Scott Wood was directly impacted by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But he’s also had a role directly impacting the LPGA’s return to Southwest Florida.
Wood runs the Cognizant Founders Cup in Phoenix, and that was ready to happen. Until COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
“We shut down on Thursday before we went live on Monday (for tournament week),” Wood said.
The Drive On Championship has become a series of one-off events to help LPGA players fill gaps in their schedule created by postponements of many overseas events due to the pandemic.
There were two in 2020, the first at Inverness in Ohio and the second at Reynolds Lake in Georgia, and one last year at Golden Ocala.
“It was a way for us to kind of control how the LPGA was going to get started after we were shut down,” said Wood, who has been part of all four. “It was something we could really control because we owned and operated it. We were our own sponsors.
“It’s become almost familiar for the players. It’s another way for us to just celebrate the tour and all of our members and all our players.”
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The Drive On Championship, which has a $1.5 million purse, follows up the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando, and the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio in Boca Raton.
“To do a three-week Florida swing made the most sense,” Wood said. “The players are able to bounce from one to another. Trying to find a golf course in South Florida in February is like trying to find a golf course in March in Phoenix. I know the struggle.”
So Crown Colony Golf & Country Club ended up coming forward, through general manager David Kent, and will host this week’s event with play Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“The red carpet’s been rolled out,” said Wood, who said a “big net” was cast in the state to see what courses were interested. “We can’t say enough about David and his team, but the membership, the HOA, the community here, everybody’s welcoming.
“It’s been a home run. It truly has been. It’s one of those things where the golf course is getting just as good of rave reviews as the community, as us playing in a familiar location with having a fan base and everything. It’s such a solid golf course. The more and more that the players are getting out there and getting practice rounds in, it’s a true test of golf.”
Wood said the timeline of getting the tournament was the main reason there will be no fans allowed to watch the event live.
“It’s not like we didn’t want to have any,” he said. “… Given the timing of everything, from a safety and just an infrastructure standpoint, we just felt like let’s really focus on giving our players and our members a solid opportunity to earn another paycheck for this year, and then when you start looking at the timing of when you launch ticket sales, and you do everything and all of the infrastructure that goes into shuttles and parking, etc., it became one of those things where we said let’s do X, Y and Z really, really well, and let’s focus on that and let’s make sure that that happens.
“We know that the fans are the lifeblood — fans and sponsors. We’re not like the PGA Tour. I know David’s received a lot of phone calls and we’ve gotten some messages through the LPGA that people want to come and support. They also understand that the short timeframe of planning, it’s not feasible.”
The tournament name comes from the LPGA’s Drive On campaign that highlighted some of the other players on the tour that maybe aren’t the most prominent, but have compelling stories. Naples’ Mo Martin, who has spent most of her time in her home state of California since the onset of the pandemic, was one of the players featured.
Since there already was a recognition factor with that campaign, so bringing that over to the created tournaments made sense.
“Over the last three years, this Drive On campaign has really been able to personalize a lot of our players that are not covered,” Wood said. “The stories behind Drive On and the way we’ve been able to promote it, and to be able to tell that story to a broader audience, I think by having a tournament title Drive On, I think has really been a catalyst for the tour to continue our elevation.”
Despite the Drive On Championships being one-offs, would there be a possibility of a return to Southwest Florida as part of a more permanent Florida swing with Orlando and Boca Raton already secured? Wood was noncommital.
“It’s a fluid operation and thought process,” Wood said. “That’s the way we’ve been operating going on 23 months now.”