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.
“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.”