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.

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“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.”

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”