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Honda Classic Becomes a Top Draw for PGA Pros

Kickoff to Florida Swing Now Attracts Elite Field Led by Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy

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COMMENTARY | I have something in common with Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy: an affinity for Palm Beach County, Florida, site of this week's PGA Tour stop.

The Honda Classic, which spent a good part of the last two decades wandering up and down the southeast Florida coast at various TPC courses, has found a permanent home at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens. The tournament recently extended its agreement with PGA National through at least 2016.

"The old nomadic Honda is no more,'' Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly told me this week.

A new home in golf-crazy Palm Beach has quickly elevated the Honda -- which has been sponsored by the automaker a PGA Tour record 32 years -- from just another stop on the Florida swing to one of the elite events outside of the major championships.

"By moving to PGA National, our mission right away was to raise the bar on the event,'' Kennerly said. "We wanted to make it a premier event. Palm Beach is a blue-chip community, and we deserved a blue-chip event."

Judging by the strong fields the tournament now attracts, including last year's Tiger-Rory duel, the Honda Classic has pulled off a successful turnaround. Five of the top 10 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings, including No. 1 McIlroy and No. 2 Woods, will tee it up this week at PGA National.

The tourney owes a debt of gratitude to Nicklaus for the upgrade. PGA National's Champions course is just a few par-5s down PGA Boulevard from the longtime home of the Golden Bear. While Nicklaus does not have an official role with the tournament, he supports the event in just about every way you can imagine.

"Jack continually tells us you have to focus on best players in the world if you want to be one of the premier events,'' said Kennerly, adding that Nicklaus studies Shotlink data on various holes as he thinks about moving the bunkers on the course to better challenge today's long hitters.

The Golden Bear redesigned the Champions course -- a past site of the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup -- 15 years ago, creating the signature closing stretch known as "The Bear Trap." The three-hole gauntlet includes two par-3s completely over water. Throw in blustery conditions typical to the coastal region and you have one of the most dangerous finishes on the PGA Tour.

"It's tough going through those holes when you've got a lead, because it can evaporate coming in," 2007 Honda champion Mark Wilson recently told the Palm Beach Post.

Nicklaus, wife Barbara, and son Gary run the charity that benefits from the event, the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation. Jack will also be sharing his commentary on NBC's weekend broadcast with old pal Johnny Miller.

More important than his current involvement, Nicklaus helped create the outdoors lifestyle that has attracted so many PGA Tour pros to the warm-all-year area that includes the communities of Jupiter, Jupiter Island, North Palm Beach, and the Loxahatchee River.

His Bear's Club off Donald Ross Road in Jupiter and Greg Norman's Medalist Club in nearby Hobe Sound are the de facto home bases for a who's who of professional golf: Woods, Els, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Keegan Bradley, to name just a few current tour players. Kennerly says both clubs have practice facilities rivaling those of the Tournament Players Club at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach.

"It's the haven for professional players,'' Kennerly said. "We had six or seven private planes on the tarmac in Tucson [from the WGC-Accenture Match Play] flying back to Palm Beach this weekend."

The Honda Classic's placement on the PGA Tour schedule between two WGC events -- the Match Play and the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral -- helps attract European Tour players like Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell starting their preparations for the Masters.

Nicklaus personally invites tour pros like former world No. 1 Luke Donald to join the exclusive Bear's Club. Donald, who lives in Chicago, spends the first four months of every season practicing in Jupiter.

"Jupiter is the place where I just kind of work and get ready for golf tournaments,'' 2010 Honda Classic winner Camilo Villegas told the Palm Beach Post last year.

Whether the home-field advantage of knowing the Bermuda greens and local weather patterns has shown up in the Honda Classic winner's circle or if winning has inspired pros to move here, the list of recent champions reads like the Palm Beach County phone book:

2012: McIlroy, bought a house here last year after out-dueling new Jupiter Island resident Woods

2010: Villegas, lives on the Loxahatchee River

2008: Els, moved south from Orlando after edging Donald for the win here

2006: Donald, won across the street at the Country Club Mirasol

The newest transplants to Palm Beach County include 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen. Both are in the Honda Classic field. If recent trends hold up their success could attract more legions to the growing hotbed of professional golf. Kennerly, and the area's golf fans, aren't complaining.

Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for FoxSports.com, the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and New York Post. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.

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