Industry News

There’s a hitch in Florida Swing with detour to Mexico

By Steve Elling

The unusual sights and sounds this week at the longtime PGA Tour venue located just outside Miami would be familiar to generations of fans. 

Those on the grounds over the next few days at Trump National Doral surely will hear staccato gunfire from the nearby shooting range and the roar of airliners landing at Miami International. As ever, exotic birds in banyan trees seemingly will be everywhere.

Yet for the first time in more than a half-century, there won’t be a Tour event staged in March on the Blue Monster. After a 10-year run as a World Golf Championships venue, and a tournament history that dates to 1962, the event was shipped off to Mexico City, where it will be played this week as the Mexico Championship at Chapultepec Golf Club.

The tournament abruptly relocated when Doral’s title sponsor, Cadillac, elected not to extend its deal last summer. After 55 years, it was adios, amigos.

There’s no place for permanence anymore, it seems.

“Everything kind of evolves and moves on in the world, and I think golf's so stuck in traditions and things,” former World No. 1 Adam Scott said. “I think we're a bit sentimental with some things, and we have to move on and let it go and take it for what it was.”

What some might characterize as sentiment, others would consider significant history. Only Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Colonial have hosted longer strings of uninterrupted tour events than Doral. Just as notably, with the Mexico move, the Florida Swing as it has been known for decades also is no mas, at least for now.

With a nod to Major League Baseball spring training that began last week in Florida, it’s become more of a check swing. Instead of four consecutive tournaments staged in the Sunshine State, only the Tampa and Orlando events will be held consecutively in 2017 and ’18. The PGA Tour confirmed recently that the scheduling of the WGC-Mexico Championship will not change in 2018 because of a conflict with a European Tour event. 

In theory, top players face a trek from the Genesis Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif., to last week’s Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., onward to Mexico City, then back to Florida for events in Tampa and Orlando. 

Yet, any concern about the hit that the Honda Classic field would take as a result of losing the traditional southeast Florida double-header with Doral proved to be minimal. The Honda winner received 58 world-ranking points in 2016 and 54 on Sunday. The number of top-25 players in the field fell by one, to 12, compared with 2016. With area resident Rory McIlroy injured, the number of top-six players fell from two to zero, however. 

“It probably cost us two or three guys,” Honda Classic tournament director Ken Kennerly said last week. “But what guys have said is that the Honda has become a staple by itself, whether we’re part of the Florida Swing or not, and a lot of the players live near here.”

The event in Mexico, to be played at 7,500-plus feet of elevation, has resulted not only in a loss of geographical continuity but playing consistency.

“The whole Florida Swing, you kind of get used to how far the ball is going, the conditions of the golf courses; they're all pristine,” Golf Channel analyst Justin Leonard said. “But you're playing on the same grasses, and going to a golf course that's 7,500 feet is going to have a great impact on that.”  

The PGA Tour, which runs the WGC events, concedes that the early schedule for 2017-18 is less than ideal in terms of convenience.

“We’re looking at the flow of the Genesis Open, World Golf Championship and Honda,” said Andy Pazder, the tour’s director of operations and No. 2 in command. “After (2018), we may have an opportunity to create a flow where it’s a little more geographically sane. We’re trying to fit it in among six different tours’ schedules.”

When Cadillac withdrew, the tour was unable to attract a new title sponsor for Doral, where the spotlight must be shared with owner Donald Trump, who since the Tour last visited Doral has completed an improbable run to the White House.

“As we’ve said repeatedly, we’re trying to find the right partners from a sponsorship standpoint, to take the PGA Tour back to Miami, back to Doral,” Pazder said. “I don’t think it’s the ownership issue. We had a sponsorship issue a year ago that led us to where we are today.”

The venue certainly hosted a memorable run. Past Doral winners included Hall of Famers Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and four-time champ Tiger Woods – names that any city would love to adorn on its winner’s trophy. 

“We’ve played there for decades, and it’s tough to leave a town like that,” said Pazder, who at age 50 is five years younger than Doral’s tournament legacy. “That’s the really tough part for us.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling