Ah, South Florida. What’s not to like? The greens are smooth. (Torrey Pines can be bump city.) The March weather is warm. (At Pebble you pack your rain suit, many sweaters, your thermals.) You play in twosomes on the weekend, and the leaders finish at 6 p.m. (West Coast weekend play is in threesomes, and the first players warm up in the cold of sunrise, all for the benefit of East Coast TV viewers.) More Tour players have houses in Florida — or have relatives who do — than in any other state. (No state income tax.) For Ernie Els, Robert Allenby, Will MacKenzie and others, last week’s event, the Honda Classic at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, was a home game. At this week’s event, the CA Championship at Doral in Miami, you’ll see more of the same: a bunch of guys commuting from home.
Last week players came in, signed their cards, picked up their kids and went to the hotel pool. Except for Boo Weekley. He was holding court at a poolside bar last Saturday afternoon, party of nine, little eruptions of laughter every five minutes or so. A good time.
Greg Norman used to say the new golf season began each year when the Tour got to Florida. For years the first stop in the Florida swing was at swanky Doral, but now the first stop in the Sunshine State is the Honda, which comes right after the must-play Match Play, and last week players were rejecting Norman’s old claim. They weren’t making any grand statements about the Honda. All it is, is the Tour as it should be. The tournament is played on a fine, windswept Jack Nicklaus golf course. The winner gets $1 millon. It attracts a strong and varied field, last week including teenagers Rory McIlory and Tadd Fujikawa as well as Ryder Cup veterans Davis Love III and Sergio Garcia. Barbara Nicklaus, chairperson of the tournament directors for the Children’s Healthcare Charity, is on the premises every year, talking up the cause. The crowds are lively and good-sized, without anybody frothing at the mouth. In a chaotic world, there’s something to be said for a sporting event that’s reliable and solid and entertaining. Nothing fancy-schmancy at the PGA Resort, owned and operated by the PGA of America. Ditto for the Honda Classic. Honda’s been a Tour sponsor for 29 years now. How long have you been with your dentist?
If you’re like the golfers at the Honda, you’re tired of the big banks specializing in bad loans, and investment advisers who claim to have all the answers, and the various others who have done two unforgivable things: wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy and made the Tour a seemingly outlandish outpost of conspicuous consumption. Exhibit A: the two-year-old Taj Mahal clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass, where the Tour has its headquarters.
Well, things are changing. At the Honda you could get two adult tickets, two kid tickets, lunch for four plus parking for $100. Richard Sumner, a sixth-grade science teacher, came with his seven-year-old son, Richie, on Sunday. They got free Honda baseball caps at the entrance, and when the Big Easy signed their lids, he said cheerfully, “Thanks for coming.” Richie now ranks his favorite sports as soccer followed by football, but with golf third and rising fast. Tim Finchem, loosen your tie! The good folk paying your salary are now schoolteachers, plumbers and pensioners in bonds.
Just as the inventors of baseball got lucky when they paced off the bases at 90 feet, professional golf got lucky when it decided full-field events should have (ideally) 156 players. On Friday afternoon after work at the Honda, you could wander out anywhere on the course and find something good to watch. Hey, there’s Ernie. Didn’t he win this thing last year? Look at him grinding his bottom off just to make the cut. That’s the workingman’s dogfight mentality that made tournament golf tournament golf way back when. Els, by the way, made the cut on the number, posted a spiffy 66 on Sunday and finished 22nd. You’d have to say he’s among the favorites going into Doral.
Ah, wait a minute: The One Who Needs No Introduction will be playing in that 80-man, no-cut, $37,188-for-finishing-last event. (That last-place money in a no-cut event sounds an awful lot like — right, you Dire Straits fans? — money for nothing.) The Doral stop, when it was sponsored by Eastern Airlines and Ford and others, was a wonderful and ordinary Tour event, like the Honda is now. English-speaking Miami and Spanish-speaking Miami came out for it, and on Thursday and Friday everywhere you wandered there was good, and bad, golf to watch. (On the weekend Andy Bean or Raymond Floyd or Greg Norman took over.) It was alive.
Now, as the CA Championship, as one of the four World Golf Championships — a collection of events that promise too much and feel all corporatey — Doral has lost its mojo. Except, as media analyst Woody Austin noted last week, at the spot where Tiger is at any given moment. “Tiger Woods is all the media talk about, and because of that he’s the one the crowds will all go follow,” the Woodman said on Sunday afternoon while signing autographs for a long line of Honda fans.
Woods is, of course, one of a kind. He’s the elite athlete who is also the ultimate grinder. He’s a son of the middle class who has made beaucoup bucks but doesn’t forget where he came from. He’s good for golf, but not in every way. Tiger will play four rounds at Doral, he’ll most likely play at Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill at the end of the month, and he probably won’t play after that until the Masters in April. If you view the Tour through the prism of Tiger, you have one eye on Augusta already.
Most Tour players don’t think that way. They know that some kind sponsor is offering prize money every week: Doral (and Puerto Rico) this week, the event at the Innisbrook Resort in Central Florida next week, followed by Arnold’s invitational at Bay Hill, then the Houston tournament, then the Masters. And after that Hilton Head and New Orleans and Charlotte, and on and on it goes.
And eventually, the Tour will return to Palm Beach Gardens, for the 30th playing of the Honda Classic, in March 2010. At some point Tiger and family will finally move from Orlando to their new home in Jupiter, which is maybe 10 miles from PGA National. The Els family lives nearby at the Bear’s Club, on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Last week Barbara Nicklaus and Ernie Els and the many on-the-ground PGA pros who work at PGA National were all hoping for the same thing: that someday Tiger will choose to play in the event in his new backyard. It’s not too likely, not with a World Golf Championship (the Match Play) the week before the Honda and another WGC (Doral) the week after. Still, it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?