As it does each and every year after the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the PGA TOUR packs its bags and heads east of the Mississippi River, where four of the next five events will be contested leading up to the Masters Tournament.
This year, however, there has been a change in the Southern Swing line-up. The rotation used to be as follows: Doral; Honda; Bay Hill; Players Championship; BellSouth; Masters.
The Honda Classic will hit leadoff as players begin the final stretch to Augusta. It will be followed by the Pods Championship, formerly the Chrysler Championship, which had been contested in previous years in the fall.
Bay Hill will go third, but will do so under a new identity: the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.
Doral not only has a new name, but a new position in the order ' as well as an increased significance. Now the WGC-CA Championship, the old Ford Championship will bat clean-up. It will fill in for The Players as a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Masters. The Players has been moved to May, between Augusta and the U.S. Open ' to take on more of a starring role.
Due up fifth is the Shell Houston Open. It will take the place of the BellSouth as the final tune-up before the seasons first major.
The dance card has changed, the contents jumbled. It might appear just a matter of cosmetics, but the alterations could be significant for all tournaments involved.
Obviously, The Players absence creates a bit of a void during this run, but that will only add a little more excitement later in the year when there is a two-month gap between majors.
The Honda, which had only one top-10 player a year ago, has two this year, as well as a host of other notable names like Love and Toms. The event will also be contested on the Champion Course at PGA National, which hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup matches and the 87 PGA Championship. After years of bouncing around from one non-descript course to another, this can only be of benefit for the future.
Despite being the final full-field event last season, the Pods Championship had one of the strongest fields among non-major tournaments. It should still draw well with its earlier time slot, and, if anything, it should attract a greater amount of interest since it no longer has to battle college and professional football for attention.
Bay Hill might not see much a change in relation to the quality of players in the field either, as it always draws top names, but with host Palmers name in the tournament title that will make the event feel all-the-more special. One notable addition this year is Phil Mickelson, who is expected to make his first appearance at Arnies event since 2002.
Doral had nine of the top 10 players in the world in its field last year. This year, it will only get stronger with its WGC affiliation. That, in turn, can only help the Shell Houston, as some of the foreign players might want to stick around for an extra week instead of heading back home before the Masters.
Even the BellSouth, which is now being contested the week after The Players in mid-May, probably wont suffer too much. It should still draw headliners like Mickelson and Retief Goosen, who are past champions of the event.
One thing that hasnt changed this time of year is the reshuffle.
As the TOUR heads to Florida, all of the Nationwide Tour and Q-school graduates are re-ordered based on their position on the money list. At the beginning of the year, all of these players are lumped into one category in relation to where they finished on the previous years Nationwide money list and at the Qualifying Tournament. The higher a player is positioned, the better chance he has to get into a tournament, as players in this category are usually the last to round out a field.
For instance, George McNeil, the Q-school medalist, was first in this priority category at the start of the season. That helped get him into six tournaments, but he only earned $162,367 and was reshuffled to the 16th position.
Meanwhile, Jeff Quinney is now at the top of the list. He made $941,300 in five starts and stands in 12th place on the overall money list.
The biggest moves in a positive direction were made by John Mallinger and Mark Wilson. Both players jumped up 24 spots in the priority ranking. Mallinger is now third on the list; Wilson 25th.
The biggest tumbles went to Rich Barcelo and Craig Bowden. The two started the season in the fifth and sixth positions, respectively. They now stand 37th and 44th, respectively.
Six players failed to make a cut while making at least three starts, including Chris Stroud, who used to be 31st on the ranking. Three others, for various reasons, failed to make a single start.
The next reshuffle is after the Masters. The best chances for players in this group to see action, and improve their standing, before then are at the two new stops on this swing: Tampa and Houston ' as well as this week at The Honda.
Just one more thing to keep an eye on as we begin the final leg of our trip to Magnolia Lane.
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