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Good Course Draws Great Field

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The answer to the question is no – as in no Tiger and no Phil.

For both better and worse, many golf fans judge a tournament field based on whether Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee it up. This week at the Honda Classic, Mickelson is home resting after playing six straight weeks. Woods is home resting something, most likely his bruised ego. His body certainly can’t be that tired since he’s only played nine tournament rounds in the first two months of 2011.

Woods has never played here. Mickelson hasn’t been in the field since 2002. And yet, the Honda is proof that there can be Life on Tour Without Phil and Tiger. This year’s field, even though the tournament is sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, is stellar. It includes two of last year’s major winners – Louis Oosthuizen and Graeme McDowell – for starters and guys like Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III. Even Nick Price, who was once the No. 1 player in the world, can still draw a crowd.

So how has the Honda done it even with all the scheduling odds stacked against it? A lot of it comes down to the golf course. For years, the Honda was the Flying Dutchman of the Tour (that’s an opera reference in honor of my dad who ran an opera company) seemingly destined to wander from port-to-port, or in this case course-to-course, with no real home. From 1982 to 2006 the tournament was played at five different venues, none of them especially appealing.

When Ken Kennerly, who had worked for years for Jack Nicklaus, was hired as tournament director, he knew that all the pleading in the world wasn’t going to get the tournament a better spot on the schedule – especially with the Accenture Match Play almost always coming at the end of the West Coast Swing and Doral becoming a WGC event – so his best chance for a better field was to find a better golf course.

What many people don’t understand is that many players decide where to play based on the golf course. For years, the one tournament Woods almost always played regardless of who sponsored it or how it set him up for the next major was Charlotte. Why? Because he liked Quail Hollow Golf Club. That’s not to say there aren’t other reasons players decide where to tee it up but the quality of a golf course and how it suits their games is frequently a factor.

Kennerly knew there was a high-quality course right under his nose in Palm Beach County: PGA National. Once, in 1987, it hosted a PGA Championship and the results were disastrous. The greens died in the heat and so did most players and spectators (not literally) and the PGA of America quickly figured out that a golf tournament in south Florida in mid-August wasn’t a great idea.

After that, the PGA decided to move its Senior Championship to the course (which is across the street from its headquarters) and it was played there each April through 2000 when the decision was made to move the event around the country again. And so, the course sat for the next six years, used primarily by snow-birds escaping winter in the northeast, even though players had always spoken very highly of it, especially the trademark, ‘Bear Trap,’ holes (Nicklaus design) that come late in the back nine.

And so Kennerly decided to move the event to PGA National. He got Nicklaus involved based on their past relationship, his design of the golf course and the fact that the Nicklaus Hospital became the event’s primary charity. Nicklaus has played in the pro-am in the past and talks up the tournament whenever he gets the chance.

But the genius was in the golf course decision. Word quickly spread among the players once the event moved to PGA National in 2007 that this was no longer the old Honda where you tolerated the golf course because the purse was big enough to make it worthwhile if you weren’t in the Match Play, Doral or Bay Hill. The fact that the March Florida Swing is now four weeks instead of five since The Players was moved back to May didn’t hurt either.

And so now, in year five at PGA National, the Honda is thriving. A year ago PGA National was ranked the second-hardest golf course on Tour statistically. Hard doesn’t always translate to good in the minds of players because sometimes hard can be created with trickery. That’s not the case at PGA National. It’s just hard.

“It’s actually a pretty simple golf course,” said Paul Goydos, who was on the Players Advisory Committee when the tournament was moved five years ago. “If you keep the ball in front of you, you can score. If you don’t, you’re in serious trouble. The golf course becomes unbelievably difficult.”

Or, as Nicklaus might put it, it becomes a bear.

The best description of PGA National might have come last year from Perry Moss, a veteran Tour player, who Monday qualified for the tournament while trying to play his way back to the Tour after a series of injuries. After shooting 81 in the first round on Thursday, Moss shook his head and said, “coming from the golf courses I’ve been playing to this one is like going from hitting minor league pitching to trying to hit Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium.”

Good players like hard golf courses – especially fair ones.

That’s why more and more quality players are coming to the Honda these days. The first winner at PGA National was Mark Wilson, who was the only two-time winner on the West Coast this year. Then came Els, Y.E. Yang and Camilo Villegas. Not a bad list.

Chances are the leaderboard this weekend will have quality players on it. No Tiger, no Phil but still pretty good for an event that spent so many years looking for a home.