The PGA Tour season has undergone a number of changes in the last couple of years. There are still some very familiar patterns to the way the tournaments work out including the way the West Coast Swing of events gives way to the Florida Swing before the first major tournament of the season, the Masters.
In previous years, this tournament, the Honda Classic, was the first of the Florida events but it has now been shifted in the schedule to take place after the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship.
The first Honda Classic was in 1972 when it was known as Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic, named after the popular US TV personality who hosted the event. Tom Weiskopf beat Jack Nicklaus by 1 stroke to take that inaugural title, taking home $52,000 which was the second highest winner’s prize on the PGA tour that year.
Honda have backed this tournament since 1982, and it moved to the current location of the Champion Course at the PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, north of Miami, in 2007. Only four players have won this more than once – Jack Nicklaus in 1977 and 1978, Johnny Miller in 1980 and 1983, Mark Calcavecchia in 1987 and 1998 and Padraig Harrington in 2005 and 2015.
|Champion Course, PGA National||Palm Beach Gardens, Florida||7,140 Yards||$7,000,000|
Lee Westwood has had a brilliant two weeks, twice finishing as the runner up in huge tournaments and earning himself around $2.6 million in prize money. As well as he is playing, you have to think that it will be incredibly difficult to Westwood to maintain his red hot form at PGA National, such is the challenge posed by the Champion Course.
The demands of the Champion Course are serious and plentiful. Water hazards are a feature on the vast majority of the holes, the rough is allowed to grow up and the strategically placed bunkers are genuinely penal.
As if the challenge of the course wasn’t enough, the wind is set to be a major factor this week. We’ve seen many players have their chances of winning quite literally blown away as they enter the famous ‘Bear Trap’, the ultra-demanding three-hole stretch that begins at the 15th.
Mental fortitude is such an important factor in deciding the winner of the Honda Classic that some have compared it almost on a par with a major championship. That feeling is confirmed when you consider that the Champion Course is regularly the most difficult par 70 course on the PGA Tour outside of the majors.
Honda Classic Recent Winners
|Year||Winner||To Par||Winning Margin||Course|
|2021||Matt Jones||-12||5 Strokes||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2020||Im Sung-jae||-6||1 Stroke||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2019||Keith Mitchell||-9||1 Stroke||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2018||Justin Thomas||-8||Playoff||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2017||Rickie Fowler||-12||4 Strokes||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2016||Adam Scott||-9||1 Stroke||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2015||Padraig Harrington||-6||Playoff||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2014||Russell Henley||-8||Playoff||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2013||Michael Thompson||-9||2 Strokes||PGA National, Champion Course|
|2012||Rory McIlroy||-12||2 Strokes||PGA National, Champion Course|
About the Honda Classic
In the world of golf, the Honda Classic heralds the start of the ‘Florida Swing’, a run of tournaments in Florida which builds to a crescendo with the Players Championship. The Florida Swing sees the action turned up a notch from the West Coast Swing that precedes it as many of the best golfers in the world are tested on a string of difficult golf courses to prepare them for the Players and, ultimately, for the four major championships.
The Champion Course at PGA National is a fitting test for the role that the Honda Classic carries out. It’s always up there with the most difficult par 70 layouts on the PGA Tour and can be nothing short of brutal when conditions dictate. The difficulty of the Champion Course makes winning the Honda Classic as much about mental fortitude as technical skill so it is little surprise that so many major champions have got the job done since the Jack Nicklaus designed course began hosting the Honda Classic in 2007, as shown in the table below.
Major-Winning Honda Classic Winners
|Player||Year of Honda Classic Win at PGA National||Previous Major Wins|
|Justin Thomas||2018||PGA Championship (2017)|
|Adam Scott||2016||The Masters (2013)|
|Padraig Harrington||2015||The Open (2007, 2008), PGA Championship (2008)|
|Rory McIlroy||2012||U.S. Open (2011), PGA Championship (2012, 2014), The Open (2014)|
|Ernie Els||2008||U.S. Open (1994, 1997), The Open (2002, 2012)|
From Caddie to Winner
During the 1986 Honda Classic, Mark Calcavecchia was still battling away, trying to make it at the top level of professional golf. Despite turning pro in 1981, he had thus far been unable to earn his breakthrough win on the PGA Tour and even lost his card after the 1985 season.
As he was trying to earn his way back onto the PGA Tour during 1986, Calcavecchia turned his hand to caddying, including when carrying the bag for his friend Ken Green at the Honda Classic. It’s not unusual for players who haven’t quite made the grade as a pro to use their knowledge of golf to become very good caddies but Calcavecchia probably realised caddying was not for him when Green missed the cut.
The experience of caddying in 1986 did help to keep the competitive fire burning in Calcavecchia. In September of that year he earned exemption on the PGA Tour with his maiden win at the Southwest Golf Classic before returning to the Honda Classic in 1987 where he won the tournament, beating Bernhard Langer and Payne Stewart by three strokes.
Calcavecchia would subsequently go on to win 12 times on the PGA Tour (including a second Honda Classic win in 1998) and join the hallowed list of major champions with his win at Royal Troon in the 1989 Open Championship.
Beware the Bear
The move to PGA National has been a major positive for the Honda Classic. Many of the world’s best golfers try to prove themselves against the challenging course which includes the ferocious Bear Trap, the collective name for holes 15, 16 and 17.
The holes – two par threes which play under 180 yards and a 434 yard par four – don’t look like much on the scorecard but the presence of some nasty water hazards and the exposure to the elements make every shot on the Bear Trap a potential round wrecker.
There is a plaque at the start of the Bear Trap underneath a huge statue of a bear which reads, “It should be won and lost here.” Those words of course designer, Jack Nicklaus, have haunted some players, while others have been able to cling on to win the tournament despite Bear Trap nightmares.
Padraig Harrington went through those three holes in two over par during the final round in 2015 but did enough to earn a place in a playoff against Daniel Berger which he won when they returned to finish off the tournament on Monday. Adam Scott’s meltdown in 2016 is even more famous. The usually unflappable Australian made a quadruple-bogey seven on the 15th on Saturday and somehow managed to win the tournament despite playing the Bear Trap in five over par for the week.