He wasn’t much of a player, but that didn’t stop Mark Wang, current President and CEO of Hilton Grand Vacations, from becoming an instant fan of women’s golf.
Back in the mid-1980s, Wang, then a young entrepreneur, created a vacation ownership company on the island of Kawaii. Not long after, he ran into a family having a wonderful time, celebrating Loretta Alderete’s achievement of becoming one of the LPGA Tour’s newest members. So, Mark went over to offer his congratulations.
“She has just joined the LPGA Tour, and there was an event, The Kemper Open, at Princeville on the north shore of Kawaii,” Wang said. “That was her first tournament. So, I ran into them and celebrated with them for about an hour and a half. She was very excited about being an LPGA Tour player.”
This chance meeting sparked a friendship between Wang and Alderete, and six months later, golf reunited them again in a way that would set Wang on a new trajectory.
“Loretta reached out and said, ‘Mark, I’m going to play in the Kemper again in Princeville. Would you like to be my caddie?’ I said, ‘I’d love to, but I hope I don’t have to read any greens. I play a little golf, but I’m not a professional caddie by any means.’ She said, ‘I’ll read greens and get yardages. All you need to do is carry the bag.’ So, I said, ‘Absolutely, that sounds like a blast.’ That was my first exposure to the LPGA.”
It would be like a storybook if Wang and Alderete marched through the Hawaiian sunshine to victory that week, but life doesn’t always work that way.
“Princeville is on the north shore, so it gets a good bit of rain,” Wang said. “I was wearing sweatshirts, getting drenched, while lugging this big bag around.”
Unfortunately, Alderete missed the cut that day, but despite that and the untimely downpour, Wang’s experience on the course rooted a deep fascination for golf ever since.
“Lo and behold, my son started playing junior golf, and our company started an event called the Hawaii Asia Junior Cup, where we invited the best high school players in Japan to play against the best high school players in Hawaii. That tournament has been going on for 15 years.”
The casual appreciation for golf that started almost 40 years ago took on a more formal look last August when Wang’s current company, Hilton Grand Vacations, purchased Diamond Resorts. One of the assets on the balance sheet was an LPGA Tour event, the season-opening tournament of champions.
But there was one, big problem.
“It was at the Four Seasons,” Wang said. “We couldn’t have The Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at the Four Seasons Resort.
“We loved the idea of the tournament. Our world headquarters is here in Orlando, so we were very fortunate to be able to move this event here [to Lake Nona Golf and Country Club].”
Located near the heart of Orlando, Lake Nona is also home to Annika Sorenstam, one of Hilton Grand Vacation Club’s brand ambassadors.
“She was telling us about what a wonderful course this is. So, we’re thrilled to make this move.”
Without Wang’s history as a one-week caddie and longtime fan of the LPGA, this event might not have gone on. A women’s golf tournament might have seemed like an obvious cut to a corporate executive scouring the balance sheet to cut costs after a major acquisition, but Wang ensured fate went the other way, boosting Hilton Grand Vacations’ overall investment in the tournament.
“One of the first things we did was increase the purse by 25%. That was a statement we wanted to make early. And many of the players have made a point of letting me and our team know how appreciative they were of that.”
Inspired by the LPGA’s mission to elevate women in the game and finding that initiative aligns with what their own company strives to do, Wang wanted to invite the 700,000 owners affiliated with Hilton Grand Vacations to experience a professional event and to have the opportunity to see up close the level of golf the LPGA Tour players bring to the sport.
“When we looked at this tournament, we thought it was a really unique opportunity,” he said. “We’ve done sponsorships before but never anything with women’s golf.”
With the new title sponsor, the grandstands are bigger; the galleries are larger; the volunteers are more plentiful and helpful. In almost every respect, the first LPGA tournament of the year has a better vibe. And, as always, the celebrities—many of them professional athletes from other sports themselves—can’t stop raving about the quality of the golf on the LPGA Tour.
“One of our missions is to provide exceptional experiences to our owners and guests,” Wang said. “When we took this tournament over, we made a commitment to take it to the next level.”
So far, mission accomplished.