ORLANDO - The Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions kicked off the 2024 season in the LPGA Tour in style, returning to Lake Nona Golf and Country Club for the third year in a row.
This event isn't your typical professional tournament, either, as it features more than 50 celebrities, three days of concerts and the best players on the LPGA Tour.
While mixing celebrities of all ability levels has fallen out of favor on the PGA Tour in Palm Springs and Pebble Beach, I'm not sure who had more fun at Lake Nona: the pros, the celebs or the fans. It serves as one of the most exclusive events of the season.
Only players who won last season are eligible to tee it up in this no-cut tournament. This twist makes it all the more exciting as only the best and brightest get to play - stars like Lilia Vu, Nelly Korda, Rose Zhang and defending champion Brooke Henderson.
With one of the largest purses of the year sitting at $1.5 million for pros and $500,000 for celebrities, it's an event that should attract way more attention than it does.
"Really, we want it to be a celebration. We want to start their year off in the right way, in a fun way and to recognize their accomplishments," says Aaron Stewart, the vice president of sports marketing for Hilton Grand Vacations.
Events like this one have the opportunity to attract new fans to the LPGA Tour and offer an incredible experience that appeals to more than one demographic. From Larry the Cable Guy and Bachelor contestants to famous athletes like soccer legend Landon Donovan and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Adam Thielen, there was no shortage of familiar faces out on the course this week for fans to see.
Apart from the golf, the event accommodations by Hilton were top notch down to the details. The talk of the week was the concert lineup hosted at The Wave Hotel in Orlando. The series opened on Tuesday night with a performance by Elle King, followed by Styx and REO Speedwagon on Thursday.
The headline event, Pitbull, brought the most energy and attention as thousands of fans, even the celebs, came out to see Mr. Worldwide live. The venue offered gourmet food and drinks free of charge to all concert goers and the overall experience was one that will remain memorable for fans like me for years to come.
For the individual who isn't a huge golf fan, maybe watching a favorite football player or comedian out on the course or the opportunity to watch Pitbull in concert will be enough to get them excited to attend.
We often hear about No. 16 at the WM Phoenix Open and the excitement of the Masters or other men's majors, but historically there isn't an event on the LPGA Tour schedule that garners that kind of attention. This event has the opportunity to blossom into something that boosts interest in the women's game.
That's not to say it hasn't become popular already. What I enjoyed seeing the most was the different demographics of people. From your average golf fan to the hordes of fans in baseball and football jerseys there to see their favorite athletes, this isn't your typical golf crowd.
It was clear how much the celebrities enjoyed playing. While many of them noted they were just trying to steer clear of the LPGA Tour pros playing a real event, as the week went on, I saw the celebs start to relax and really have fun on the golf course with their pairings.
Outside the ropes, the celebrities were incredibly interactive with fans. They talked with fans as they walked between shots and took pictures and signed autographs between holes and after rounds. They took it seriously, but overall, they were there to enjoy the course and the fun, laid-back environment.
For the fan, it makes it worth it to spend the time following your favorite group, because more than likely, you'll get to interact or take a picture with your celebrity of choice.
The HGV Tournament of Champions had all the elements of your typical professional golf event. Food stands were scattered about, and beer and cigars were out from sunup to sundown. Stands and patio chairs lined the fairways and greens for fans to sit and enjoy the day while music on the 18th hole started as early as the beer and kept fans dancing through the afternoons.
As a fan, you could pick your environment. If you wanted to follow groups and really see the golf, the course had a ton of room to move about and see the players. If you wanted to hang out in the suite areas or in the stands with the music for a more party-like environment, it was there for you.
There was no lack excitement on Sunday. Day four pairings were set up so the three leaders played together without a celebrity. That made it real for the players. The leaderboard was tight, but Lydia Ko ended the week at the top, claiming her 20th LPGA Tour victory.
In the celebrity division, New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil took home the trophy with 138 points in a Modified Stableford format.
Hilton Grand Vacations has announced an extended contract with the LPGA Tour to host the event for the next five years. The contract includes a guaranteed increase in the total purse from its current $1.5 million to $2.5 million by 2029. This drastic increase shows continued growth in the women’s game and is a huge step in the right direction for the tour and its athletes.
For the fan contemplating if the 2025 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions is for you, I would recommend the experience to anyone. With a single day pass starting at $40, its affordable and fun, no matter what player or celebrity you're hoping to see.
It's cool that this display of star-studded talent will continue to grow and get better every year.
Are you more likely to attend a professional golf tournament with or without celebrities? Let us know in the comments below.