Charity, friendship, and growing the game of golf.
Those are the words that describe this week’s Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, the season-opening event on the LPGA Tour.
Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, Florida, will host the tournament for a third straight season, as this unique event is celebrating its 10th anniversary overall.
A-list celebrities will participate alongside the best female players in the world to raise millions for children’s charities within the Orlando and Central Florida regions.
“The celebrity demographic attracts the common person who wants to come out who may not necessarily be a diehard golf fan, but with a diverse field of celebrities from sports, entertainment, and music, you can kind of capture a much wider audience that will come out and support these events,” said Mike Flaskey, the founder of this tournament and former CEO of Diamond Resorts, in an exclusive interview with Playing Through.
Flaskey also founded the Payne Stewart Invitational, which raised $140,000 at its inaugural event in December. He started the Invited Celebrity Classic as well, a similar event held in Dallas each year on the Champions Tour.
This year’s Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions features 36 LPGA stars who won in 2023 and dozens of household celebrity names.
Ray Allen, Brian Baumgartner, Roger Clemens, Landon Donovan, Urban Meyer, Emmitt Smith, and Brian Urlacher, among others, are all in this year’s field.
Defending champion Mardy Fish, one of the top American tennis players throughout the 2000s, will also tee it up this week at Lake Nona.
So, too, will Annika Sorenstam, a 10-time major champion on the LPGA Tour.
Sorenstam and her family live at Lake Nona, and since she is close friends with Flaskey, she competes in the celebrity division every year.
“What moved this event to the next level was announcing that Annika would compete in the celebrity division of the event,” Flaskey explained.
“I think that really made the event special, as she is the greatest of all time.”
Undoubtedly, Sorenstam’s presence elevates the prestige of the LPGA’s season-opening event.
But so does Flaskey’s—as well as Hilton Grand Vacations.
Three years ago, Flaskey sold Diamond Resorts to Hilton Grand Vacations. But Flaskey wanted to ensure that his tournament would continue to thrive in the future.
“I know that this is my labor of love because of the charitable aspect of it and because I love the LPGA, and it was the first tournament I ever created,” Flaskey detailed.
“And I didn’t want to go away as a part of this sale… So, I was able to go to the Hilton Grand Vacations CEO Mark Wang and say, ‘Look, Mark, we have the option to move the tournament from the Four Seasons [Golf Club] to Lake Nona, where the Hilton brand would not be compromised in partnership in any way with the four seasons or vice versa.’”
Prior to that meeting, Flaskey sat down with Joe Lewis, the British investor and majority owner of Tottenham Hotspur.
Flaskey and Lewis made a handshake agreement to move the event to Lake Nona once the transaction closed. Lewis owns Lake Nona, which, along with the golf course, is a 17-mile community near Orlando’s airport.
The sale was finalized, and Lewis agreed to host Flaskey’s event at Lake Nona, securing the tournament’s future. It also guaranteed that Hilton’s brand would not be compromised at the Four Seasons Golf Club.
“It means the world to me that the CEO of Hilton Grand Vacations has embraced this event,” Flaskey said.
“[Wang] immediately raised the purse by a couple of $100,000 when they took the event over, and he has really made this the North Star experience—and the event of the year for Hilton Grand Vacations… I’m honored that he allows me to continue to play in the tournament and compete in the celebrity division.”
This year’s tournament features a total purse of $1.75 million, an impressive figure for an LPGA event with only 36 players. Last year’s event had a $1.5 million purse. In 2021, the last year Diamond Resorts had its name attached to this tournament, the purse was $1.2 million.
“I am looking forward to seeing the leaders of the LPGA,” Flaskey said.
“We are looking forward to celebrating women’s golf and continuing to move the needle for the ladies and the LPGA and continue to push to help that tour, do the things that they want to do. But it’s been tough for them, you know? The television piece of it on network TV has not been as mainstream as the men’s tour.”
The LPGA has struggled to garner the attention that the men’s game has received in recent years, despite the game’s exponential growth in popularity since the pandemic.
And yet, Flaskey has made it a priority for his tournament to air on network television each year.
NBC will broadcast Saturday’s third-round from 3 to 5 p.m. ET, an impressive time slot for any LPGA tournament.
Golf Channel will also air the first, second, and final rounds for three hours each day—from 1 to 4 p.m. ET. Golf Channel also has an hour of third-round coverage from 2 to 3 p.m. ET.
But since the NFL dominates American television, NBC has no choice but to air the NFL’s divisional playoff matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon. Hence, NBC will air live coverage on only Saturday instead of both Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s hard on the advertising and sponsorship side for the LPGA,” Flaskey said.
“That’s why companies like Hilton Grand Vacations and Diamond Resorts must get behind this LPGA brand and help continue to take them north because if you understand what’s going on there and what they’re doing, these athletes are incredible athletes, but more important than that, is that they care, right?”
Indeed, LPGA stars care very much about their fans, constituents, and children interested in the game. Lexi Thompson’s presence at the PGA Tour’s Shriners Children’s Open last October is a perfect example of this.
“By PGA Tour standards, by LIV Golf standards, [LPGA stars] are not wealthy,” Flaskey explained.
“But it is so impressive for them to come out and be able to compete and play at the level that they play at. At the same time, [it’s amazing for them to] give as much as they give off the course to the sponsors, the fans, and the pro-am players. I think it is extraordinary, and I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t know about.”
The LPGA is an amazing organization with so much talent, but the circuit does not garner the attention of the average sports fan.
Sure, diehard golf fans will tune into the biggest LPGA events of the season. But this is why Flaskey wanted celebrities to compete in a marquee LPGA event. Those household names help bring eyeballs and attention to the women’s game.
More attention creates more revenue for the players.
This would not be possible without Flaskey and Wang. The LPGA’s Tournament of Champions would not have this annual success, nor would it be able to grow the women’s game and help millions of children in South Florida, without their leadership and vision.
Advent Children’s Hospital, Florida Hospital for Children, and the University of Florida Shan’s Children’s Hospital have all been key beneficiaries of this event, but so, too has the women’s game as a whole.
The LPGA deserves more attention, yet its priority as it begins the 2024 season is raising money for those less fortunate.
That is pretty special, and it speaks to the importance of not only elevating the best female players in the world but also using golf to sow seeds of compassion.