Butch Buchholz recalled the first time he roamed the grounds during the Doral golf tournament as a sort of spy, after he was recruited by the PGA Tour to make the event more fan-friendly.
“They were serving hamburgers, hotdogs and corn dogs, and it struck me that you could not buy a glass of champagne,” Buchholz said. “I said, ‘We need champagne. You can’t expect people to walk around carrying a Bud Light.’”
When the WGC-Cadillac Championship starts Thursday at Trump National Doral, there will be plenty of champagne. And vodka. And stone crabs, sushi, tapas, even 28-day dry-aged New York strip steak. There will be food trucks and a Versailles restaurant concession stand. A Santana concert, fashion show and red-carpet introduction of players.
Miss Universe will be visiting the Escalade Lounge at the 16th green, where VIP ticket-holders arrive via an Escalade shuttle. Or spectators can hang out at the Grey Goose Lounge, because “who doesn’t appreciate a Bloody Mary in the morning?” a promotion for the venue asks. Rent premium cabanas, smoke a cigar and pretend that sand trap is a beach, or rent a climate-controlled suite overlooking the Blue Monster’s 18th green.
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Why, someone who thinks a driver is a chauffeur and an eagle is a bird could attend the tournament that annually attracts the world’s top 50 golfers and still have a wonderful time.
That’s the idea behind revamping the spectator experience: Lure the fanatic and the curious alike, thereby nourishing the game and the event. Do it by bringing a little South Beach and Las Vegas to Doral, the place named after founders Doris and Al Kaskel.
Golf is shedding its staid image as a sport for the buttoned-down and shushed-up, which dovetails perfectly with Donald Trump’s $250 million renovation of a 7,481-yard course and a resort that had passed its prime and become as frayed as the dowdy upholstery on an old sofa.
“Donald understands show biz,” said Buchholz, who developed a reputation as the PT Barnum of sporting events during his years as chief of Key Biscayne’s “fifth major” of tennis, the Miami Open. Buchholz made the tournament into a happening for both tennis lovers and casual fans with attendance that exceeds 300,000.
“The PGA Tour finally realizes it has to entertain the fan, as does the Miami Heat or any other sports franchise or event. It’s no longer enough to watch athletes shoot basketballs or hit golf balls from a bleacher seat.”
The Doral tournament is competing not only with a multitude of entertainment options for the cash- and time-constrained populace but also the comforts of home, where a sports fan can plop down in front of the high-definition TV, adjust the AC, and nosh to his heart’s content without having to deal with parking hassles or exorbitant ticket prices.
“Golf was reluctant to pivot to the needs of millennials, and now they are playing catch-up,” said Scott Becher, chief integration officer at Zimmerman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale, where he oversees sports and entertainment marketing. “Look at what Ron Fraser did with University of Miami baseball, or what Gulfstream Park is doing. The model for the customer is: Entertain me, get me closer to the action in ways I can’t replicate by watching TV, and be fair with pricing.”
About 90,000 fans attended the Cadillac Championship last year, up 12 percent from 2013. A grounds ticket for Thursday’s first round costs $40; it’s $50 on Friday and $60 on Saturday and Sunday or $125 for the week, with kids 18 and under free with an adult. Sponsorship seating and suite prices range from $20,000 to $100,000.
At the Waste Management Phoenix Open, attendance is up to 500,000, and the buzz created around the “loudest hole in golf” attracts 15,000 to the raucous stadium seating at the 16th green. Becher likens the fans to Duke basketball’s face-painted Cameron Crazies. It’s gotten so un-golf like at No. 16 that last month when Ryan “Cowboy” Palmer got to the green, he greeted roaring spectators by tossing out balls wrapped in $10 bills that said “Have a beer on me.”
“Phoenix started a trend by creating a party within the tournament — not unlike tailgating at a football game,” said Matt Ginella, lifestyle reporter at the Golf Channel. “Donald and Ivanka Trump want to bring a party to Doral. They want people to get their money’s worth.
“There are golf purists who will have a problem with noise and backward caps and cargo shorts but they are becoming the silent majority. The game ignored the people who paid to watch or paid to play for too long.”
Buchholz said even his friend and golfing partner Jack Nicklaus has welcomed change and revamped his Muirfield tournament and clubhouse.
The PGA also must adjust to the decline of Tiger Woods, a fan magnet for nearly two decades. Woods’ ailing back and game have caused him to withdraw from tournaments, and he didn’t even qualify for Doral. A reverse “Tiger Effect” is pushing events to be more creative in their offerings, particularly with food and pop/rock/country music concerts.
“Golf is adapting to life beyond Tiger just like the NBA had to adjust to life after Michael Jordan,” Becher said.
Just as tournament golf is making a transition to embrace the fan, recreational golf is making a transition to embrace the player. The closure of a dozen courses in South Florida reflects what’s happening nationwide as the game has gained a reputation for being too expensive, too difficult and too time-consuming and has failed to enlish younger generations.
“I’ve seen it grow and I’ve seen it go,” said Charlie DeLucca Jr., who manages the city of Miami’s Melreese course. “We’re down to about 24 courses in Miami-Dade. For too long, golf was only for stuffy, rich, white men.”
But DeLucca sees Doral’s growing popularity and come-one, come-all vibe as a boon for the game. He and his son Charlie DeLucca III of First Tee Miami will be taking 1,000 inner-city kids to Doral to introduce them to golf. His phone is ringing off the hook with ticket requests.
“Trump has remade Doral into a breathtaking showcase, and it will be like an open house for the sport this week,” DeLucca said. “You smell the hamburgers, see the Cadillacs under the palm trees and watch some amazing golfers hitting amazing golf shots and you decide, ‘Golf is on its way back up, and I’m going to go out and play.’”
WGC-Cadillac Championship: Highlights of events at Trump National Doral
Tuesday, 11 a.m., Red Course: adidas BOOST mini challenge pitting PGA pros vs. pro soccer, basketball, football and track and field athletes, including Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill
Tuesday, 6 p.m., Royal Palm Pool: Cadillac Nights Opening Drive red carpet with PGA players, the Trump family and DJ Irie for invited guests only.
Thursday, 4-6 p.m., Doral resort: Trump Model Search
Thursday, 8-10 p.m., Doral resort, Fashion Experience show hosted by Ivanka Trump with designs by Dolce and Gabbana
Saturday, 6 p.m., White Course 18th hole: Carlos Santana concert with guests Los Amigos Invisibles and La Gente Zona
On the course, throughout the tournament (ticketing required for some venues):
Cadillac Experience Double Decker, between 1st and 18th greens, featuring interactive stations with a hole-in-one competition, swing and putting analysis and ball fitting; Escalade Lounge, 16th hole; Grey Goose Lounge, 19th hole; Premium cabanas, 16th hole; LAN and TAM International Club with views of 18th and 9th greens; Moet and Chandon Champagne Lounge in the fan village.