PALM HARBOR — Like many events returning to the schedule this year, the 2021 Valspar Championship would be considered a success just because it was being played following a coronavirus-induced hiatus.
But the annual PGA Tour event, held on the famed Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort on April 29-May 2, means more to the community than being able to give patrons a taste of the pre-COVID-19 life.
The tournament, which is run by Innisbrook’s Copperhead Charities, typically contributes $2 million to 80 different charitable organizations in the Tampa Bay area, a figure that took a significant hit both this year and last but is set to rebound significantly following the Valspar’s welcomed return.
“The numbers haven’t come out yet, but it’s huge to have it back,” said James Poulter, an eight-year Copperhead Charities member who serves as chief executive of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation, one day after 24-year-old Sam Burns won the event May 2.
“Last year the tournament was shut down the day before it was set to start, which was brutal because Copperhead Charities already had things to pay for, so it was a big blow for us. So, this was a very long week but a very important event for Chi Chi’s as well as many other charities in the Tampa Bay area.”
Poulter, who also serves on the boards of the Safety Harbor and Upper Tampa Bay chambers of commerce, said the Valspar’s return to the schedule, albeit six weeks later than usual, was significant for the area’s economy. A strong field and rain-free, hot-weather days had large crowds roaming the grounds throughout the weekend, particularly on Friday afternoon when PGA legend Phil Mickelson played to huge galleries before missing the cut by one stroke.
“The field was the strongest we’ve ever had, with the most top-50 players,” Poulter said of a group that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and No. 2 Justin Thomas as well as tour stars like Max Homa, Bubba Watson and Viktor Hovland. “It was warm, but I think it was smart we took this date this year and it was just announced last night that we’ll be moving back to our usual March date next year, so we’re excited about that.”
Excited would be a good way to describe most of the tournament’s attendees, as the combination of being outside at a beautiful venue watching world class golfers play just a few feet away was an intoxicating mix for many.
“This is awesome!” Louisville resident Pam Thompson said as she watched two-time defending Valspar champion Paul Casey and his partners, Jason Kokrak and Gary Woodland, play the fifth hole on Friday.
“This is my first time at Valspar, and I love it. I like there’s a lot of hills and there’s a lot of trees. They also have really good food and really good margaritas!”
Thompson’s husband, Jeff, said he had played Copperhead with some clients years ago and the course was as impressive — and challenging — as he remembered. “It’s a beautiful venue, very hard to play,” Jeff Thompson said. “Not your typical Florida course. But I love it.”
Of course, no discussion about a 2021 event would be complete without a mention of masks. While Innisbrook officials did everything they could to keep patrons compliant with CDC guidelines, including instituting “fan safety ambassadors” to police the mandatory mask policy, the overriding theme from patrons was to have fun and forget about the coronavirus crisis, at least for the weekend.
“People are telling us to wear masks and I don’t think you have to because we got both our shots in Louisville. Plus, we’re outside,” Pam Thompson said. “I think it’s not needed — if you want to wear one, fine. If you don’t, don’t make us.”
Indeed, Thompson’s greater concern was for the newly instituted paperless ticket policy that required all tickets to the event be presented electronically.
“I do not like how they did the tickets!” she said. “I like the old, paper tickets, not through the phone!”