|By Jeff Shain, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 28, 2011--When Annika Sorenstam launched her golf academy in 2006, Reunion Resort was a place of grand ambitions.
Those were boom times. One of the LPGA's richest tournaments gave the locale south of Walt Disney World instant recognition. Vacation homes sold quickly. Owner Bobby Ginn was flush with cash.
All that dried up, of course, when the economy took a nose dive a few years later. Since then, Sorenstam has waited for someone to breathe some life into the property.
Promise arrived Thursday, when Reunion and its sister property in Palm Coast were united with venerable Innisbrook Resort near Tampa in a three-resort, nine-course alliance stretching from one Florida coast to the other.
"I think it's refreshing," Sorenstam said after Salamander Hotels & Resorts formally took over management. "This place has so much potential."
An LPGA return may not be far off, either. Salamander CEO Sheila Johnson also disclosed plans to meet next week with tour officials about hosting a tournament again.
"I think it's hugely important," said Johnson, who made her fortune as co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and now owns the WNBA's Washington Mystics. "It puts us on the map, just like the [PGA Tour] did at Innisbrook."
Innisbrook is part of the Florida Swing as host of the Transitions Championship. Together with Reunion Resort and Hammock Beach Resort, the trio now is being marketed to travelers as the "Grand Golf Resorts of Florida."
Among the promotional points: A "Legends of Golf" trail that packages the resorts' 162 holes of golf over nine courses, including designs by Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
"This resort concept has never before been accomplished, and because of the unique characteristics of each property, it cannot be replicated," Johnson said.
"I love the synergy. All three facilities are superb, they really are. In fact, Reunion and Hammock Beach really had a leg up on Innisbrook. I really almost had to do a gut job to bring it up to the level it is now. ... What you all have here is remarkable."
Innisbrook is a wholly owned Salamander property, acquired in 2007 and soon given a $26 million renovation. Salamander is taking over both Reunion and Hammock Beach as part of a partnership with real-estate equity firm Lubert-Adler LP, which owns the resorts.
Both locales, in fact, spent time as tour stops during the last decade, when Ginn had an open checkbook. The LPGA's best came to Reunion for the Ginn Open from 2006-08; Hammock Beach brought the Champions Tour to its fairways.
Financial woes from the slumping real-estate market forced Ginn to withdraw sponsorship from both events in 2008. A year later, Ginn relinquished management of both properties.
"This area has been a little flat, as we all know," said Sorenstam, who still hosts one of the nation's top junior tournaments at Reunion. "We've been looking for somebody that'll come in and give it the little spark that it needs."
Johnson's involvement -- she's also a newcomer to the Annika Foundation board -- also may provide the final push to fulfill Sorenstam's dream of creating an LPGA event in her adopted hometown.
"It's certainly not going to hurt it," the LPGA Hall of Famer said. "We're just going to be patient and keep our fingers crossed. We need a partner, and here's a partner."
email@example.com. Read Jeff Shain's blog, The Downswing, at OrlandoSentinel.com/golfblog.
(c)2011 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services