Born with star power, Honda comes full circle

By Randall MellFebruary 26, 2014, 12:00 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Honda Classic was born with star power.

Back in 1972, as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, this event was extra large at conception, like its namesake.

A mega star as Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” TV fame, Gleason played his role with bravado. He dominated the stage and screen. He was “The Great One.” As such, he demanded any event with his name on it live up to his persona.

Gleason insisted that his event boast the largest purse on the PGA Tour, and it did that first year. He wooed Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and all the big names in golf. More than that, he wooed Hollywood’s big names, bringing in Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney and others to play in the pro-am.

When Gleason was pushed out as tournament host in a controversial breakup in 1981, the event wasn’t instantly smaller, but it would become almost cursed with Gleason’s trademark line from his hit TV show: “And away we go!”

Originally created to sell real estate at Inverrary Country Club, the Honda Classic would become nomadic in that role. In one stretch, it moved six times over 13 years.

Through it all, the event didn’t just lose “The Great One,” it lost the great players.

Now, in its 43rd year, the Honda Classic has come full circle.

“The Great One” in golf is here, Tiger Woods. And so are most of the game’s great players.

The Honda Classic is the strongest event of the year using the top of the world rankings as the measure.

For the first time this year, the No. 1-2-3 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are teeing it up together. Seven of the top 10 players in the world are here. The 64 world-ranking points projected to be awarded to this week’s winner are more than any event played this season outside last week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

No. 1 Woods, No. 2 Adam Scott, No. 3 Henrik Stenson and No. 5 Phil Mickelson are all at PGA National. So is No. 8 Rory McIlroy.

Honda Classic: Articles, videos and photos

“We’re extremely thrilled with the growth of this event,” said Ken Kennerly, the Honda Classic’s executive director. “We pinch ourselves.”

Kennerly took the helm of the Honda Classic in ’07, when it was foundering in its nomadic state, and he methodically rebuilt the event.

“It was the perfect storm,” Kennerly said.

It started with the Honda Classic striking a deal to move the event to PGA National’s Champion Course, finally giving the tournament what is looking like its first long-term home.

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus assumed a more prominent role within the tournament foundation beginning in ‘07, with their Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation becoming the event’s main charity beneficiary. Jack’s influence was felt again when he was hired to renovate the Champion Course, to toughen it up for the PGA Tour pros.

With the event moving on the schedule between a pair of WGC events, the Honda Classic began benefiting from international players wanting to make the most of their long travels to the United States. This coincided with the Internationals’ surge up the world rankings.

Where once the Honda Classic was struggling to land one or two of the top 10 in the world rankings, all of a sudden it was landing four and five of the top 10, with nearly all of them International players.

Most of Euro agent Chubby Chandler’s formidable stable of players were coming over. Kennerly said Chandler called the Honda Classic the only European Tour event staged in the United States. Many of the International stars, including McIlroy, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood, would make homes in this area.

“It’s a testament not only to the Nicklauses, who bring a lot of clout and respect, but also to this venue, a great venue,” said Dudley Hart, who won the Honda Classic when it was played 45 minutes down the road, at Heron Bay, in 2000. “I think, ultimately, for most players, the kind of golf course we play has as much to do with the nature of an event as anything. This is a good, tough test of golf. Fair, but tough. I think in the past, a lot of guys didn’t like the venue. That’s no secret.”

Kennerly saw so much potential in the event’s many new resources after he took over.

“It just needed someone to come in that could understand it and put it together and be a good architect,” Kennerly said.

What Kennerly ultimately needed to return the Honda Classic to elite status was Tiger Woods.

Kennerly cautiously reached out to Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent, after taking over the event. Mostly, he tried to let what they were building sell itself to Woods.

“You’re doing the right things,” Steinberg told Kennerly back in 2010 or ‘11. “Tiger’s watching. He’s really watching.”

Kennerly’s perfect storm was complete when Woods moved to nearby Jupiter in 2012 and committed to play the Honda Classic for the first time as a pro.

Kennerly will never forget the call from Steinberg informing him of Woods’ intentions.

“I’ll probably remember it the rest of my life,” Kennerly said.

It got even better, with Woods making a charge at McIlroy on Sunday 2012, shooting a 62 in the final round, with McIlroy barely holding him off in a thrilling finish.

Kennerly was on the golf course, walking the 18th when Woods eagled the final hole, sending a roar across the property.

It was a special moment, a defining moment for the new Honda Classic. He said landing Phil Mickelson this year was another special development.

“It’s extremely satisfying,” Kennerly said of his event’s rising star status. “Every year, we’ve been fortunate to get better.”

Getty Images

Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

Getty Images

Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

Getty Images

McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”