Mickey Wright tolerated fame. She achieved it through routine success, maintaining a demeanor often described as businesslike through winning 13 major championships—in 2000, Golf Digest ranked her as the greatest female golfer in history. Dave Ragan Jr. had only sporadic success, but he embraced it as an upbeat competitor who became close friends with some of the best male players in golf.
Wright and Ragan seemed an unlikely pairing, but they worked well together. The team won the Haig & Haig (a Scotch manufacturer) foursome title in 1961 in Sebring, the year after the mixed-team concept started. They won again in 1963, also in Sebring. Wright, who died in 2020 at age 85, and Ragan, who died at age 82 in 2018, had the same coach and strategized as strong drivers in the alternating shot team event. Wright won 82 tournaments on the LPGA Tour; Ragan won three on the PGA Tour. Somehow, their skills meshed.
But given the expansion of the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions (male players ages 50 and older), finding room on the yearly calendar for mixed team play has proven elusive. The format was last presented as the JCPenney Classic in 1999 at Pinecrest Lakes Country Club in Avon Park.
Now it’s back. The Grant Thornton Invitational is a new mixed-team event featuring 16 LPGA Tour and 16 PGA Tour players competing together in a unique co-sanctioned tournament for equal prize money of $4 million. The event will be held Dec. 8-10 at Tiburón Golf Club in Naples. The Golf Channel and NBC will feature nine hours of live coverage at the event whose title sponsor is the audit, tax and advisory company.
It will be the second of three pro golf events held in Naples in about three months. The CME Group Tour Championship on the LPGA Tour is scheduled Nov. 16-19 and The Chubb Classic on the PGA Tour Champions circuit will be held Feb. 16-18. Both also will be held at Tiburón, the two-course property designed by Greg Norman that opened in 1998.
“By the time the Chubb rolls around, we’re joking, ‘Yup, it’s the first tournament of the year,’” says John Sommers, head golf pro at Tiburón. “But from the time the first one starts until the third one starts, it’s like 90 days. We’ll be ready for each one.”
The demise of the JCPenney Classic ended a long run in which the men’s and women’s team format proved particularly prominent for Florida golf fans. The event also was hosted and played in different formats and with different title sponsors at Doral Country Club in Doral and Bardmoor Country Club in Largo.
At its inception, the format wasn’t unanimously seen as a complementary mix of men’s and women’s golf talents. Commenting on the second-year event in 1961, Alfred Wright of Sports Illustrated wrote: “The Haig & Haig proved beyond question that the men, with their superior coordination, are more deft than the women at even the short shots and the putting—surer both of themselves and their technique.”
Much has changed. While PGA Tour players generally outdrive LPGA players, women’s pros are often cited as more consistent. The combination of the styles is expected to provide a key to teams’ success in the rekindled competition.
“PGA Tour athletes playing alongside the best athletes from the LPGA Tour is going to be incredible for our fans,” says Tony Finau, the six-time PGA Tour titlist. “They’ve been wanting something like this for a long time. Our fans deserve it; I think it’s very special.”
Sommers believes a successful team, just like individual player tournaments, will emerge with top-level putting. “We’ll be using different tees; the men and women will be hitting long drivers with short yardages into the green,” says Sommers. “So, from there it’s just going to be making those putts. Putting the hottest putters together is definitely going to make a difference.”
While the full lineup hasn’t been announced, Finau will be in the field as a veteran player sponsored on the PGA Tour by the new event’s title sponsor. Rickie Fowler, a six-time PGA Tour titlist who lives in Jupiter, as well as sisters Nelly Korda, the seven-time LPGA winner, and Jessica, a six-time LPGA winner, are both scheduled to compete in the inaugural tournament. Nelly Korda lives in Bradenton; Jessica resides on Jupiter Island.
“It really is about being inclusive and showing people that golf can be accessible for everyone, no matter what way you play,” says Nelly Korda, the younger sister. “This is going to be the perfect opportunity for me to do something important in helping to grow the game and inspire the next generation.”