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How suite it is for some fans

Indoor luxury suites are popping up more and more at pro golf events.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- As Russ Cochran lines up a tricky 11-foot putt on the 18th green, he wipes the sweat from his forehead. It's a bit steamy and Cochran is doing everything he can to stay cool.

About 15 yards away, Diane Vandiver is as cool as a cucumber as she nibbles on a fresh wedge of pineapple from her air-conditioned seat.

There are spectators at the Tampa Bay Classic, then there are those like Vandiver, fans fortunate enough to take in the tournament's sights and shots from the plush confines of a luxury suite.

Suites are the latest trend in pro golf. They are popping up more and more at PGA, LPGA and Senior PGA events, not to mention other events such as the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and ATP Tour tournaments.

There are eight of them at the Westin Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead Course, all crowded around the 18th green. They range in size from 32 feet wide to 16 feet, but they all come equipped with elegance.

Costing roughly $8,000 or more each for the week, they are mainly the domain of corporations, national ones such as Visa as well as local ones such as Toner Distributing of Oldsmar. They are similar to skyboxes and luxury suites found at pro sports stadiums and arenas.

Here's what you get for the money:

Your choice from any item on the resort's menu. "Everything from cheese and crackers to filet mignon; from cracked crab to caviar," quipped John Barbee, Toner Distributing's CEO, who is renting a luxury suite for clients, friends and family.

An air-conditioned, soundproof area with 16 to 32 theater-style seats with cup holders, three tables, four refrigerators and a half bathroom.

Polished hardwood floors, marble counter tops, four color TVs with satellite feed, a VCR and a surround-sound system.

Laptop computers equipped with the PGA Tour scoring system, which gives up-to-date results and stats on every player in the field.

A rooftop deck with chairs that increases total capacity to an estimated 100 people.

"You could stay home and watch it on TV, but this is something different," Barbee said. "It's perfect for entertaining clients and friends. And if we ever get bored, we can always put on a movie."

The suites, which are owned by Outback Sports, offer an excellent view of No. 18. There are huge shatter-proof windows that allow an unobstructed view of the hole. Plus, because the suites are soundproof, fans never have to worry about disturbing the golfers.

Innisbrook Resort officials brought in several suites during the last couple of years of the defunct JCPenney Classic and continued to offer them at the new Tampa Bay Classic. The tournament rents them from Outback Sports, then rents to corporations or individuals.

Outback Sports job site manager Dan Denoyer said his company doesn't have to work hard to sell the idea of the suites to sporting events. He said he's getting indications that Tampa Bay Classic officials will want more than eight suites for next year's tournament.

"People have been very eager for them," he said.

Barbee is completely sold. "You can stay inside and watch the golf or walk around the course," he said. "They're great."

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