2015-02-12 / Top News


The Honda Classic, the premier event in Palm Beach Gardens, will draw thousands to PGA National — always in the name of charity.
Special to Florida Weekly


Out of the vehicle, off the bus, visitors to the Honda Golf Classic at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens step or roll into an alternate universe. And the bright lights of the game and intraplanetary pleasures and dazzling comets of commerce are comin’ at ’em!

First, past the ticket-takers at the front entrance, tournament-goers step into a galactic vision of an auto showroom, courtesy of prime sponsor American Honda. Then it’s the colorful swash of a carnival midway, mostly local business offering freebies and interplay and promoting attention. Then a gallery of cabanas, of shops and eateries. Then, as the French (hello, Victor Dubuisson) say, a potpourri of presentations. Show me your swing! Hit one into the (virtual) distance!

OK, when did one of the world’s great courses, 7,110 water-couched and windy yards playing to a tough par 70, turn into Disney World? We’re talking about multiple degrees of parking and peoplemoving, about levels of hospitality and access, about which attraction shines brightest. Also about who wants to stand back and assess and who wants to get into it.

Last year more than 193,000 spectators packed the venues at PGA National. Last year more than 193,000 spectators packed the venues at PGA National. Look at the map of the Champion course at PGA National, during Classic week, peppered with rectangular icons, gleaming with activity and corporate tie-ins: Club Ketel One, Cobra Puma Village, The Experience Presented by Adidas (everybody wants a “wow!” experience for customers), Goslings Dark ‘n Stormy Bear Trap, Play Golf America Expo, Miami Children’s Hospital Autograph Zone and Kids Zone, the RBC Wine Garden, the ... pause for breath ... United Technologies/Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky Patriots’ Zone (presented by Wells Fargo). If you’re in the military or a veteran, you WILL get appreciated. Don’t forget the After Play Concert Series on the Michelob Ultra Terrace and the Tire Kingdom Fireworks Spectaculars. If you got into one of the proams, mazel tov!

All of those might echo the layout of attractions at Universal Studios or Sea World. Is anybody playing GOLF today?

You betcha, just the lion’s share of the baddest, most renowned, best players in the world. Rory! Adam! Ricky! Bubba! Spieth and Reed and G-Mac (Graeme McDowell to you), defending champion Russell Henley, who whupped Rory and Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox in last year’s playoff, and Kooooch! (Matt Kucher), and the rebounding Keegan Bradley and redoubtable Jimmy Walker, and the local heroes, flocking and firing together, living between Hobe Sound through Jupiter to West Palm Beach: Mr. Ernie Els, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen. And there are the Florida Gators Billy Horschel and Erik Compton, and the avatars of tightly bridled youth, Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger, and Colombia’s sympatico Camilo Villegas, down from his home on Jupiter Island. Midwesterners might be shouting (or politely whispering) for the stalwart Zach Johnson and for genial Jerry Kelly, hitting it better than ever at age 48. Martin Laird, in the house! Bill the Thrill, in the Haas! And there’s that tenacious Texan with a lot of miles in the saddle, Justin Leonard, lifting his game.

The stars will shine en masse at the Honda Classic this year. The final field will be set on Feb. 20. 
HONDA CLASSIC OFFICIAL GUIDE The stars will shine en masse at the Honda Classic this year. The final field will be set on Feb. 20. HONDA CLASSIC OFFICIAL GUIDE The local-est hero is still the biggest. He changed the sport and, possibly, the world. Slump? Schmump! C’mon, Tiger, show us what you got again, no matter what you got, please, please! How about Kaymer and Stenson? Can somebody give Phil a call?

Local resident Tiger Woods is always a fan favorite. At press time, he had not committed. 
IMAGES COURTESY HONDA GOLF CLASSIC Local resident Tiger Woods is always a fan favorite. At press time, he had not committed. IMAGES COURTESY HONDA GOLF CLASSIC Spectators just have to find them ... and getting there, the event’s organizers and workers hope, will be at least half the fun. Part of the other half could be refreshment of another kind, rarely found on the streets outside. A refreshment of spirit. That will take a moment of reflection, and that moment may have to wait awhile.

