PGA National readies itself for the Honda

Updated: March 8, 2006, 12:41 PM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

Palm Beach Gardens marks the end of another era on the PGA Tour. First La Costa ends four decades of hosting tour events. Then Doral, after 45 years of tournament history, becomes a World Golf Championship event. Now the Honda Classic is going through its last year and its sixth venue, the Country Club of Mirasol, jumping across PGA Boulevard to PGA National, where memories are rekindled of a Ryder Cup, a PGA Championship and 18 years of the PGA Seniors.

"I think we're gonna blow the socks off everybody here," PGA National owner Llwyd Ecclestone said Tuesday night in a room that included Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, and a cast that was a flashback to this tournament's roots.

I sat in that conference room Tuesday night at PGA National, looked around at the faces, and couldn't figure out if I was back at Inverrary, having a dream about the 1987 PGA Championship, or covering the Memorial Tournament for the Palm Beach Post.

"This is like coming home," said longtime Nicklaus friend, John Montgomery Sr., who back in the 1970s ran the forefather of the Honda, the Jackie Gleason Classic.

Home is always where the heart is, and there's plenty of that among the Nicklauses, who just endured the one-year anniversary of their grandson's death and who are turning the loss of young Jake into a way of rallying the community behind the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation. If golf has a Mother Superior, then it's Barbara Nicklaus, and there's nobody more respected in the game -- including her husband -- than Barbara.

It's kind of funny that we would end up back at PGA, back at E. Llwyd Ecclestone's original piece of big-time golf course development in this end of the world. Ecclestone was a pioneer, and it's interesting that he'd make a play for this, seeing how every square centimeter of real estate inside the gates has been sold long ago. Around the exterior of PGA National now lies the burgeoning northern suburbs of Palm Beach County, where two-lane roads that ended in dirt are now traffic jammed four-lane highways. In many ways, you could name this Llwyd Land.

"There were wild animals out here back then," Ecclestone said. He listed alligators, snakes and wild bore, but no Golden Bear.

For a guy who isn't a golfer, Ecclestone understands the concept of golf. He had the Fazios (George and Tom) do the first three golf courses, Arnold Palmer the fourth, and then brought in Nicklaus to redesign The Champion course that will be the new host course for the Honda. He secured a relationship with the PGA of America, built them a home and in exchange, got a Ryder Cup two years after the resort opened (1983) and a PGA Championship (1987) that never should have been staged there. You don't hold a major championship in August in Florida, but that was just Llywd holding leverage on the PGA. There was too much negative publicity surrounding that one, but this move of the Honda, in March, makes total sense. The PGA now gets more involved in the tournament, too, with new CEO Joe Steranka on the board.

It also breathes life into a resort that needs an infusion. But as much as PGA National needs modernizing, there is a tradition at PGA which will continue five years after the PGA Seniors have left town for more traditional venues such as Ridgewood, Firestone, Aronomink and Laurel Valley. "The publicity, of course, for the resort is nice," Ecclestone said. "It will keep the lineage going of us holding the former tournaments and show that we can still continue on."

The Honda coming to PGA National is something we've reported for a year. But now that it's here, it feels so much better. This nomadic tournament, an event that seems to have moved every four years for four decades, has finally found a home. It brings together one of the most loyal sponsors in PGA Tour history (Honda) with the most respected name in golf, the Nicklaus Family. They'll be playing on Jack's redesign, for Barbara's Children's Hospital, under Gary's leadership, with a host of Nicklaus lieutenants filling in the breach of administrative and operational roles that will turn this event into the Memorial Tournament South.

The Honda will start the Florida Swing in 2007, with hopes of attracting the newest and most famous of the Jupiter Island golfers, none other than Tiger Woods himself. There is an energy about it that hasn't existed since the days when Jack was filling the condo canyons of Inverrary with roars.

There will be some lengthening to the golf course. Nicklaus took his scalpel to Fazio's work in 1990, put in a tough finish that was marketed as "The Bear Trap," and knows he'll need to modernize the layout to combat the 21st century golfing athlete armed with space-age technology.

"Basically length," Nicklaus said, when asked what the course needed.

All in all, it's a tremendous fit, an amalgamation of all the proper elements that answer some of the negatives that have dogged this tournament since its Inverrary days.

The latest stop on the Honda tour of South Florida was originally intended as a stopgap measure anyway, an escape from the mundane surroundings of Heron Bay. The CC of Mirasol, a sprawling high-end community, turns out to be just another layover, but it has served its purpose.

Mirasol produced nothing but major championship winners and got what it wanted out of the deal -- a development that's sold so fast the developer couldn't build homes fast enough -- but neither party has ever seemed comfortable with the relationship. Honda executive Dick Culliver said it without saying it at the news conference. "Mirasol was good for us," Culliver said. "Unfortunately, when you go to real estate developments, they build out."

It was the same way at Inverrary, Eagle Trace, Weston Hills and would have happened at Heron Bay, had the tournament not vacated out of boredom. And as stopgap measures go, Mirasol had a nice run, producing an upset victory by Todd Hamilton over Davis Love III and a playoff between Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh and Joe Ogilvie, won by Harrington when Singh missed a 3-footer. The first year, on the Hills course, wasn't bad either, with Justin Leonard winning a shootout against Love. That's pretty much 3-for-3 in most cases.

But it never felt like a good fit, kind of like two dance partners smiling because they knew the camera was on them, not because they enjoyed the body contact. "Because it's been such a short time, four years, one year at one, three years at the other, I think it will be looked at as part of the Honda event that just continues to move," Fazio said.

There was criticism of his course from the beginning. It had Pinehurst greens, and the pros don't like Pinehurt greens, imitation or the real thing. It also had length (close to 7,500 yards) and water, although most of it was not in play. The members loved it, but word got around tour that it was not user friendly.

Fazio compared his work and the reaction to it to the early days at Spyglass and Harbourtown. He quoted from Johnny Miller, who defended it, and called it a shot-maker's golf course on NBC. He said it was a course that could get the players ready for major championships, but no matter what he said, or how the course played, or who won on it, Mirasol never connected.

The fields were weak, especially compared to Doral's, and that was also part of the problem. There's no shadow of the Blue Monster hanging over it now. Doral has moved to the end of the Florida swing as a World Golf Championship event. Honda has been reinvented into something it hasn't been since the days when Nicklaus won it at Inverrary.

The man forgotten in all this is Cliff Danley. Danley's picture is listed next to "faithful soldier" in golf's definition of a tournament director. He's been the guy who's dealt with all of the venue changes, and who was expendable with the change in foundations and venues.

Danley has dealt with it honestly, never making excuses, taking the heat, trying to do the best he could with the situation. He kept the tournament alive and has a loyal following among tour players who know and respect a good job when they see one. The Honda was as well run as any event.

While the news conference was going on at PGA, Danley was finishing up the junior clinic at Mirasol, getting ready for the Wednesday Pro-Am, doing what he always did on the Tuesday before a Honda Classic. When Ecclestone said, "It's going to be good for everybody," he wasn't talking about Danley. Or maybe he was.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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