PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson all live close enough to PGA National Resort, home of the Honda Classic, that none of them would need to bother with a hotel room key for this week's PGA Tour stop. Yet all three elected to take the week off in their own backyard. It's a sign of the times for an event that just a few years ago was trumpeted as benefiting from the mass of Jupiter-area players living what they like to call “JupLife.”
What we're seeing is one of the drawbacks of the Tour's decision to compress the primary schedule into nine months and wrap up the FedEx Cup ahead of the college football and NFL seasons. Last week’s WGC Mexico Championship kicked off an eight-week stretch in which we're going to see the difference between the haves and have-nots like never before, and the Honda Classic is the first casualty.
This year's version touts only three of the world's top 10 and six of the top 25. That's one fewer top-25 player than played here in 2007 when the Honda Classic debuted at PGA National, the tournament’s seventh home since its debut in 1972. Those are both a far cry from 2015, when 15 of the top 25 in the world rankings were on hand, making it the third-highest strength of field of those not labeled majors, WGCs or FedEx Cup playoffs, behind only the Players Championship and the Memorial.
Late last week, while announcing his commitment to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he has won a record eight times, and the Players, where he's a two-time champ, Woods said, "Unfortunately, due to the schedule this year, I cannot play all the events I want to. . . . Sorry to miss seeing Jack [Nicklaus, who designed PGA National’s Champion course] and everyone at Honda."
Woods already had played the Genesis Open and WGC Mexico Championship, so with Honda, he would have been looking at five straight weeks, and potentially six out of seven if he plays the WGC Dell Match Play Championship. After Woods’ low-energy performance after a similar run ahead of the Ryder Cup, that type of packed schedule likely won’t happen again.
Likewise, in the past four weeks Johnson chased a big payday to Saudi Arabia en route to the winner's circle at a European Tour event and then played Pebble Beach and Riviera before winning for the second time in three years in Mexico City.
McIlroy, speaking with Brad Faxon on SiriusXM/PGA Tour Network on Monday, said making his schedule is an inexact science. He noted that some players dive into the analytics and try to pinpoint the courses that suit them better. He cited the rise of the West Coast Swing as another factor hurting the Florida tournaments, but noted that the switch in the order of Honda and the WGC Mexico, which had 46 of the top 50 in a no-cut event for a bigger purse and more world-ranking points, as a major factor in the weaker field this year.
McIlroy is the defending champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational next week and conceded that Bay Hill also fits his game better than PGA National.
"Something had to give," he said.
He's not alone. Gary Woodland, No. 23 in the world, is playing his “home game” this week, but said he skipped Riviera, one of his favorite courses, and also dropped Pebble Beach earlier this season.
"It's unfortunate," Woodland said. "You just have to find a time.. . . I'm in a stretch of playing five out of six right now.”
And he speculated that he would drop the Zurich Open of New Orleans in late April, noting that if he played the same schedule as past years, he would have gone all year without a two-week break.
“And I just can't do that,” he said. “If you take one week off, by Tuesday you feel like you have to start getting ready for next week. You feel like you're going to lose something if you take too much time off.”
So, this looks to be the new norm for the Honda Classic, the longest-running, continuous-sponsored Tour event (38 years and counting, and signed through 2021). Other Florida events such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Valspar Championship could suffer, too.
Tour pros are independent contractors and make their own schedules, as long as they play the minimum 15 sanctioned events.
Cramming 13 big events – the four majors, four WGCs, three FedEx Cup playoffs, Players and Memorial – into a nine-month span has diminished the rank-and-file tournaments. This can be measured in multiple ways, including field quality, TV ratings, media coverage and attendance. Longstanding sponsors such as Honda and AT&T are getting the shaft. (The AT&T Byron Nelson, to be played the week after the PGA this year, will take a hit, but the AT&T Masters should be OK!)
The best comparison is to college, with its required classes and electives. Golf used to have only four requirements – the majors – and the rest of the tournaments were electives. The requirements on today has climbed to 13. The so-called electives, events such as Fort Worth and San Antonio that have been the backbone of the Tour for generations, are vying for four or five spots in a player’s schedule.
Every move the Tour makes is at some level about trying to increase its income from its media-rights deal, and the schedule change was initiated to prepare for the upcoming TV-rights negotiations, which will be applicable in 2022 and beyond.
There's now a big event each month from March through August. It's killing the European Tour, too, but that's a story for another time. Right now, we're in the midst of four "requirements" in an eight-week span – WGC Mexico, Players, WGC Match Play and Masters – and the ramifications will be real for the "electives."
“I’m dialing the schedule back a little bit, too, with everything being so cramped,” Woodland said. “I’ve got to find some time to take off to be ready for the big tournaments.”
At least, he elected to roll out of his own bed this week for his home game.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak