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Now, it’s time for real season to begin

Despite a star-loaded field at the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club two weeks ago that concluded with J.B. Holmes’ victory on a marathon Sunday, there remains the sense that the West Coast Swing was a warmup, albeit a pretty sporty one.

Regardless of how the PGA Tour sets up its convoluted wraparound schedule, the 2019 season will for all intents begin – just like it always does – in Florida this week. Nothing against Hawaii or Phoenix or Pebble or Riviera, but things simply don’t get serious until the world’s best tee it up at the Honda Classic, beginning Thursday.

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Sun, sand and Sawgrass: That’s the forecast for the coming weeks as the PGA Tour cranks up in earnest with the Florida Swing.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Sun, sand and Sawgrass: That’s the forecast for the coming weeks as the PGA Tour cranks up in earnest with the Florida Swing.

There are a few reasons why March is the jumping-off point for the Tour. One is that this year’s schedule has been made even more attractive because of the move to March of the Players Championship, the fifth-best tournament in the world.

Then, there is the fact that virtually all of the top players will compete in at least two of the four Florida tournaments, and some will play in all four. It helps that the vast majority of Tour players live in Florida and that many will be able to commute to some of these events from home.

But the biggest reason is that each March event gets us one week closer to the Masters in April, which for many – especially in the colder climes – signals the start of the golf season.

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The Honda Classic kicks things off at PGA National, and a stellar field is expected, with Justin Thomas returning as the defending champion. The wind likely will blow at Palm Beach Gardens, and Paul Azinger will be in the NBC booth, replacing the recently retired Johnny Miller. Azinger will talk endlessly about the “Bear Trap” – holes 15-17, where water grabs windblown errant shots down the stretch.

Thomas battled the winds for four days and wound up at 8 under before winning in a playoff over Luke List.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational comes next, with a purse this year just north of $9 million. The event drew fairly strong fields in years’ past because of the players’ respect and admiration for Palmer, who died in 2016. Without Palmer around, not as many top players enter. And it doesn’t help that the API is now the week before the Players, giving top players another reason to skip it.

However, Rory McIlroy will be there, defending his title. McIlroy authored a magical Sunday at Bay Hill, making birdie on five of his last six holes to shoot 64 and win by three. It was one of the highlight performances of the year.

Many observers thought the victory would propel McIlroy into a super year and give him enough momentum to complete the career Grand Slam with a Masters triumph. However, it would turn out that the API was McIlroy’s lone bright spot in an otherwise disappointing year. He has started 2019 with four top-5s in as many starts, including a runner-up in the recent WGC Mexico Championship.

The Players returns to its longtime March date after 12 seasons of being played in May, making TPC Sawgrass feel and play like an entirely different course. The dormant Bermudagrass has been overseeded with rye and fine fescue in fairways and roughs, and velvet bent and Poa trivialis on the greens.

What that means is the course won’t play as firm and fast as it did in May, and the grain in the greens won’t be as pronounced. And the weather will play a factor. There’s a good chance of chilly days in March, and the wind could wreak havoc, particularly at the par-3 17th, where players might be playing longer clubs than wedges into that island green.

Each year, the Players boasts the strongest field in golf, and that certainly will be the case this year. Except, perhaps, for Phil Mickelson, who is inexplicably making noise that he might not play. He won in 2007, the first year that it was played in May.

“It’s not a must-play for me, because I’m 48 and I’ve played it 25 times and I’ve already won it,” Mickelson told GolfChannel.com. “If I were young and early in my career, I would say, yes, because I think it’s as close to a major as it can get. But it’s not the best course for me.”

It is a good course for Webb Simpson, who won by four last year at 18 under.

The Valspar Championship is the following week at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort, one of the best tests and most well-regarded courses by the players on Tour. Paul Casey is the defending champion, and Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose all finished among the top 5 last year.

While it’s a given that the destination for the best players is the Masters, a journey starts with a single step. This year, as usual, that step takes place in Florida.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf