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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — PGA Tour events, like South Florida real estate, rely on the same thing.
Location, location, location.
In golf, it’s not where the course is situated. It’s where the tournament is placed on the PGA Tour’s schedule.
That explains why the Honda Classic that starts Thursday on the Champion course at PGA National is light on star power.
The ever-popular Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler of nearby Jupiter are here. So is the growing-in-popularity Lee Westwood, fresh off consecutive runner-up finishes in the Players and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to move to No. 19 in the World ranking.
So is former Honda Classic champion and Masters winner Adam Scott and defending champion Sungjae Im, 18th in the world. Those are players any tournament would love to have.
But with the Honda now sandwiched between the Players, the Tour’s flagship tournament with a $15 million purse, and next week’s World Golf Championship Match Play event, the field doesn’t have any of the players ranked in the top 14 in the world.
There’s also bad luck: Hometown favorite Daniel Berger, at No. 15 the highest-ranked player in the field, withdrew Wednesday with a rib injury, following four-time major champion Brooks Koepka (No. 12) having to WD last week after injuring his right knee. Or 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and two others, who had to withdraw Monday because of COVID-19 positive tests.
However, the tournament will go on, with 144 players vying for a $7 million purse. Ten thousand fans will show up every day, limited by COVID-19 protocols, and millions of dollars will be raised for local charities.
“We don’t get caught up in it too much because it’s something we can’t control,” Honda Classic Executive Director Ken Kennerly said of the field. “It certainly doesn’t help when Brooks hurts his knee and Daniel had his health issue.
“Those players who are not here, there’s no dislike for the Honda Classic or PGA National. We’ve had a very good relationship with all of the players for many, many years. A lot of it comes down to their schedule.”
It’s frustrating for area golf fans to see four of the world’s top 11 players who live within 20 minutes of PGA National—No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Justin Thomas, No. 9 Patrick Cantlay and No. 11 Rory McIlroy—skip the event. Thomas and McIlroy are former Honda winners.
And it may not be a good look when all those guys show up on Monday at Seminole Golf Club’s Pro-Member – perhaps the best field in golf – before jetting off to Austin, Texas, for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in their final tune-up before the Masters.
Yet, this is the same tournament, the same course and the same staff that lured seven of the world’s top 10 players, including Jupiter Island’s Tiger Woods, in 2013. All that’s changed is the increasing number of high-profile events around the Florida Swing.
A look through the players tunnel at the 17th tee box during the third round of the 2020 Honda Classic at PGA National (Champion course). (Photo: Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)
The Champion course, built by Tom Fazio and re-designed by Jack Nicklaus, remains Honda’s main attraction. Having hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 PGA Championship, the Champion has evolved into one of the hardest tests in golf, particularly the Bear Trap from holes 15 to 17.
No lead is safe until the leaders clear the Bear Trap: The par-3 15th, par-4 16th and par-3 17th have accounted for 17 percent of all bogeys, 32 percent of all doubles and 37 percent of all triples or worse on the Champion course in tournament history.
Typically, the better players prefer playing more demanding courses because it separates them from the rest of the field.
“I know this is a strange statement, but I’d like to play tournament golf on a course like this every week,” said two-time Honda Classic champion Padraig Harrington, the European Ryder Cup captain. “I know it would beat you up eventually. There’s a lot of drama and holes that can keep you awake at night.”
Even though the Honda Classic may not have the marquee names of years past, who knows about the ever-changing future of golf? Few people remember that previous champions Todd Hamilton (2004) and Y.E. Yang (2008) weren’t household names when they won. Yet both went on to win majors those years.
Nor did most fans know of Im before he held off Mackenzie Hughes by a shot last year. Im finished second in the delayed Masters and is now 18th in the world.
Honda officials asked the PGA Tour to move this year’s event three weeks later than the usual spot in quest of a better field; that obviously didn’t work out as planned. The tournament is scheduled for the same date next year, though Kennerly said discussions with the tour are ongoing.
“The Honda Classic has become more than a professional golf tournament,” Kennerly said. “It’s become an event for people to gather and come together. There’s a lot of excitement. Some of the actors on the stage have changed a bit, so be it. It’s still the Honda Classic.”
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