Crackling through the whole event is the energy of competition at the highest level, favorites and long-shots, leaders and chasers, calamity, triumph, the changing dramas in purusit of the million-dollar winner’s share of a $6 million-plus purse and the Fed Ex points, under the eyes of gazillions on TV. Am I on? Hi, Mom! How about another duel down the stretch? How about another playoff? Let’s boogie!

First, a word from the meticulously groomed trenches. Every one of those icons peppering the map represents weeks and months of hard work by tournament directors and the PGA National Resort & Spa staff, headed by Property Managing Director Joel Paige and General Manager Kathy Blazer, and by Director of Agronomy Lukus Harvey and his 100-plus groundskeepers, and by Jim Coleman and his more than 1,600 volunters, including 450-some marshals, ball-spotters and walking scorers and, especially, by tournament director Ed McEnroe of IMG and his staff.

They have to peg down even the basics. Where do we throw the trash? When you gotta go, you gotta ... but where? “We contract with a company called Southern Waste Services,” McEnroe explains. “They set up all the porta-lets, they set up all the high-end executive restrooms, they set up all the trash containers, pick up those containers. They take care of servicing the restrooms. We also bring in a special events ecology group to blanket the entire golf course, and whenever a trash bag gets full in a hospitality area or a public services area, they switch those out and get them to Southern Waste trash containers.”

That’s one piece among hundreds, total assembly required. The glossiest might belong to a company called Accurate Event Group out of Hollywood, handling “ambassador-level” duties, such as security, parking and ushering, in the most exclusive areas.

The whole hospitality idea, in a dimpled shell, is to grind like a player who’s on the cut line and make it seem easy.

Of course, ticket-buyers are PAYING for it, and not everbody is happy. Had to park too far away. Waited too long for a bus or in a ticket line. Wanted faster service, less jostling, more access to players. Can’t please everybody, hard as they try.

They DO try harder. Last year the PGA voted the Honda Classic its “best fan experience.” McEnroe, in his ninth year as tournament director, says, “That made us all feel good. Our goal is to enhance the experience for patrons from the moment they arrive until they leave and have conversations with their friends.”

You can also believe the numbers.

With PGA National and its Champion course as the setting, with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as its guiding lights and Ken Kennerly, head of North American events for IMG International, at the helm, the Honda Classic, born in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason’s tournament based at Inverrary, has broken records every year since moving across the street from the Country Club at Mirasol in 2007. Those records start with the three that matter most: attendance, receipts and contributions to charity.

In its first year at PGA National, the Honda drew some 40,000 paying customers. Last year 193,052 flocked in, and they all brought money.

The tournament operates as a 501c3 charity, and staff and volunteers need to bring in nearly $4 million each year to make ends meet. Last year, a record $2.55 million flowed out to Children’s Healthcare Charity, then to the Nicklaus Children’s Healthcare Foundation, and more than 130 other charities.

Barbara Nicklaus and son Gary sit on the boards of both, and the CHC is newly captained by former PGA of America President Joe Steranka of Palm Beach Gardens (long-time head Paul Bremer just retired).

Mostly overlooked is that much of the budget, through the construction and activity-filled week of action and dismantling of the Honda’s tournament trappings each year, goes to dozens of businesses and contractors, most of them local.

Maybe that numerology is for later. For now, plunge in!

Right here, on the PGA National subcontinent of Planet Palm Beach Gardens, it’s a mad, mad, multi-tasking, multiscreening, multi-apping, many-splendored world.

Live-streaming video is spilling all over the course, through PGA.com and other outlets. Got smartphone? Tablet? Handheld PC? The tournament, through FanVision, is adding 120 TVs, networked on-site to deliver messages, and three Jumbo-Trons.

Whether you’ll be busy getting dizzy on the way to watch is another question. How much is too much?

