad news during and after the first round of The Players Championship on March 12 and the Tour didn’t resume tournament play until June 11.

Innisbrook tried to make the best of it, scheduling some Playing Where the Pros Play promotions while the tournament stands were still in place.  That didn’t last long.

“Ten days later we had to close the resort,’’ said Williams.  “We completely understood that the Tour did what it had to do, but it was a year we hope we never have to go through again.’’

When golfers could return to Innisbrook they turned out in droves. Corporate business and weddings will take a little more time to return, but Innisbrook was immediately ready to welcome its  golfers back.

The Island course, with a tree in the middle of one green, is a colorful counterpart to Coppershead.

“It was amazing,’’ said Williams. “As we re-opened we were the beneficiary of the interest in golf.  We opened in a very safe manner, and each month we saw gains (in revenue) from the previous year.  Golfers are keeping us going now.  Golfers are our hot hand, and we feed the hot hand. Golf withstood the onslaught and experienced a resurgence.’’

In addition to its four Larry Packard-designed golf courses Innisbrook has 11 tennis courts, six swimming pools and the legendary Packard’s Steakhouse on its 950-acres.

The Valspar – aptly billed “the most  colorful event on the Tour’’ — will be played April 29 to May 2.. The new dates fall three weeks after the Masters and separate the Valspar from the traditional Florida Swing.  The Valspar weren’t part of the weeks when the Honda Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players take their turns in the Sunshine State’s golf spotlight as lead-ins to the year’s first major championship. The Valspar will  have an identity all its own now.

That should get all of Innisbrook’s courses more attention.  The Copperhead course has been the site of a nationally-televised pro event every year since 1989, except for the times when two national   emergencies – 9/11 and the pandemic – got in the way.

Copperhead is a classic shot-maker’s course, and very popular with the PGA Tour stars, but it may not be the best course at the resort. The Island course has its devotees, me among them.  It doesn’t have the space to host a big tournament but, of the four nines encompassing Copperhead and the Island, the Island’s front side is the toughest of the four.

Upon our arrival this year the representive at the guard gate informed us that “the Island is the easiest to find and the toughest to play’’ and the starter at Copperhead said the PGA Tour site wasn’t as difficult as its lesser-known companion course.

Innisbrook also has its North and South layouts, both of which were re-grassed in 2017 and 2018. They’re a nice diversion from the demands at Copperhead and the Island.

PGA Tour stars are big fans of Copperhead, a shotmaker’s delight that is certainly a course that’s easy on the eyes.