Innisbrook owner Johnson wants to see more women get into golf industry

Sheila Johnson
Getty Images
Sheila Johnson is exploring a variety of options to expand the opportunities for women in several aspects of the golf industry, starting with her own network of resorts in Florida.
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Series: Industry News

Published: Monday, April 02, 2012 | 12:02 a.m.

Sheila Johnson is quietly giving women a stronger voice in the golf industry.

Johnson, the first black woman to become a billionaire, is CEO and founder of Salamander Hotel & Resorts. She has built a network of golf resorts across the central part of Florida called “Grand Golf Resorts of Florida.” They go from Innisbrook near the Gulf Coast to Reunion in the Orlando area to Hammock Beach in Palm Coast along the Atlantic shores.

Hammock Beach has two courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, while Reunion has three courses designed by Nicklaus, Watson and Arnold Palmer, and Innisbrook has four courses, including the popular Copperhead Course, where Luke Donald won two weeks ago.

Johnson also wants an LPGA Tour event that would rotate among her three resorts.

The key, as with Innisbrook, is finding the right sponsor.

“I think we’re in a time now where sponsors are making us work for their money,” she said. “It’s a case of trying to put the right package together, and finding the right sponsor that believes in the sport.”

She sounded optimistic, and said it was “possible” to get an event in 2013.

Johnson, though, is looking beyond tournaments. She was at the PGA Merchandise Show in January, meeting the equipment companies about apparel and with the PGA of America about their “Golf 2.0” program, which includes an effort to attract women.

“Golf is in a transition. Things are starting to pick up again,” Johnson said. “The PGA has recognized that we’ve got to get women into the game of golf. It’s a good revenue source. I’m taking it upon myself with my properties to bring that commitment and excitement.”

Annika Sorenstam held a clinic during the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook, and Johnson referred to the Swede as a “partner” in her projects. Sorenstam has an “Annika Academy” at Reunion, and Johnson said Sorenstam would be making appearances at other resorts.

Sorenstam asked Johnson to be on her board, without knowing the billionaire was in the process of buying Reunion.

“Three weeks later, I told her and she about jumped out of her skin,” Johnson said. “We get along so well. We’re able to focus on her goals and missions, which marry up with mine. We want to bring more junior programs out here. We’ve got to start building from the foundation.”

Johnson didn’t make any hard sells when she met with equipment companies at the merchandise show. At this point, it’s about building relationships. Most of her work, however, will take place at the resorts.

“There are a lot of holes everywhere that need plugged,” she said.

Johnson, who also serves on the board of the Tiger Woods Foundation, plays a little golf herself. And she has been to the Masters, which she called a bucket-list experience. She was the guest of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2009 and got the whole tour of Augusta National -- a look inside the Eisenhower Cabin, lunch in the clubhouse.

“She left before the last day,” Johnson said. “Once she left, I had to go to the back gate, get there at 5:30 in the morning. I waited in line with my green chair and ran to the 16th green to get our spots. I love the honor code, how you put your name on the back of the chair and it will not move.”

Did she leave her purse on her chair, as some patrons do?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Johnson said. “It was my first time there.”