PALM HARBOR - Tampa Bay's once-uncertain future as a PGA Tour stop appears to be back on solid footing, with locally based Transitions Optical, Inc. in final negotiations before being announced as the tournament's title sponsor, the Tribune has learned.
The annual March event played at Innisbrook Resort receives repeated positive reviews from PGA Tour players, but it has been plagued by sponsorship issues since its 2000 inception. The most recent corporate void was created after this year's event, when PODS withdrew from its agreement after two seasons. Shortly afterward, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the Tampa Bay event would not continue next year without a title sponsor.
Although negotiations about final details continue and a formal announcement has not been scheduled, multiple sources at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach confirmed the deal is imminent.
Transitions Optical's involvement also is being discussed by PGA Tour members.
Clearwater tour player Greg Kraft, the recent winner of the Puerto Rico Open, an event that has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Tampa Bay's date, recently heard the news from one of the tour's four Player Advisory Board members.
"We were having lunch, and conversation came up about Puerto Rico," Kraft said. "I asked if they were going to get the Tampa date. And he told me Tampa just got a sponsor, Transitions. That's what we're hearing on tour."
Transitions Optical president Brett Craig and other company officials were seen often around the Innisbrook property during the week of the final PODS Championship. Typically, interested sponsors use the on-site experience to judge advertising value that could be harvested by attaching the company name. The group also met that week with Innisbrook's top official, Salamander Hospitality owner Sheila Johnson, whose company operates and is revitalizing the resort.
"As of today, April 30, we have not signed a deal with any title sponsor," tournament director Gerald Goodman said. "Transitions was one of the companies that visited our tournament in March. We had three other companies come, also.
"Two of those four companies were local. We would be extremely happy to have a company the quality of Transitions to be our new title sponsor."
PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw declined to confirm or deny the pending agreement.
"At this juncture, we have no comment," Votaw said.
With offices headquartered on Belcher Road in Pinellas Park, Transitions Optical in 1990 was the first manufacturer to successfully commercialize a plastic photochromic lens, which adjusts in response to light. The company now employs more than 1,200 workers.
The company's core product line is Transitions lenses. In addition to its Pinellas Park office, manufacturing operations are located in Ireland, the Philippines, Brazil, Australia and Thailand.
The brand has a national television ad campaign under way.
Transitions Optical spokeswoman Mary O'Hara said the company had nothing to announce.
"As you can imagine, we are always talking to a number of different groups to identify ways we can always extend our healthy sight message, as well as our Transitions brand," she said. "But we have nothing to tell you."
When the agreement is made public, it is expected to be a long-term deal, possibly as long as eight years.
For an event bringing on its fourth title sponsor in eight years, such an extended agreement would be a welcome relief.
Buick put its name on the event for one year, followed by Chrysler for four and PODS for two. All three exercised early contract terminations, calling it a business decision.
The new sponsor also would be welcomed warmly by the PGA Tour.
After beginning in 2000 as a late-season fall event, the Tampa Bay stop was elevated before 2007 to a spot on the tour's March schedule. Earlier this season, it was moved to a week later, taking the third week of the Florida Swing, after Doral and before Bay Hill.
To lose the Tampa Bay event would almost certainly mean the Florida Swing would no longer have been played entirely in Florida.
Finchem, the commissioner, had called sponsorship for the Tampa Bay event "a top priority," even as the Atlanta date also seeks new corporate backing.
Tour players regularly speak in glowing terms of Innisbrook's Copperhead Course.
Ernie Els called it "probably the best course we play in Florida." Before the tournament in March, Robert Gamez ranked it in his top five among the 55 courses on the PGA Tour.
Past tournament champions confirm the quality of the test: Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen, three-time major champion Vijay Singh, international star K.J. Choi (twice), Mark Calcavecchia, and last year's winner, Sean O'Hair.
Along with the popularity of the golf course, the opportunity to stay on site makes the tournament extremely popular among players.
Reporter Mick Elliott can be reached
at (813) 281-2534 or melliott@tampa-