Gasparilla Invitational Boasts Storied History
TAMPA, FLORIDA | The 2019 Gasparilla Invitational tournament features a rekindled celebration of amateur golf. And the lessons to be learned from Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club and the Gasparilla are many.
This year the Gasparilla has joined an organization called the Amateur Golf Alliance to actively promote this historic event, which will be contested today through Saturday.
What’s so special about the Gasparilla? Everything. Back in the 1930s, it was called the Gasparilla Open and was earmarked for pros, not amateurs. It was said to offer the largest purse among professional events. Paul Runyan, the champion in 1932, was paid $962 in gold coins, a nod to Tampa’s pirate lore. Denny Shute won the next two tournaments in 1933 and 1934. That set the stage for Walter Hagen in 1935.
The Gasparilla committee held a spot in the field for Hagen that year, although it was uncertain whether the colorful pro would show. He played no practice rounds and gave no indication of his plans.
According to newspaper accounts, the arrogant Hagen sauntered to the first tee just two minutes before his scheduled tee time in the first round. He hit no warm-up shots or putts. He shot 64.
The tournament at that time was 72 holes. Hagen finished the third round with a double-bogey 7 on the 18th hole and was caught by Gene Kunes in the middle of the final round. No matter, because The Haig finished birdie-birdie to beat Kunes by one stroke. Gasparilla records indicate this was the last individual professional title that Hagen ever won.
It is widely agreed that this national-class field will compete on one of America’s most fascinating courses.
Starting in 1956, Gasparilla became a top-level amateur tournament. Under its current name, the Gasparilla Invitational, it features two age divisions – mid-amateur (25 and older) and senior amateur (55 and older). Following an unusual format, all entrants play from the same tees. This means, of course, that a senior amateur could win the overall title. A 36-hole cut trims the Gasparilla to the low 60 and ties. It is widely agreed that this national-class field will compete on one of America’s most fascinating courses.
The winners in 2018 were Marc Dull in the mid-amateur division and Doug Hanzel in the senior amateur division. Dull posted a 54-hole score of 7-under-par 203 that included a 66 in the final round, while Hanzel limped home with a 73 to post a total of 1-over 211.
Who created this masterpiece of a golf course? Tom Bendelow was the initial designer in 1916. The famous Donald Ross added his touch in 1922, and Ross scholar Bobby Weed came in for a 2011 renovation.
Palma Ceia is a fair test for women as well as men. In the 1940s, the Tampa Open was held at Palma Ceia for golf’s best female players. In 1948, several of these women met at the Palma Ceia clubhouse and laid the foundation for the LPGA.
The club professionals at Palma Ceia have a tendency to stay for a long time. This is a club that appreciates its pros. Henry Bolesta (40 years), Henry Castillo (22 years) and Gil Gonsalves (34 years) were longtime pros. Now embracing the club’s second 100 years, Joe Hodge has been there 19 years as an assistant and director of golf. Hodge, a golf prodigy in his teenage years, qualified for and played in the 1978 U.S. Open when he was 19.
There is one more tradition at Palma Ceia that should be mentioned. Dating back to a ritual from the 1930s and 1940s, many club members and additional golf fans walk around the course with the leading contenders in the Gasparilla tournament. This is golf’s up-close-and-personal touch, and anyone who attends the 2019 event could end up feeling they are in a different era.
The efforts of the Amateur Golf Alliance also should be evident, as the Gasparilla attempts to emphasize golf’s present while paying homage to its past.
“The new partnership with the Gasparilla Invitational reflects the AGA’s continued commitment to supporting and growing amateur competition well into the future,” said Rob Addington, vice president of the AGA.
Willie Macfarlane hits out of a bunker on the last hole during the 1933 Gasparilla Open in Tampa, Fla. Macfarlene lost by one stroke to Denny Shute, in extra holes. Photo: USGA Museum
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