Grant Thornton Invitational sends message fans need: Golf is fun and for everyone

Grant Thornton Invitational - Final Round
Grant Thornton Invitational - Final Round / Cliff Hawkins/GettyImages

Over the past couple of years, there have been numerous times wherein finding the fun in professional golf as a fan -- and assumedly for some players too -- has been difficult. And when Jon Rahm announced his shocking departure to LIV Golf from the PGA Tour the day before the landmark mixed-PGA/LPGA team event, the Grant Thornton Invitational, it seemed like more of those uneasy feelings could've been prevalent at Tiburón Golf Club.

That wasn't remotely the case.

Whether it was the lathered crowd ahead of a country music concert on Saturday evening following the second round, or an enthused golf crowd on Friday and Sunday for the first and final rounds, respectively, the vibes could not have been higher in Naples watching 16 of the best LPGA pros team up with 16 of the PGA Tour's best.

In the end, it was the team of Lydia Ko and Jason Day that came away with the trophy and $1 million prize for the event, using a late birdie to get the one-shot victory over the Canadian contingent -- who had their full throng of supporters on the ground decked-out in national attire -- of Brooke Henderson and Corey Conners.

Yes, it's a great win and the prize money doesn't hurt the vibes at all. However, the message of the Grant Thornton Invitational was palpable throughout the players on the course and the spectators in attendance: The game of golf is meant to be fun and meant to be for everyone and anyone who wants to play it. And that message came through resoundingly at the GTI.

Grant Thornton Invitational brings renewed focus on DEI, fun of the game

In Naples, I sat down for a quick chat with Allison Kelly, Senior Director of Sponsorship Marketing with Grant Thornton, who gave some insight into how the tournament was formed, namely bringing golf its first co-sanctioned PGA/LPGA Tour event since 1999.

"Grant Thornton for the last several years has been trying to figure out their place in golf and what that next evolution is for us," Kelly said. "[Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] is something that's completely ingrained into our culture from the business perspective. We thought, Okay, not many people are doing anything related to DEI and golf. What does that look like? We started adding a few programs and other sponsors also came on board from a diversity perspective. We've always been about inclusivity and trying to grow the game for those that might not have the accessibility to the game. We got the D, we got the I. Where did equity come into play? We thought, wouldn't it be nice to shine that spotlight on the women's game because they don't seem to get it?"

That spark of an idea, which Kelly noted was a decision made prior to the even stronger groundswell to shine a brighter light on women's sports created by the NCAA Women's Tournament in college basketball, but noting that "proved our point" and that Grant Thornton was "ecstatic" to have the "platform to do it in golf."

"It was just us coming together thinking, how do we show that equitable or put a platform together that will show the equitable game and how good the women are compared to the men?" Kelly said. "We're just hopeful that everyone is seeing that now."

Everyone did see it, indeed.

After the scramble, the format for the first round on Friday that left us with some ridiculously low scores as roughly half the field shot in the 50s, the PGA Tour pros were effusive in praising the overall games of their female counterparts, particularly with their work on the greens. Lucas Glover, who jumped out to a first-round lead with Leona Maguire, essentially admitted to relying on Maguire to get it done around and on the green.

“I knew pretty early on, just get her on the green as close as possible, and I wouldn’t have to putt much,” Glover said after Round 1. “Yeah, when I saw our pairing, I checked everything out, and I’d watched some of the Solheim Cup recently anyway.”

And really, for so much of the empty-calorie talk we hear about growing the game of golf, seeing the respect and camaraderie between PGA and LPGA Tour players when paired together might be one of the purest ways to accomplish that, something that Ko noted in the champions press conference on Sunday.

"This week I think every player that's here, whether it's the PGA TOUR player or LPGA player, I think we're here for more than just the prize money and winning," Ko said. "It's about the growth of the game.

"It's great that we got to win on top of that, but I think with the help of Grant Thornton, this is, I think, a start for so many more exciting things to come, and I'm excited to be a part of this partnership."

Growing the game and highlighting the inherently strong possibilities of DEI in the game of golf, though, comes much easier when the professionals involved are naturally showing that. And even if you weren't behind the ropes seeing the clear cohesion between teammates and all of the players in the field with prevalent smiles and laughs, there were other ways to see that as well.

Perhaps one of the most fun instances was the teams essentially branding themselves with a team name for the week. Nelly Korda and Tony Finau landed with FiNelly, which several fans on the ground had shirts made for sporting the moniker. Rose Zhang and Sahith Theegala came up with TheeRoseGala. There were many more too, but none stood out quite as much as that of Lilia Vu and Joel Dahmen, the Vu-Tang Clan.

What's important to note, however, is that none of that was contrived. I asked Allison Kelly if Grant Thornton had any hand in that, but the consensus was that it was a player-born idea that, even with the GTI recognizing it was a fun idea, the players took and ran with organically.

"I don't know if this is exactly where it came from, but when Ricky Fowler and originally Jessica Korda were paired up, we were shooting some content with them," Kelly said. "Ricky said, 'Hey, what do you think our name should be?' And Jess made a funny comment about it but didn't want to answer. We, Grant Thornton said, 'Oh, that would be fun if they had names.' But we never did anything with it, to be quite honest. It's just all come about naturally."

The big question moving forward, of course, was if this was an event played as an outlier, or if this could (as it should) be the start of a stronger push to highlight the equity and enjoyment of the game of golf. While Kelly couldn't speak to the future of the event -- a decision made by Grant Thornton to get the inaugural tournament off successfully, which they certainly did -- she did note that the interest to join the event was greater than the 32 players who ended up in the field.

"There was greater interest than the 32 players that are here," Kelly said. "Obviously, we hated turning people away, but it was also, especially for our first year, a good problem to have."

"We didn't want to be in the position that we had to recruit players, and we absolutely didn't," she added. "The players were coming in and that was a great feeling."

Even though there is plenty of tumultuousness in golf currently, the good of the game is still there. Men, women, kids, everyone has a chance to play this beautiful game. And not only did the 32 players at the Grant Thornton Invitational showcase that beautifully, but the desire from more players to be part of that too speaks well of the future of the game... and hopefully this event as well.

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