Article originally published on Crain’s Cleveland by Joe Scalzo

Kaulig Cos. is bringing some buzz to Firestone Country Club this summer — and Buzz Lightyear would be proud.

Golf fans can now go to Infinity and beyond.

Led by a 15,000-square-foot interactive space called the Kaulig Infinity Zone, July’s Kaulig Companies Championship will offer a variety of attractions and activities to draw everyone from golfers to foodies to people who love pets, pinballs, pilsners and pop (the music and the drink).

The offerings expand on what the PGA Tour Champions event had already been doing before Kaulig Cos. signed on as a title sponsor last year — and they mirror what’s happening across the sports landscape. 

To compete in 2023, sporting events have to be just that: events.

“I think that makes it all the more exciting,” said PGA Tour Champions communication specialist Julie Nelson. “For the average golf fan, you’re there for the players and that, but if you want to bring the family, it’s like, ‘Is there something else for the family? Is there something else that will keep my kids’ interest?’

“There are so many things going on (at Firestone). It creates memories and that’s the tour’s mission — to create that fan experience.”

This year’s tournament marks the 70th anniversary of professional golf at Firestone Country Club. It’s also the fifth year Firestone has hosted the PGA Tour Champions event, with Kaulig Cos. signed on through 2026. Kaulig replaced Bridgestone, which had been the title sponsor at Firestone since 2006 and will stay on as a founding partner.

“Kaulig really wanted to work with us to elevate the fan experience,” said Don Padgett III, the tournament’s executive director. “There are a lot of interactive things.”

Here are three things to note about this year’s tournament, which runs July 13-16:

There’s something for everyone.

The Kaulig Infinity Zone will feature three concerts on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Stage: Akron’s Big Pop on Thursday, July 13; WANTED: The Bon Jovi Tribute Band on July 14; and The Vindys on July 15. The Vindys also performed at last year’s tournament.

The Rock Hall is also sponsoring a pinball patio, where fans can play on a dozen rock band-themed pinball machines.

“I was joking I was probably going to have to teach my kids what pinball is,” Padgett said.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is also involved, offering a skills challenge in the Kids Zone. The Kids Zone will also have mascots, putt-putt, face painting and other activities located near the 18th green. The tournament is hoping to get a few Pro Football Hall of Famers to join the Coffee with Legends event on July 14, which will have major champions Hale Irwin, Andy North and Hal Sutton.

Other fan-friendly offerings include a Kaulig Racing NASCAR car hauler; BigShots Golf; The Ruff (a dog petting area with adoptable pets from Akron’s One of a Kind Pet Rescue); the Bridgestone Golf Driving Range Experience (a long drive contest); and GolfGreens by ForeverLawn (where fans can test their putting skills on greens made by the Stark County-based company).

“Kaulig has really found ways to amplify Northeastern Ohio and tie in the local community,” said Nelson, who worked as a communications assistant for the Cleveland Browns in 2016. “Tying in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tying in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and bringing in everything from a community standpoint is huge for this tournament. I see other local charities at other tournaments (on tour), but I think what Kaulig is doing is definitely something special.”

Philanthropy is key.

Kaulig signed on as title sponsor for two big reasons: the tournament is based in Northeast Ohio (about 30 minutes from its Hudson HQ) and its philanthropy. Kaulig wants to raise $2 millioneach year for charity, which is more than double the $950,000 raised at last year’s event.

Padgett admitted that’s a “tall goal,” but he said this year’s event is already tracking ahead of last year. Firestone’s professional golf events have raised more than $31 million through the years.

“We know a huge part of this event is giving back to the community and we’ll be excited to increase these dollars in the coming year,” Padgett said. “Northeast Ohio always supports the event and I think with these new things that we’re bringing on, we’ll get more people involved and we’ll even grow in future years.”

In addition to the tournament, Firestone also raises money through its annual Ambassador of Golf event. This year’s recipient is Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who was born in Akron in the same hospital as LeBron James and who is introducing young golfers to the sport through his UNDERRATED Golf initiative.

Firestone South will host an UNDERRATED Golf event July 6-8.

“He’s going to be here on-site to watch the kids and give them their trophies, and we’ll honor him that night,” Padgett said. “We’ll have a fireside chat with him and (broadcaster) Gus Johnson. We’ll have some fun, I’m sure.”

The golf is pretty good, too.

The Kaulig Companies Championship is one of the five major championships on golf’s PGA Tour Champions.

Jerry Kelly will look to defend his title and win the event for the third time in four years. This year’s field also includes World Golf Hall of Fame members Ernie Els, Bernhard Langer, and Fred Couples, along with big names like John Daly, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

Although it no longer hosts a PGA Tour event, Firestone South still has a strong reputation because of its history (it has hosted 93 professional golf events, including three PGA Championships) and its difficulty.

That’s why, no matter how many things get added outside the ropes, golf will always take center stage.

“We’ve always had great golf at Firestone,” Padgett said. “The players love coming back to this iconic venue. It’s always been a right of passage — qualifying for an event at Firestone. And to have a major on PGA Tour Champions is a great fit.

“It’s a very challenging golf course, it’s a very tough test and I think all the guys feel like, ‘Hey, if you’ve won at Firestone, you’ve performed well and you deserve to be a major champion.'”