News & Opinion

Honda Classic stalls in PGA Tour’s March traffic jam

PGA National Champion Course Hole 3
The 3rd hole at PGA National Resort & Spa's Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Annual stop at PGA National, which led Florida Swing for years, fails to attract elite field in slot between Players and Match Play, but Mike Purkey has an alternate route to consider

Timing and luck are brother and sister on the PGA Tour, and it’s not only players who need a fair bit of both to succeed. If you’re a tournament director, all of the meticulous planning and 14-hour days won’t matter unless your event has the good fortune of being held at the right place and at the right time.

Ask Ken Kennerly of the Honda Classic. One of the best and most respected tournament directors on Tour, Kennerly has endured more ups and downs than an express elevator over the years when it comes to the Honda’s place on the schedule. Attracting the top players on Tour to your event can be as hit-and-miss as mining for gold. With the wrong date, the result is more dust than precious metal.

This week’s Honda Classic is in the shallow end of the talent pool. Only five of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are in the field, led by South Korea’s Sungjae Im, the defending champion who is ranked 18th. No. 15 Daniel Berger withdrew Wednesday because of a sore rib (tee times).

The culprit is not the tournament, nor is it the venue. After bouncing around south Florida for years, the Honda settled at PGA National, which has proved to be one of the best tests on Tour. The Honda is victimized by its place on the schedule. This season, it sits between last week’s Players Championship and next week’s WGC Match Play in Austin, Texas. That leaves the Honda as odd-tournament-out.

However, the Honda hasn’t always been on the short end of the draw. From 2007 to 2018, the tournament was the first stop on the Florida Swing, either immediately before or after a WGC event. As a result, the Honda had some of the best fields among non-majors on Tour. It didn’t hurt that many of the game’s top players live in Jupiter, Fla., a short commute to Palm Beach Gardens. Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Justin Thomas won the Honda during that stretch.

The real problem, if you can call it that, is an overabundance of top-drawer tournaments on the Florida Swing, making it difficult for players to choose. So many, in fact, that the Valspar Championship – an excellent event played on the well-regarded Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort – was moved to April 29-May 2 to be dislodged from the March schedule traffic jam.

It didn’t help the Honda that the Arnold Palmer Invitational, played two weeks ago at Bay Hill, raised its purse to $9.3 million, while the Honda remains at $7 million. All things being equal, Tour players are like the infamous Willie Sutton, who said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is.

Honda, in its 40th year, is the Tour’s longest-running title sponsor and deserves better treatment than to be bounced around and handed off like a problem foster child. While it’s true that the PGA Tour serves too many masters and has an impossible job of keeping all sponsors happy all of the time, there has to be a reward for long-term loyalty.

An obvious solution exists for the Honda: Make it a World Golf Championships event. The WGC Mexico Championship became the WGC Workday Championship at The Concession in Bradenton, Fla., three weeks ago because of COVID-19 issues in Mexico. Grupo Salinas, a media conglomerate, was an 11th-hour sponsor replacement when the Tour decided to leave Trump Doral after the 2016 event. Mexico City never has been an ideal situation, and Chapultepec Golf Club simply is not a Tour-caliber course. If anyone says that the Tour needs to be in Mexico in order to grow the game, don’t listen.

Precedent exists for such a move. The Tour uprooted the longstanding WGC Bridgestone Invitational from Akron, Ohio, to Memphis, Tenn., and it became the WGC FedEx St. Jude Classic. And it’s not because someone thinks that TPC Southwind is a superior course to the South Course at Firestone Country Club; it’s far from it. No, the decision was made for one reason only: Memphis is home to FedEx, which spends $70 million yearly on the FedEx Cup.

The WGC Honda Classic would attract some new and needed investment in its purse and be restored to its rightful place as the leadoff event of the Florida Swing. If Concession is good enough to host a WGC, albeit a substitute, PGA National is more than worthy.

A top field would be guaranteed every year, and the Honda’s days of relying on the whims of the Tour and dumb luck gratefully would be over. If you can guarantee timing, the rest takes care of itself.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.