Johnson likes the way tournament is positioned
PALM HARBOR -
Sheila Johnson stands in the warm sun and looks down on the 18th green of the now-famous Copperhead course at her Innisbrook Spa and Golf resort.
The 63-four-year philanthropist, co-founder of the BET Network and part owner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NHL’s Washington Capitals might hide behind her designer shades, but over the four rounds of the Tampa Bay Championship, Johnson will walk the grounds, watch the avid fans and smile despite the 13-year-old tournament not having a title sponsor.
“I’m optimistic — I really am,” Johnson said Thursday morning. “I’m feeling good about it. … I didn’t want to have a gap. I didn’t think we could survive or afford a gap. (If that had happened), I knew we’d have to go through a whole rebuilding process, so I cannot thank EverBank enough, and it was probably the greatest piece of news I ever got, about three weeks ago.”
EverBank, the Jacksonville-based financial service, is the presenting sponsor, but the Tampa Bay Championship lacks a headlining sponsor after Transitions opted out after a four-year run. Before that, PODS was the title sponsor for two years and Chrysler for four years.
“I think it’s one of the best of the PGA Tour events, and so do the players,” Johnson said. “We can bring more eyeballs to the event, and the more we give to the community, the more they’ll give back to us.” Johnson was recently named to the executive board of the USGA, which was not only an honor but a learning experience. Johnson didn’t know much about the game, but a wealth of information is now at her fingertips, especially when she attends the Masters for a fourth time in April, this time as a rules official. “I’m going to learn a lot, but it’s really opening doors for me,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to look at the game differently.” Defending champ and world No. 3 Luke Donald shot a 1-under 70 on Thursday, but he was not happy with his morning performance.
Donald, who won a four-way playoff in 2012, had four birdies but made bogey on three of his last four holes.
“I played just lovely golf for 16 of the 18 holes today,” Donald said. “So, to finish like that, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”
Other former champs are not too far behind: K.J. Choi (2002, ’06) and Vijay Singh (2004) are 2 under, while Gary Woodland (2011) is even and Sean O’Hair (2008) is 2 over.
Geoff Ogilvy made one of five eagles Thursday. On the par-5, 605-yard fifth hole, the 2006 U.S. Open champion was short of the green in two shots, but drained a 35-foot, 4-inch putt for the eagle. Ogilvy finished at 2 under.
Ogilvy also led a Down Under trio that teed off at 1:30, playing alongside fellow Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day.
Defending U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson is the lone current major winner at the tournament this weekend, and he shot a 2-over 73 in the first round.
Simpson, 27, who has two top-10 finishes this season, had three birdies and five bogeys Thursday, but he has been successful at Copperhead. Simpson finished second in 2011.
Other current major winners have played Copperhead previously, including four-time major champion Ernie Els, who finished tied for fifth in 2012. Defending Masters champion Bubba Watson finished third in 2010.
For golfers with early-morning tee times, it was cooler than many were expecting. Tag Ridings, who was the first clubhouse leader at 3 under, had temperatures in the high 40s at his 7:50 a.m. tee time. “It was freezing,” Ridings said. “I’m under-packed this week, obviously. I had (on) a short rain vest that really wasn’t enough.”
Today’s high is forecast to be 72 degrees.
Only 11 of 78 players in the morning groups broke par, while 12 were even par.