News & Opinion

Players’ shift to March hurts Florida Swing

When the PGA Tour persuaded the PGA of America to move its major championship from August to May, it meant the Tour could conduct its FedEx Cup playoff events in August and have the season wrapped up by Labor Day. The aim is to keep the Tour’s biggest events from competing – unsuccessfully – with college football for TV eyeballs.

And the Tour could move its flagship event, the Players Championship, back to March, which many people – including the players – thought was its rightful place. The maneuvers were hailed as a stroke of genius for newly minted PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

But there was collateral damage, and it’s not clear whether it was unintended or, if it was, the decision was made to ignore it and hope that no one would notice.

Ken Kennerly noticed. Kennerly has been the tournament director of the Honda Classic since 2007 and built the event into one with an extraordinary amount of star power. The tournament is played at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, a short drive for many of the PGA Tour players who live in southeast Florida. And Honda just completed its 38th year as title sponsor, the longest-running uninterrupted partnership on the Tour.

Even Tiger Woods played the Honda. In 2014, the tournament had the top three players in the Official World Golf Ranking, four of the top five and seven of the top 10. This year, only three of the top 25 played the Honda. “The schedule change hurt us,” Kennerly told GolfChannel.com.

In essence, the schedule change hurt the entire Florida Swing, except, of course, the Players. As recently as 2016, there were four Florida tournaments in February and March, before the Players was held in May. The WGC at Doral was moved by the Tour to Mexico in 2017 because President Donald Trump owns the Doral resort and there was fallout over some divisive rhetoric by then-candidate Trump.

The order of play was Honda, WGC, Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational. In those days, most of the best players played two of the four, and some played three. Today, after the WGC Mexico, it’s Honda, Bay Hill, Players and Valspar.

All of the top players compete at the WGC, which means most skipped Honda and others skipped Bay Hill to get ready for the recently concluded Players. That leaves the Valspar, which begins Thursday at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor. The top five on the Valspar leaderboard last year were Paul Casey, Tiger Woods, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose. That’s not likely to be repeated because the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play will be played next week.

In other words, the Florida Swing was ruined when the Players moved to March. Most of the top players entered two of the Florida tournaments other than the Players, but now most will play in only one.

“Nobody’s going to play five events in a row,” Kennerly said.

There is a solution. Move the Players to fourth in the Florida Swing. That brings the top players back to the Honda. Those loyal to the late Arnold Palmer likely will play Bay Hill, including Woods, who won the event eight times, and Rory McIlroy, who won in 2018. That would make the Valspar the warmup to the Players, for those who like to play the week before a big tournament.

The glaring problem with that scenario is that the Match Play would be the week after the Players. That could be solved by moving the Match Play to April, where the Zurich Classic resides now, and moving the Zurich to the week after the Players. The Zurich is a team event, and most of the top players skip it, anyway.

The PGA Tour schedule is built with the major championships in mind, first and foremost. Next in priority are the four WGC events. Then comes the three FedEx Cup playoff events. Everything else has to work around those 11 tournaments.

Those are the events nearly all of the best players will play, with the exception of the WGC HSBC Champions, which is scheduled for Shanghai in October. Many of the top players skip that one.

Not every event on the PGA Tour will secure a world-class field, and most tournament directors don’t expect one. They are happy if a couple of top-10 players show up every other year or so. But for a venerated stretch of tournaments such as the Florida Swing, the PGA Tour owes them – especially the Honda – the best chance to have an exceptional field every year.

And not to ruin longstanding traditions simply for the sake of showcasing the Tour’s top event at the expense of some of their best partners. For an organization totally dependent on partnerships, surely the Tour can appreciate that.

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