Sure, spectators want to touch greatness. They want to see astounding physical feats, maybe to witness history. They also want something good to eat and drink. Some want a family deal, where the kids can find a good time and eat healthy food and not get wild ideas. They might want to wrap their hands around a club and address a ball and show what they can — or more often can’t — do. They might want to plant themselves at the iBar in front the TV screens inside PGA National Resort & Spa and never move.

More than anything, this is an invitation to the nondigital senses, to look, to see, hear, smell, taste. And encounters. You can be looking for a restroom inside PGA National and walk past one of the Golf Channel or NBC commentatorcelebs or, even better, a neglected maestro, such as Retief Goosen or Stewart Cink, wanting encouragement. Hey, Robert Allenby needs a hug!

You’ve gotta start somewhere, and somewhere depends on your parking lot. Maybe you breeze into valet parking in your fully restored 1969 Pontiac GTO. Maybe you park your whatever and stand in line at Dyer Park, waiting for a ride. Let’s hope, as tournament overseers and PGA brass and players and caddies and marshals and legions of volunteers and nonperverse media people (including myriad web-pagers and bloggers cadging credentials) always do, that skies are clear-to-partly-cloudy and breezes are mild-to-absent. Unless you like drama. Winds blow across the Bear Trap at 15, 16 and 17, and even the best in the world can kiss their Achusnets and Callaways goodbye!

Regardless, for most of the hoi-polloi out at Dyer Park who pay their 10 bucks and park their rides on the grass, the buses show up. If a few are a little late, well, you’re not sliding on ice in the middle of snowdrifts, right? The company running these shuttles, Classic Bus Lines out of Fort Lauderale, and their drivers have to stay patient and alert to any changes, not just in weather but in which player is doing what. The whole enterprise, in fact, has to be nimble.

“One thing that makes us, hopefully, successful,” Ed McEnroe says, “is the ability to react. We don’t know what time the marquee players are going to play on Saturday, for instance, until everybody’s finished on Friday. Imagine when the marquee players are getting ready to tee of on number one, we have a big onslaught of traffic, parking locations, on buses, concessions and at the main gate. We don’t want lines at the front gate.” To avoid catalepsy, go with the flow!

Off the bus and its contingent of highschool enthused cohorts, you walk in expecting a golf tournament, and a car dealership breaks out, in a must-sallythrough pavilion. Two words: no, not just “American Honda.” Try “title sponsor.”

They might seem one and the same, here, but for any PGA tournament anywhere, it never is. Close observers can tick off a dozen tournaments that died for lack of a prime backer, and the Humana Challenge in California, long known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic, just lost its title sponsor last month, though another is in prospect.

This, happy to say, is not Tournament Director McEnroe’s problem. In its 33rd year, American Honda is the longeststanding title sponsor on the PGA Tour. His main problem, among the multitude that dog him and his staff every day, is wrestling with success, with its demands and expectations, coming in from many directions on multiple pathways.

There is no doubt that the work load gets heavier every year. Media alone have doubled, or maybe octupled, in just the last few years. Growth in the number of polished nomads following the tour is fine, but anyone with a golf-related web page or a blog might claim reporter status, and requests for credentials rain down on Media Director Gary Ferman. At tournament time, press rooms are beehives.

Spectators, of course, are always welcome, and they arrive in echelons, mirroring the separations of the wider culture. People paying the $45 for a daily grounds pass and parking for 10 bucks and riding the buses can only eyeball the toffs who fork out $300 apiece for the Livingsocial Club@17 or $350 apiece for the Champions Club at Nicklaus Village along 18 or $1,000 or more for a skybox or luxury suite, personally or through a business or corporation or with a privileged invitation, as they ascend to the premium views. Isn’t that the American way?

The real course is still the layout that matters most, the challenging expanse of the Champion, always ranked among the toughest on the PGA Tour. Stepping from noise and hurry into the crowd bleachered and massed around the first tee, onlookers watch a player and his caddie advance from the practice grounds.

