By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM Columnist
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – As the PGA TOUR arrives for the start of the month-long Florida Swing, the 2013 season already is bursting with plotlines and buzzing with as many questions as there are sunburned tourists on the beaches from here to Miami.
Setting the tone for The Honda Classic this week is a giant tournament billboard towering over northbound I-95, just south of the PGA Boulevard exit. The face of the tournament is World No. 1 and brand new South Florida resident Rory McIlroy, wearing a resolute expression and a Nike swoosh as he gazes above the traffic below.
Defending The Honda Classic champion, McIlroy, 23, isn’t merely the talk of the town -- he’s the focal point of the sport. On an entirely different plane than he was a year ago, when he was still the up-and-coming virtuoso with the big game and bigger potential, McIlroy has had to deal with the intense scrutiny brought on by a swift rise to the top.
Everything changed the day he won The Honda Classic. Both the victory and the way he won by holding off Tiger Woods -- who surged with a Sunday 62 on the tough Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa -- foreshadowed McIlroy’s breakout season.
Immediately after the win, McIlroy rose to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time. He moved atop the FedExCup standings the following week. McIlroy went on to win four PGA TOUR events and one European Tour event in 2012, adding the PGA Championship to the 2011 US Open on his major championship resume. He was selected PGA TOUR Player of the Year by his peers, and then reaped some of immediate rewards by signing a monster deal with Nike.
With the spoils come the inevitable spoilers. His switch to 14 different clubs and a different golf ball have raised critics’ eyebrows, and his tentative start to the 2013 season has engendered negative discussion. Thus far, McIlroy seems to be shrugging it off.
“It’s fine,” he said Tuesday at PGA National, a short commute from his new home. “I knew coming into it was going to be a bit of a process and I knew there was going to be comments if it didn’t happen for me right way.
“I’m only two tournaments into the season. I’ve still got more than 20 to go or 20 to go. So it’s not like I’m in any rush; it’s not like I’m pushing for answers or I’m looking for answers. Everything’s there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
It’s a sensible answer that should suffice for awhile, at least until the Masters moves to front of mind and the buildup intensifies. In the meantime, as McIlroy continues to sort out the feel of his new golf clubs, there is plenty of buzz about the other equipment issue of note as the comment period closed regarding the proposed ban on anchoring of putters.
To be sure, this rules kerfuffle over whether golfers can continue anchoring longer putters to their bodies during the putting stroke will simmer awhile longer. Hopefully, there will be meaningful discussion in the background as golf’s worldwide rulemaking bodies, the USGA and the R&A, sort out whether or not to proceed with a proposed ban that would start in 2016.
On the golf course, things have rarely been more entertaining at this stage of the season. Though McIlroy and Woods both suffered first-round elimination last week at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, that’s unlikely to be a barometer of how they’ll perform in their hometown this week, in a stroke-play event at a challenging golf course both like, in more golf-friendly weather.
In fact, No. 1 and No. 2 already went head-to-head this week in a friendly at The Medalist in Hobe Sound, Woods’ home course. According to McIlroy, they broke even in a 36-hole match. And Woods and McIlroy aren’t the only contenders feeling at home this week. This will be a home game for eight of the 13 players in the field who are ranked among the top 25, including Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Lee Westwood of England, reigning PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, reigning British Open champ Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson, winner of the 2013 season opening Hyundai Championship at Kapalua on the island of Maui.
Bradley, the New Englander who now lives at the Bears Club in Jupiter, couldn’t be happier about returning to the Sunshine State.
“It's really good to be home,” he said. “I love this golf course. I especially love Bermuda greens. It's just such a great area to live.”
Among the best perks for pro golfers living in Palm Beach County is the opportunity to bump into long-time local Jack Nicklaus, who did the redesign work on The Champion Course at PGA National as well as the golf course at The Bears Club, where many of the pros live.
They can bump into Nicklaus just about anywhere around town off the course, too, and if they’re really fortunate, some of that part of Nicklaus will rub off on them. This is where the golf legend, now 72, has lived since the early 70s, where he and wife Barbara raised their five children, became pillars of the local community and have, through their Nicklaus Childrens Health Care Foundation, joined forces with Miami Children's Hospital to build the Nicklaus Care Center for Palm Beach County area families with children requiring pediatric specialty care.
Next week, the TOUR goes down the road to Miami for the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral. Most of the top 50 players in the World Golf Rankings will be on hand for that, including defending champion Justin Rose and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, who finished second.
Then it’s on to the famed Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort for the Tampa Bay Championship, where Luke Donald will try to defend his 2012 title. The Florida Swing will wrap up the following week at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge for the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. Woods, a seven-time winner of the event, has successfully defended his title at Bay Hill four previous times. He’ll be trying for a fifth
Welcome to Florida. A more compelling month of possibilities would be hard to imagine.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.