News & Opinion

Florida Swing gets its groove back for ’19

ORLANDO, Fla. – At minimum, the highly unofficial nickname represented a shot in the arm as far as credible marketing goes.

For the second spring in succession, the PGA Tour’s decades-old Florida Swing was chopped into a disjointed series of three events, interrupted by a jaunt to Mexico City.

“I’ve been calling it the Florida Hop,” said Marci Doyle, the tournament director at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which begins today at Bay Hill Club here (tee times). “It’s not really a swing anymore, is it?”

Geographically, it was a hop, skip and a jump that muted much of the Florida fields’ firepower.

Next year, with the traditional four-week run re-established, the Florida Swing is expected to stand at the center of the busiest stretch of the season for upper-tier players. Nonetheless, firepower concerns likely will continue, for different reasons.

Although the Tour won’t release its 2018-19 schedule for months, Morning Read confirmed the four-week Florida Swing for next spring: Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, followed by the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach and the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor.

Yet, what remains unknown, the events to precede and follow the Florida Swing, will determine in large part the success of the Florida stops, which traditionally signal the run-up to Augusta National and the Masters in early April.

“It’s going to be a wait-and-see as to how it will affect us,” Doyle said. “It’s definitely a TBD.”

The PGA Tour would not confirm any details, but the belief is that the West Coast Swing will end with the Genesis Open near Los Angeles, leading into the WGC Mexico event and then the Honda.

After the Florida finale at Valspar, the Tour is expected to play the WGC Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, followed by the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, which will precede the Masters. The Texas Open would replace the Houston Open, which doesn’t have a title sponsor.

If that choreography proves true, the heady eight-week stretch includes two WGCs, a major championship and the Players, plus events at Bay Hill, PGA National, Innisbrook and highly regarded Riviera Country Club.

As he eyed the lineup card, one Florida-based player with multiple victories in the state said: “Wow, that’s pretty stacked. I could see Bay Hill and Tampa getting hurt. You know, maybe Honda, too.”

For the Tour, staging a series of top events in succession is good news. For tournament directors, maybe not so much.

“We don’t really know if it helps us or hurts us,” Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly said of potentially trailing the Mexico stop. “Traditionally, following a WGC hasn’t been in a tournament’s best interest.”

The Florida Swing took a hit last year when the Tour’s replacement for the WGC event formerly staged at Trump Doral was mothballed amid political divisiveness and landed in Mexico City. With the vaunted Players Championship moving into a March slot next season, the spring stretch will be congested for the top 64 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

There already has been some scheduling blowback among the game’s elite, with Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, two former world No. 1s, skipping Mexico. Both are entered this week at Bay Hill, which is still finding its organizational footing after tournament namesake Arnold Palmer died Sept. 25, 2016.

One thing is certain: Palmer loved serving as the lead-in before the Players at TPC Sawgrass, which annually features one of golf’s best fields. Many foreign-based stars crossed the Atlantic a week early to play at Bay Hill before the Players was moved to May in 2007. It still might hold true.

“Honestly, we think that heading into the Players, they’ll want to play the week before, too,” Doyle said.

If the schedule plays out as plotted above, it will be as clogged with top-tier options as the stretch that once closed out the regular season on Tour, a two-month run that included the WGC at Firestone, four FedEx Cup events and the PGA Championship. The latter, of course, next year will be played in May, and the FedEx series is expected to be trimmed to three.

Earlier this season, the West Coast events drew their strongest fields in years, partly because of the choppy Florida Swing that followed. Whether those improved fields in California will carry over into 2019 also remains to be seen.

There is at least one certainty: Spring should be jammed with playing options for the top guns, so let the recruiting begin. Bay Hill this week is giving four Orlando-area theme-park passes to each player, yet another inducement.

At minimum, at least the Florida four are back in a contiguous run, which is a positive development nobody in the Sunshine State is disputing.

“We were jammed in with the Mexico WGC before, and now we have four weeks in succession where players or fans can bring their families and hang around for the entire month, if they want,” Doyle said. “I think that will be beneficial to all the Florida events.”

As for the rest, well, crystal balls don’t have dimples.

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