By TOM LaMARRE
No longer does the Honda Classic get lost in the shuffle on the Florida Swing of the PGA Tour.
The tournament, which will be played for the 42nd time this week on the Champion Course at PGA National, in the past tended to be overshadowed by the Players Championship, which has moved to May, the Arnold Palmer (formerly the Bay Hill) Invitational and the old Ford Championship at Doral (which now hosts the WGC-Cadillac Championship).
Greg Norman used to say that the season did not start until the PGA Tour reached Doral, for years the opener of the Florida Swing, but the Honda Classic has thrived since taking over the leadoff spot in 2007 and moving to PGA National.
Last year, Jesper Parnevik looked at the world-class players lined up along the driving range at PGA National and said, “It feels like a major.”
It played like one, too.
Tiger Woods, playing in the tournament for the first time in 19 years, shot a blazing 8-under-par 62 in the final round to nearly chase down Rory McIlroy, who held on for a two-stroke victory that allowed him to unseat Luke Donald and claim the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings.
With Woods and McIlroy in the hunt on Sunday, a huge crowd was on hand at PGA National to watch, and NBC’s television rankings went through the roof.
“I’m excited to be playing in the Honda Classic again,” Woods said in a statement released by tournament officials when he committed to the event two weeks ago.
“It’s a really good tournament, and it does a lot for the community. I like the golf course, and I came pretty close last year.”
It helps that Woods now lives on Jupiter Island, about a 20-minute drive from the course, and that dozens of PGA Tour pros reside in Florida, many in the Palm Beach area.
Another strong field has been assembled, as in addition to Woods and McIlroy, among the commitments lined up by tournament executive director include Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler, Graeme McDowell, Vijay Singh, Stewart Cink, Retief Goosen, Justin Leonard, Trevor Immelman, Ben Curtis, David Duval and Mike Weir.
If you’re counting, that’s 15 major champions.
“The first week of March has historically been a good one in terms of strength of field,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.
And the course is one of the best on the circuit.
The 7,110-yard, par-70 Champion Course at PGA National features the infamous Bear Trap, hole Nos. 15 through 17, which might be the most difficult three-hole stretch on the PGA Tour.
The course opened in 1981 and was designed by George and Tom Fazio, then reworked by Jack Nicklaus in 1990 and 2002. It hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup, the 1987 PGA Championship won by Larry Nelson and the Senior PGA Championship from 1982-2000.
“To me, it’s in the top four tournaments on the tour,” said Robert Allenby, who is playing in the Honda for the 11th consecutive year and the 13th time overall.
“Obviously, you have your majors and then we have other tournaments, and this is one of those other tournaments that ranks right up there.”
Kennerly, who took over the reigns at the Honda Classic in 2007, spent six years trying to lure Woods to play in the tournament before finally landing him last year.
Getting the biggest draw in the game was worth $1 million, Kennerly claims.
“He moves the needle,” said Kennerly, echoing what countless other tournament directors and television executives have said Woods left Stanford and turned pro in 1996.
“We have worked tirelessly for the past six years to make this an elite event on the PGA Tour, and the presence of the top players has allowed us to reach even higher than we ever thought imaginable.”
The Honda Classic, which benefits the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, started out as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1972 at Inverrary Golf and Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla.
The tournament has been played every year since except 1976, when Inverrary instead hosted the third Players Championship (the last one before the tournament moved to Ponte Vedra, Fla.), which was won by Jack Nicklaus.
Gleason’s event was sort of a continuation of what some detractors called the “Hit and Giggle” events on the West Coast Swing hosted by Hollywood types Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Dean Martin.
Norman once called it “carnival golf.”
However, among the winners in the early years of the tournament were Nicklaus (twice), Nelson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller (twice), Hale Irwin, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Kite, and Curtis Strange.
Other names on the trophy include Els, Donald, Singh, Fred Couples, Nick Price, Mark O’Meara, Corey Pavin, Mark Calcavecchia, Padraig Harrington, Justin Leonard, Y.E. Yang and Matt Kuchar.
And as the Florida Swing kicks off again, the Honda Classic promises to be another eye-opener.