TOUR Insider: Stars converge on Honda
The season's strongest field will tee it up at PGA National, which will test the best
- Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are among the elite names who will battle the Bear Trap this season. (Little/Getty Images)
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- As heavy fog began to lift at PGA National early Wednesday morning, a lot was revealed about The Honda Classic.
Adam Scott chatted with Rory McIlroy on the driving range.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had already teed off for their pro-am rounds.
And everywhere you turned were stars of the game.
“It’s like a major,” said Scott, who is ending a six-week sabbatical and playing The Honda for the first time since 2011. “The course sets up well for me, and it fit in perfectly with my schedule … and a lot of other players’, too.”
Well enough for the event to land the strongest field of the year to date for a regular PGA TOUR stop.
For the first time this year, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are teeing it up. Seven of the top 10 in the world are here, and the estimated 64 world ranking points are the most of any tournament this season outside the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship.
It’s a stark contrast from a less fruitful time not that long ago when the event moved six times over a 13-year period.
But everything changed in 2006, when Walton Street Capital L.L.C. bought PGA National and spent more than $100 million renovating it.
The following year, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus took on a more prominent role, too, with the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation becoming the event’s main charity beneficiary. The Golden Bear was also hired to renovate the Champion Course.
“I think it had to do with the re-do, with Jack (Nicklaus) coming in here and making the golf course more difficult and better,” Woods said. “A lot of guys really took notice of that.”
Then Woods moved to nearby Jupiter in 2012, and everything went to another level.
“You’re doing the right things,” Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg told tournament director Ken Kennerly. “Tiger’s watching. He’s really watching.”
Kennerly will never forget the call that Woods was committed to playing that year.
“I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life,” Kennerly said.
The event’s seminal moment came a week later when Woods charged up the leaderboard with a final-round 62 that included a birdie-eagle finish before Rory McIlroy held on for a two-stroke win to reach No. 1 in the world.
Other factors have played a role in the rebirth of The Honda Classic, too.
For one, a number of players now call this area home for some or all of the year, including McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, among dozens of others.
“It can't get any better for professional golfers,” Bradley said. “Jack Nicklaus has put the players first, and it shows.”
For another, the tournament sits perfectly between two World Golf Championships events -- last week’s Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, and next week’s Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral 90 minutes down I-95 and the Florida coast.
“I like the golf course, and it fit beautifully into my schedule this year,” said Sergio Garcia, in the field for the first time since 2010. “It's a bonus to be able to enter such a strong field this week on a wonderful golf course.”
Scott, the reigning Masters champ, is making just his third start at the Honda -- and first since 2011 -- since joining the TOUR in 2003. Scott played in the two events in Hawaii at the start of 2014 and decided not to play in any West Coast events.
"My break came (in the early part of 2014)," Scott said. "I figured I could take the whole West Coast Swing off and start here.
“Tiger and Phil haven’t played a lot and they obviously identified this one as a good one to play, too.”
To that end, this is Mickelson’s first appearance in The Honda Classic in more than a decade. He added the tournament to his schedule because his kids are now at two different schools and have two different winter breaks, one during Accenture and the other during the Northern Trust Open, a tournament he traditionally played.
When Kennerly got the call that Mickelson was playing here, it was another special moment.
“It’s extremely satisfying,” Kennerly said of the tournament’s rising status. “Every year, we’ve been fortunate to get better.”
This year more than any other.