PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Ken Kennerly, the executive director of the Honda Classic, walked into the locker room at PGA National on Monday morning to make sure everything was ready for the impending influx of 144 professional golfers. He was greeted by a number of early arrivals and exchanged the usual hellos and catch-ups about families. There was also something many of the players said that wasn’t the typical first-of-the-week banter.
“A number of guys said to me, ‘Boy, the tour didn’t do you any favors with the new schedule,’” said Kennerly, who has now run the first tournament on the Florida swing for 13 years. “I’ve heard that a lot—from players, from equipment reps, from agents—just about everyone in golf.”
He paused. “The thing about it is: They’re right.”
In recent years, Kennerly has been able to count on Tiger Woods (when healthy) and Rory McIlroy teeing it up at the Honda. Both live close to the golf course. Both like the golf course—McIlroy won here in 2012 to become the world’s No. 1 player. Woods chased him down the stretch, shooting 62 on Sunday to finish second. A year ago, Woods finished T-12, a week that helped launched his comeback. Neither one is playing this year. The reason: the tour’s new schedule.
For a number of years, the Honda came a week before the WGC event played at Doral, an 85-mile jaunt down I-95 from PGA National. Three years ago, that event moved to Mexico City because the tour needed a new title sponsor. That made the logistics more difficult but probably hurt the event in Tampa—the week AFTER Mexico—more than it hurt Honda.
Then came the schedule changes that were put in place this season. First, the tour moved Mexico to the week BEFORE Honda, because it made sense logistically for players to wrap up the West Coast swing in Los Angeles and travel from there to Mexico City. That created some issues. Just as impactful was the return of the Players Championship to March—two weeks after Honda.
“Flipping with Mexico didn’t help, but what really hurt was flipping with Mexico AND the Players moving back to March,” Kennerly said. “With the schedule squeezed this year, you’re going to see a lot of good events backed up against one another. We come right in the midst of a seven-week blitz that includes San Diego [on a U.S. Open course], Pebble Beach [this year’s U.S. Open course], Riviera, a WGC event, us, Bay Hill and the Players. Those are all events star players like to play in. But they can’t play all of them. They have to take a break somewhere.”
That’s why McIlroy and Woods aren’t here. Both played Riviera (which is now overseen by Woods’ foundation) and Mexico and will play Bay Hill—Woods has won there eight times and McIlroy is the defending champion—and then the Players. Something had to fall through the cracks. It was Honda.
Kennerly knew several weeks ago that McIlroy wasn’t going to play—he and his agent, Sean O’Flaherty, let him know that, even though Honda is a home game for him, he had decided to take the week off. Kennerly didn’t know for sure until last week that Woods would be out.
“Steiny [Woods’s agent Mark Steinberg] kept telling me that Tiger was torn,” Kennerly said. “I believe him. But, truth is, once he entered Mexico, I knew he wasn’t coming here. He wasn’t going to play five in a row.”
And, while those two absences are the ones that bother Kennerly most, they aren’t the only ones. Masters champion Patrick Reed; 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley; 2010 British Open champn Louis Oosthuizen and Ryder Cuppers Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Brandt Snedeker are among those who played last year and aren’t playing this year. Phil Mickelson has also played in the past but isn’t here this week.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t stars in the field: Justin Thomas (the defending champion); Brooks Koepka; Sergio Garcia; Rickie Fowler; and Ernie Els are all playing. In all there are 16 major champions in the field.
But numbers don’t lie: Only three of the current top 10—and three of the top 20 in the World Rankings (Thomas, Koepka and Fowler) are in the field. Worse than that is the lack of depth: Six of the top 25 are here and 12 of the top 50. A year ago 10 of the top 25 entered and 19 of the top 50. And that number doesn’t count Woods, who wasn’t back in the top 50 at that point. As recently as five years ago, the top eight players in the world all played here.
For years, the Honda was the PGA Tour’s event without a home. It was played at four different South Florida courses between 1984 and 2006 before settling at PGA National in 2007. With the support of Jack Nicklaus, a respected course and a better date, the fields steadily improved. Kennerly worked hard to make it a week people in the community looked forward to with all sorts of events surrounding the actual tournament.
“It’s like summer camp for grown-ups,” he said. “Everyone shows up to see their friends every year.”
Last summer, the greens were renovated to make sure they remain pure and smooth. Kennerly has heard some complaints about the course being “too hard.” PGA National IS one of the more difficult courses on tour—Thomas and Luke List played off at eight under par last year—but most players like and respect the golf course.
“It has nothing to do with the golf course being too hard,” Kennerly said. “This is all about the schedule. Look, I know making the schedule isn’t easy and the tour does the best it can for everyone. But this is a concern going forward. Clearly, the schedule isn’t going to change next year but 2021 is a very big year for us because the Honda contract is up after that tournament.”
Honda is the tour’s longest-standing title sponsor, now in its 38th year. The tour has lost a number of long-standing sponsors in recent years and would probably be hard-pressed to replace Honda, especially with the current schedule.
Riviera and Bay Hill—with Woods and the Arnold Palmer Foundation as the hosts—have been given “enhanced” status by the tour, meaning their purses have been increased and the winner gets a three-year exemption rather than two. Mexico is a $10-million-dollar-plus purse with no cut. The Players is looked at by most players as the most important non-major on the schedule. Right in the middle of all that is the Honda.
Kennerly says he plans to sit down with tour representatives once this week’s event is over. “I know the tour has a lot of people in their ear,” he said. “But I also think Honda deserves a date that will give us the best chance possible to have the best field possible. Right now, we’re in a tough spot.”
Kennerly knows he’s fortunate that Thomas, Koepka and Fowler—the top 10 players in the field—all live within 10 minutes of the course. But that doesn’t quash his long-term concerns.
“I don’t want to come across as whining,” he said. “But I’m not the only one, by any means, who thinks we deserve better.”