News & Opinion

Disjointed Florida Swing takes halting step

In dance-floor terms, the back-to-back PGA Tour stops near Dallas each May could rightly be called the Texas Two-Step.

California plays host to an early string of four tournaments in five weeks, with a minor detour to nearby Phoenix parked right in the middle. Given the Golden State’s punk-rock pedigree, we’ll call it a protracted slam dance.

As for the spastic choreography of what historically has been dubbed the Florida Swing, it’s got about as much elegance and artistic continuity as three drunk guys falling down a flight of stairs.

Geographically discombobulated for the second year in a row, the Florida Swing starts this week at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., (and then hits pause) while heading to Mexico City for a World Golf Championships event. A return for two weeks in Tampa and Orlando follow, for those who haven’t started digging through the seatback pocket for the air-sickness bag.

Not to make fun of the guys who contracted Montezuma’s revenge last year in Mexico, and there were several casualties, but here are a few antacids relating to the Florida Swing and upcoming month that will make things easier to digest for confused players and fans.

What’s the story with Rory?

Ignominious moments in marketing history: Following Rory McIlroy’s victory at the 2016 Tour Championship, the PGA Tour circulated a bobblehead of the Northern Irishman, a caricature doll posed with both arms extended and palms up as imaginary applause washed over him as he stood alongside the FedEx Cup.

Given that he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in the 17 months since, upon further review, it now appears more like a “what the heck” pose. After a strong start at two European Tour events, resulting in finishes of third and second in consecutive weekends, McIlroy didn’t remotely factor into his two California events, missing the cut at Pebble Beach before making birdies on his two final holes in Los Angeles to finish T-20.

Another resident member of the South Florida contingent, McIlroy is entered this week at the Honda Classic and has committed to play at Bay Hill, where he’ll need to wake up a frigid putter that delivered a cringe-worthy five-putt green at Pebble Beach. McIlroy forever has been a streaky player, but this much volatility in a five-week period is mercurial by any standard.

Welcome to the Florida … Fling?

For the second year in succession, the Florida Swing is a geographic drive-by and no longer much of a swing. In fact, opinions have been registered on many fronts about the reasons for the improved fields in several West Coast events in 2018, but that talent spike could just as easily relate to the pell-mell schedule that follows, including a side trip next week for the WGC in Mexico City before returning to central Florida and events in Tampa and Orlando. That’s too much travel for most marquee guys to consider, especially after many played last week in Los Angeles.

The here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of the Florida Swing – often considered the true launch point to the major-championship season – is sure to affect field strengths to some degree, though gallery pullers such as McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods are expected to play at Honda and Bay Hill. That said, it appears that No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, a south Florida resident, and No. 3 Jordan Spieth will skip the three Florida tournaments for the second season in succession.

Homecomings and goings

Still the biggest lightning rod in golf – he attracts the biggest audience in the sport because nearly every fan loves or loathes him – Tiger Woods limps into south Florida for a crack at PGA National and the Honda Classic, his latest “hometown” event.

PGA National is one of the toughest courses on the Tour when the wind is blowing, as it often does in the afternoon. Woods heads to his adopted hometown event having found only 13 of 28 fairways and 16 of 36 greens last week in Los Angeles, where he missed the cut. This after he changed the shaft and loft specs in his driver following a dreadful week off the tee at Torrey Pines. “I would say he's a pretty good ways away [from competing],” said Justin Thomas, who was paired with Woods in L.A.

Nothing exacerbates a poorly struck shot like a stiff crosswind, and unless Woods plays far better at water-strewn PGA National than he did in Los Angeles, where he grew up, it could get ugly. He also is expected to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, where he lived for most of his pro career and once claimed the tournament title in four straight seasons. Yet the last of his eight wins at Bay Hill came in 2013.

Left-handed revival and revelry

Inside the world top 10 as he teed it up in late 2016 at the WGC event in China, Bubba Watson, a Florida native and two-time Masters champion, looks like the latest guy who paid a steep price for selling out on an iffy equipment deal. Watson, who spins and bends the ball like few other players in the pro game, signed a deal to play the Volvik ball last season and skidded almost immediately into irrelevance. In fact, he entered last week at Riviera ranked No. 117 in the world – outside the top 50 Americans.

Watson, who lived for a couple of years in Woods’ former palatial abode in Orlando, is expected to play at the Arnold Palmer event and should be interesting to track as Masters fever ramps up. “Changing back to his original [Titleist Pro V1x] golf ball has made a huge difference in his game,” CBS analyst Peter Kostis saidSunday as Watson won at Riviera.

Also at Riviera, fellow left-hander Phil Mickelson finished in the top six for the third straight week for the first time since 2007, which might be the best statistic of the month. However, Mickelson hasn’t yet committed to play in any of the Florida Swing events after playing five events in succession on the West Coast and agreeing to play next week in Mexico.

Florida tournament directors have been receiving feedback from absent top players and their agents about the disjointedness of the schedule this year and their plans to re-emphasize the Florida Swing in 2019, once the geographical dance card gets straightened out. At the moment, the three-step Florida Foxtrot has a bit of a limp.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling