News & Opinion

Crowded Florida Swing can be hit-or-miss

With 4 tournaments in 4 weeks, PGA Tour’s Sunshine sojourn tends to be too much of a good thing, forcing some tough decisions for players on the road to Augusta and the Masters

Oh, you can build it, all right, and build it to the nines, with the greenest fairways, glassiest greens and the tallest skyboxes. However, with apologies to James Earl Jones and his "Field of Dreams," there is no guarantee that they will come. We are talking, of course, about the PGA Tour’ s Florida Swing.

With Major League Baseball’s spring training in full song, these are busy days in the Sunshine State. Golf-wise, with the Players Championship – ahem, pardon, make that the $15 million Players Championship – back in the fold, the Florida Swing has become more jam-packed than the endless spring break-week line at Space Mountain.

Arnold Palmer Invitational
The image of Arnold Palmer looms statuesque over Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla., where the late ‘King’ spent his winters.

The Players, which last year graciously made the return to March from May to open the door for an earlier PGA Championship and more condensed PGA Tour schedule, stands out among its Florida brothers like heavyweight Tyson Fury, all 6 feet 9 inches of him, standing alongside a kindergarten class. The Players is big, it’s powerful, and the track is one upon which all styles of games can win. Major status or not (and remember, there are only four), everyone wants to put his name on that trophy.

Not helping matters, the four-week Florida Swing is flanked by elite, no-cut, lucrative World Golf Championships on each end (WGC Mexico at the front, WGC Match Play at the back). Which means this: If you are the Honda Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational or the up-and-coming Valspar Championship, you’d better have sharp elbows to lure a high-quality field.

The Honda didn’t make a splash last week as much as provide one, with both competitors in the final group (Tommy Fleetwood and Brendan Steele) hitting second shots into the drink on the par-5 closing hole. Kerplunk! A lot of tournaments hand out gifts to players who show up; the Honda might consider dispersing snorkels. Par has been shaved to 70 (that’s one way to toughen scoring), and when the wind is up at PGA National, with so much menacing water guarding holes, golf balls can become gator chum in an instant. Sungjae Im was your winner at 6-under 274. Only twice since 2006 has a winner reached double digits below par. Some players march right from the 18th green into group therapy.

It’s Honda and Valspar, the opening and closing acts of the Florida Swing, respectively, that feel most of the brunt of inviting the Players, a can’t-miss stop for the best players, back into the March lineup. Honda had six of the world’s top 20 players in its field, which actually was double the number of top-20 players it had a year ago. It’s frustrating to West Palm Beach fans who can run into the likes of locals Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Cantlay or Tiger Woods on tournament week at the nearby supermarket, but not on the first tee at PGA National. Hey, it’s a crowded landscape, with top-notch events, and these guys can play only so many rounds. Adding insult, the Honda’s top three draws – Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose – all failed to get to the weekend.

When the Tour calendar shifts to 2021, there will be one fewer competition week ahead of the Masters in April, and Honda could be the biggest beneficiary. Bay Hill is expected to lead off next year’s Florida Swing, with Honda (March 18-21) looping behind the Players.

“I have spoken to many players who believe that is a more favorable date for us,” Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly told The Palm Beach Post on Sunday. The outlet reported that Honda will be in a new post-Players date perhaps for three years, and not just next March.

The new calendar also means Valspar is expected to move to April. It puts that tournament on a geographic, one-off island, but it could put the tourney on better footing to get a stronger field. Valspar in two weeks isn’t exactly an empty cabinet, with Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland committed. One easily could make the 19th-hole bar argument that Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead, the stout Valspar tournament course, is the strongest of the Florida bunch. Tough but very fair.

Right now, though, players need a breather with two WGCs and a Players sitting on the porch ahead of the year’s first major in Augusta. Those who like to compete the week in front of a major, such as McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, will show up and play in San Antonio for the Texas Open ahead of the Masters. So, Honda and Valspar, a tourney that gained so much momentum when Tiger Woods showed up and tied for second in 2018, become weeks when many sit out.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational, played at the late namesake’s beloved Bay Hill Club in Orlando, will be just fine this week. Life would have been better with eight-time API champion Tiger Woods in Orlando, but the show does go on. Nine of the world’s top 15 players are at Bay Hill, including McIlroy, the world No. 1, as well as 18 of the top 30. That’s pretty strong. Of course, to ensure that the API went along without a dip after Palmer’s death in 2016 took some creative thinking among the tournament staff and the PGA Tour.

For one, the tournament, an invitational with 121 in its starting field as of Monday, has bumped its purse to $9.3 million ($1.674 million to the winner). The API offers a three-year PGA Tour exemption to the champion, not your average two. That’s big. The API also designates ambassadors for the event, which this week includes a past champion (Marc Leishman), a popular musician (Darius Rucker) and even a mayor (Orlando’s Buddy Dyer).

“We’re very honored to have the opportunity to even do this for my father-in-law,” said Roy Saunders, who stepped into a more visible tournament role when the API’s tournament director, Marci Doyle, left last month to attend to family matters. Doyle had been with the tournament for 11 years. Saunders is married to Amy Palmer Saunders, Arnold’s daughter, and is the father of PGA Tour player Sam Saunders, who will make his fourth 2020 start this week after undergoing shoulder surgery after a hard fall last summer.

“He [Palmer] was a great man, and obviously Bay Hill is a wonderful venue,” Roy Saunders said. “He did so much for the game of golf, and I think it’s just a very natural thing to have this tournament with his name on it.”

In a perfect world, everybody would be at Bay Hill this week. All of the top 20. Every one of the top 50. It’s Arnie’s Place, and nobody did more for this game than Arnold Palmer. One could argue that they should play for free and pour every red cent earned into the two hospitals that bear the names of Palmer and his late wife, Winnie.

That’s Disney World pixie-dust stuff, and simply not the reality. Personal schedules differ, Augusta beckons around the corner, and as much as the top players want to dance, the reality is that there are some songs they have to sit out. Arnie, a man pulled in so many directions, might grimace and contort his face at that idea. But he’d certainly understand.

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