Honda Classic field is loaded

About 20 years ago, Greg Norman said the PGA Tour season didn’t really start until it reached Doral, which hosted the first event of the Florida Swing in those days.

Norman was referring to the point when he best players in the game started gearing up for the Masters.

Doral was where all the top players first showed up at the same time and place, but now that distinction goes to the Honda Classic on the Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., which this week will feature probably the strongest field since the Tour Championship last September.

“When you hit the Florida Swing, I think you realize that Augusta is just around the corner,” Hunter Mahan said a few years ago. “Florida kind of symbolizes the beginning of majors season. It’s when you want your game to start peaking, and you realize the season’s really under way.”

The Honda Classic, once overlooked in Florida because the Players Championship, the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational were the glamour events of the swing through the Sunshine State, is thriving.

For the first time in its history, the top eight players in the World Golf Rankings, as of last week, will be in the field.

Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia have not played in the same event since the 2013 PGA Tour finale at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

Also in the field are Graeme McDowell, Charl Schwartzel, Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen.

“This is an exciting time for the Honda Classic,” executive director Kenneth R. Kennerly said. “We have worked tirelessly for the past seven years to make this a memorable event for the best players in the world as well as the golf fans of South Florida, and the presence of the top players has allowed us to reach even higher than we ever thought imaginable.”

Norman probably was right at the time, but things changed in the following years because Woods and Mickelson became the dominant players in the game. The two California natives teed it up often on the West Coast Swing.

However, in part because golf has morphed into a year-long season, Woods played only once on the West Coast and Mickelson skipped the last two events, the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Woods got off to his worst start in any year, tying for 80th in the Farmers Insurance Open to miss the secondary cut and tying for 41st in the Dubai Desert Classic.

However, he believes he turned things around when he birdied the last three holes in Dubai. He then made 10 birdies in 15 holes during an exhibition in India, so he is looking forward to the Honda.

“Once the Florida swing starts, we’re all just building toward that one week in April,” Woods told last week. “We’re all about building toward that. Don’t finish dead last (in the warm-up events), and if you win, great. …

“I took a lot of time off this winter to get ready for the season because it’s going to be a long grind. It took three rounds in San Diego and three rounds in Dubai before finally it clicked in. My golf feels finally came back. Whatever shot I saw, I hit. …

“Then I went to India and it was just a continuation of that. I finally have my golf feels back. It just took a little longer than I would like.”

The PGA Tour already has played 14 tournaments in its new wraparound schedule for 2013-14, and unheralded players are establishing themselves.

Jimmy Walker, a 35-year-old journeyman, earned three victories in 10 starts, and he leads the FedEx Cup standings by a mile.

Others, young and older, like Chris Kirk, Kevin Stadler, Harris English, Patrick Reed, Brian Stuard, Graham DeLaet of Canada, Ryan Moore, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Pat Perez, Charles Howell III and Scott Stallings also have taken advantage of the new schedule.

Now it is time to see how they stack up because all the big guns are back and the Masters is right around the corner.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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