Golf festival combines celebrities, practice and fun

Peter Gruhn, center, of the Village of Fernandina, takes a shot on the main stage as professional golf coach David Leadbetter watches at the 2019 Villages Golf Festival.

Fuzzy Zoeller will be back. So will Helen Alfredsson. Not to mention some 7,000 golf enthusiasts from The Villages and points beyond. Weather permitting, probably more. The Villages Golf Festival celebrates its 14th edition this weekend, turning The Villages Polo Club grounds into the nation’s largest driving range as attendees test the latest equipment from more than a dozen top manufacturers and a handful of smaller ones. “Where do you see anything like this in the world?” said Tim Creely, events administrator with The Villages Golf & Tennis. “It’s part of the uniqueness that The Villages brings to its residents. The headliners and golf manufacturers, and all the industry people — it’s pretty neat that people take time out of their busy years to focus on what’s going on in The Villages.”

Attendees also can check out the latest apparel offerings, trade in their unwanted clubs, collect some free stuff, enter a few contests for more free stuff and check out stage presentations with tips on instruction, fitness, nutrition and the like.

“I actually get phone calls and emails throughout the year wanting to know when the Golf Festival is,” Creely said. “People from Michigan and Ohio want to know when to come down.”

Activities begin at 9 a.m. both Friday and Saturday, running until 4 p.m. or whenever the last person in the last hitting bay gets a friendly nudge off the range. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the entrance; children age 16 and younger are free.

Tickets are available at any of The Villages golf shops, the Sarasota Golf Practice Center, The Villages Golf & Tennis central office at Lake Sumter Landing and the Red Fox, Gray Fox and Longleaf starter shacks at the southern end of The Villages. Parking is free.

The Headliners

Zoeller, Alfredsson and long drive showman Dan Boever have played the festival in the past, so they’re fully aware of the crowds that pack the Polo Club.

“It’s unbelievable,” Zoeller told attendees last year. “You should all be very proud of where you live.”

Zoeller is a two-time major champion, a quipster whose Masters title in 1979 made him the first Masters rookie to win since the tournament’s early years in the 1930s. The Indiana native also won the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, beating Greg Norman in an 18-hole Monday playoff.

Alfredsson also is a former major winner, capturing the Nabisco Dinah Shore (now ANA Inspiration) in 1993. She’s also a winner of two women’s senior majors, including last year’s second edition of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

Boever, a former World Long Drive Championship winner, is a frequent performer at Golf Festival with his array of majestic drives and trick shots.

The Equipment

The real headliners, though, are the new lines of equipment on display — for most, just weeks after being introduced at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.

“The cool thing is all the new products coming out right about the time the Golf Festival is,” Plummer said.

As in years past, all of the equipment heavyweights — Titleist, Callaway, TaylorMade, Ping, Cobra, Wilson — will have clubs to test. One major newcomer this year is PXG, used by such tour pros as Zach Johnson, Billy Horschel and Lydia Ko.

A total of 15 manufacturers will be spread across the driving range, with 123 slots for attendees to step up and try new models. That makes it the largest range in the United States, if only for two days. The largest permanent facility is the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, California, which has 100 bays.

For what it’s worth, the range is stocked with 54,000 golf balls this weekend.

“And we turn those over, picking and reloading all day long,” Creely said.

Retail Superstore

The retail tent also will be the largest in the festival’s history, with an expanded selection of apparel and golf accessories.

Among the items being introduced this week are a line of golf shoes by ASICS, making its first foray into the golf market. Larissa Knott, retail manager for The Villages Golf & Tennis, also highlighted a line of “fashionable” golf bags by Glove It, as well as Zero Friction gloves now in a half-dozen colors.

At least a half-dozen apparel vendors will be new to the retail superstore this year, Knott said.

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.