They hear starter Don Chornak intone “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the 2015 Honda Classic at PGA National, the Champion Course. With the (look at your watch) starting time, from (the player’s home town), please welcome ...” and they are wrapped suddenly in.... SILENCE. Hole Captain Sandy Hicks and her marshals stare down the crowd, lift the placards, raise the hands, call out “Quiet, please!”

Balls struck, threesome off, prepare for a close encounter with fresh air, a smell of tropical earth and growth, birds against the sky, grasses in the breeze, sunlight on the water, no additional cost. And that’s only the beginning.

Want a wide-open experience? Pick a player on Thursday or Friday, somebody you’ve never heard of, and follow him for three or four holes, watch his interaction with his caddy and officials, admire the distance and accuracy of the shots, how he handles dilemmas. This guy could win. And get the feeling of fairway and rough under your feet.

The grass that players and officials and spectators alike step onto, this and every year, is a changing surprise. If the Honda is a haymaker, this is the hay that makes the Honda. And, like trees and marsh grasses ringing water, it’s a living thing, prone like humanity to weather and pests.

Last year was especially tough on Lukas Harvey, director of agronomy for all five PGA National courses, and champion superintendent Andrew Fike and their crews, operating as the tournament approaches under the close inspection of the PGA. After laboring much of the previous summer and fall to entirely rebuild 62 bunkers and add and erase and move more than a few, they were hit with more rain than any course could handle, so much that a few wankers went online complaining of mud balls and thin grass. Well, don’t complaints breed most vigorously online?

Still, those under attack listen. This year, aided by the annual “tweak” by Jack Nicklaus, they laid in 5,000 linear feet of fairway drainage, expanded greens at 1, 9, 15 and 17 and replaced the Bermuda grass carpet, the old TIFSport, with Centennial on fairways and tee boxes and green-surrounds.

“The grass is so dense that you won’t get a bad lie,” Harvey said via press release. “It will be firmer and faster because we don’t have to overseed (with rye grass) anymore to get the course ready. We will have greater consistency for the entire week. The Celebration turf is much more aggressively growing, and the ball sits up like it is on a tee.” On the greens, TIFEagle remains tried-and-true.

Thanks to Mr. Nicklaus, they also bolstered the challenges. On survey of the Champion before last year’s Honda, scanning George and Tom Fazio’s original footprint and his own redesigns, the story goes, he stopped abruptly in the middle of the fairway on 14 and had a vision: move the green toward the water, add bunkers in front and behind the green and install a new bailout area back left.

It should be more exciting, he says, but not more difficult.

Crews also have installed more than 20,000 square feet of spectator mounding for more pricey conviviality, including The Cabanas@14, a gallery of 400-square-foot private areas where sponsors can entertain clients and follow the action at the 14th and 15th holes. Most folks will have to manage that in humbler venues or on foot.

Bar stools and loungers and tilt-up seats beckon. More than ever, the Bear Trap and, especially, the complex of stands and attractions around the 17th hole, are a mecca for both celebrants and observers. Every year, the tournament adds seats and venues; this year, it’s a whole new swatch surrounding 17.

Here’s another invitation: go out and see for yourself. Roosting, however comfortable, can harsh the buzz.

Most spectators roam, some of them for miles, prompting know-somethings to recommend ballet flats for women and good running or walking shoes for men.

What a pilgrim might remember most are not just electric moments, not just Russell Henley sinking his second putt last year to birdie 18 and win the playoff, but small ones: when Bubba Watson stepped over on his way out to give a kid his golf glove, or when you stopped chasing Rory and bumped into somebody you hadn’t seen since last year.

When you stood along the 11th and a breeze turned you toward the water and, just then, a player you like hit a great recovery shot or, even better, your favorite bird or amphibian lurched out from the marsh.

Maybe a player, short on a shot, turned to you and found reassurance, too.

You can only see those moments if you’re looking. ¦

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