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Preview: Gasparilla Invitational starts Thursday at Palma Ceia CC
13 Feb 2022
by Sean Melia of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Gasparilla Invitational, Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club

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The Gasparilla Trophy (Credit: Gasparilla)
The Gasparilla Trophy (Credit: Gasparilla)

The 67th playing of the Gasparilla Invitational, a 54-hole event that annually attracts the top mid-and senior amateurs in the nation, gets underway on Thursday at the Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa Bay, Fla. The event is rich with history and the welcoming membership makes this a week to remember.

History

Originally, the Gasparilla was a professional event from 1932 to 1935. It drew players like Open Champion Denny Shute, Hall of Famer Paul Runyan, and 11-time major champion Walter Hagan. The event had the highest purse of any professional event of the time. Paul Runyan collected $962 in 1932 for his victory. It was handed to him in golf coins, befitting a pirate’s treasure.

Since 1956, when the Gasparilla was revived as an amateur event, it continued to draw exceptional players. 1960 champion, Downing Gray, was a three-time Walker Cup competitor. Gray also played in six straight Masters and won low amateur twice. The U.S. Amateur Champion Buddy Alexander won the 1976 Gasparilla, and Hal Sutton won the 1981 version before kicking off his heralded professional career.

The name of the event comes from an 18th and 19th-century Spanish-born pirate named Jose Gaspar. Every February, the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla sponsors a “pirate invasion” and parade for the City of Tampa in honor of “the last buccaneer.” This city-wide pirate event matches up with the timing of the original professional Gasparilla event. This is also why the winner of the event receives a trophy of a skull with golf clubs that evoke the image of a skull and crossbones. It is one of the most original trophies in golf.

The Field

Last year’s top two finishers will be back in the field in 2022. Chip Brook and Tug Maude were the only two players to finish last year under par; Brook nipped Maude by a shot, finishing at 5-under par.

Considering both men incurred a two-shot penalty when they hit each other’s golf balls on the second hole of the final round, it could be argued their performances were some of the best the Gasparilla has ever seen.

Nick Maccario is hoping to improve on his 2021 finish third-place finish. The Massachusetts native had a dream run to the semi-finals in the US Mid-Am on Nantucket last September. He loves the Palma Ceia, even though it might appear on the surface to be a short, easy course.

“The course is a ton of fun and makes you feel like you get beaten up by the smallest kid in class. It’s really good,” he said.

The highest-ranked player in the field is Joe Deraney; he’s ranked number 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Mid Amateur rankings. He has come close to winning the Gasparilla before, finishing in second place in 2019.

There is a two time winner in the field. Nick Mullhaupt conquered the field in 2016 and 2017.

In an email exchange, 2019 Gasparilla champion Mike Finster wrote: “The Gasparilla Invitational is one of the premier Mid Am events and has found excellent balance with top-notch competition played on stately, iconic Donald Ross course, Palma Ceia, which also receives tremendous support from their membership.”

Finster holds the scoring record in the Gasparilla. His 2019 score of 8-under par was capped off by an incredible 64 on the final day.

The senior field is also very strong. Five of the top ten ranked seniors are in the field: Rusty Strawn, Bob Royak, Billy Mitchell, Richard Kerper, Dave Bunker will all be there. Toss Mike Finster into that bunch, too, and it's sure to be a great battle in the senior division.

The Course

Palma Ceia was described by Nick Mullhaupt as “the hardest little course in the world.”

A glance at the scorecard would make it seem like the course can’t hold up to modern players and equipment. The par 70 measures 6332 yards, but it’s stuffed into 98 acres with plenty of places to make mistakes. The main defense is the lightning-fast, sloping greens that Donald Ross crafted more than 100 years ago and Bobby Weed has restored recently.

In addition, the wind, tight fairways, and plenty of out-of-bounds help keep the winning score relatively low.

A lot of the out-of-bounds runs along the left side of the golf course. Billy Mitchell, a decorated senior amateur, said there’s a popular shot at Palma Ceia CC: The Palma Ceia Push.

Mike Finster joked that he puts his right hand on ice leading up to the Gasparilla so it doesn’t get too active in his swing.

On a more serious note, Finster said, “My Gasparilla prep involves staying aggressive with the driver. The course is tight but playing defensive off the tee with long iron or rescue club leaves longer approaches to greens that are typically very firm. If the driver is working well then you’ll have opportunities to score with wedges because you need to be in the correct position on the green.”

Finster continued, “The greens are typical Donald Ross - elevated with collection area which gives you some options. I’ve been working on using putter off the green to avoid having tight chip shot with grain growing against.”

When he’s not behind the microphone or tweeting about golf, No Laying Up’s Chris Solomon is on the golf course. He will be competing in his third straight Gasparilla.

He joined our new podcast to talk about his experience in the event and do a deep dive on the golf course.



Solomon enjoys the mental test the greens provide.

“They cut and roll the greens in between the shotgun waves,” Solomon said. “The pins are about a foot away from where they should be. It’s a mental grind to go through that for 18 holes.”

He continued, “If you take on the risk and hit the shot, this golf course can seem really easy. But the second your eyes start looking around a little bit and you start thinking, ‘That’s an OB stake right there. If I miss there I’m in trouble,’ it will just bleed you to death.”

Joe Deraney echoed those sentiments.

"The golf course is both challenging and fun allowing you to use all your clubs and creativity," he said. "Although nothing can prepare you for the speed of greens this early in the year you do your best."

Country Club members don’t always embrace the role of hosting an event. They have to give up their course for multiple days, usually during a season’s peak. The course can take a beating, too, due to the heavy traffic.

However, the membership at Palma Ceia loves hosting this event. They cover food and drink expenses for the competitors and welcome them with open arms.

"The Gasparilla is one of the best run tournaments we have. The member support of the tournament helps separate it from other events," Joe Deraney said.

The property is so tight that there is no driving range, so they use the third and ninth holes as a driving range before the two shotgun starts. Members drive players out to the makeshift range and then collect the balls in earnest before play begins. They come out in droves to watch the players battle their golf course.

“I think what makes it so great is the membership, the course, and the competition. You are welcomed from day one and made to feel like they want you there,” Nick Maccario said.

With some rain in the forecast for Friday, the Palma Ceia could see some low scores. However, the "hardest little golf course in the world" always seems to find a way to fight back.



ABOUT THE Gasparilla Invitational

54-hole individual stroke play championship with a cut after 36 holes to the low 60 and ties. Good mix of Florida players and national competitors looking for an early season tune up. Played on a traditional, tree lined golf course that isn't very long but has small, undulating greens.

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