Strong course, local legends lead to big names at The Honda Classic

February 27, 2013
Brian Wacker,

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- If you build it, they will come.

That’s true of ballparks, and what has become one of the best golf courses and biggest stops for the who’s who in golf.

“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,” said Tiger Woods, explaining the influx of talent that has made The Honda Classic a must-play since it moved to PGA National in 2007. “A lot of guys really took notice of that.”

For a tournament that once bounced between four venues spread over two counties during a 15-year period, it now attracts not just some of the biggest names in the game, but most of them. Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, Ernie Els, Justin Rose. They’re all here, along with Woods.

So is a lot of history.

PGA National has played host to the Ryder Cup, the PGA Championship and a dozen Senior PGA Championships.

But it also took some hard work -- from Nicklaus on the golf course side, and executive director Ken Kennerly on the tournament side -- to restore some of that former glory.

“(The tournament) really needed a home,” Kennerly said. “The first thing I said was, you have to start over.”

That’s when Kennerly, who has lived in the area since 1994, went to work.

So did Walton Street Capital L.L.C., which bought the property in 2006. Since then, they’ve spent more than $100 million improving it. Nicklaus’ aforementioned redesign a few years earlier helped, too.

The tournament’s date is also a factor. It’s wedged between two World Golf Championships events, and with 32 players headed home after just one round of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, it can be a short week leading into this one.

In the eyes of Kennerly, though, it still comes down to the golf course.

“Without a great course we can market it to the hilt, but the great players aren’t going to play,” Kennerly said. “If you have a great course, that leads to a better field. And if you have a better field, you’re able to grow the event.”

Kennerly did the latter from a fan perspective by moving the traditional hospitality area around the 18th to the Bear Trap -- holes 15, 16 and 17. The former still exists, but the latter, is “where the party is at,” according to Kennerly, who, along with tournament director Ed McEnroe, wanted to create more than a golf tournament. They wanted to create an event to appease a fickle South Florida fan base.

“In Palm Beach County, it’s a different deal,” Kennerly said. “In this area, you have to market events differently.”

Case in point: The Honda Classic features everything from the lively Bear Trap, where rum and beer are the drinks of choice, to a high-end wine garden. It’s a different kind of party than the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but it’s a party nonetheless, according to Kennerly.

“But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have fans,” he added.

And like any good trickle-down effect, the fans have come because the players have come, and the players have come because Nicklaus had come.

The Golden Bear first planted his flag in Palm Beach County in the mid-1960s. Other legends followed: Gary Player, Nick Price, Greg Norman, among others.

Over the last few years, though, more and more TOUR players have been migrating to the area -- including Woods, McIlroy, Bradley, Johnson, Fowler and dozens of others -- instead of landlocked and touristy Orlando.

“The weather is perfect all the time,” Bradley said. “It's like being on vacation every day.”

There are also plenty of places for players to work, too, including Medalist, The Bear’s Club, Old Palm, MacArthur and Bear Lakes, among others.

“It can't get any better for professional golfers,” said Bradley, who is a member at The Bear’s Club. “Jack Nicklaus has put the players first, and it shows.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by players at other clubs in the area. Westwood, for example, was driving through Old Palm with his agent Chubby Chandler and said, “I could live here.” A year later, he does, having uprooted his family from England without looking in the rearview mirror.

“I was getting frustrated with the weather in the winters in England, not being able to work as hard as I would like and coming out at the start of the year really feeling too rusty,” Westwood said. “I wanted to come and live in the sunshine.”

These days, that sun is shining awfully bright over The Honda Classic.