GARDENS OF PALM BEACH, FLORIDA — Patrick Cantlay, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, and Dustin Johnson could not be in a better place for the Honda Classic.
Each of those players, all of whom are ranked in the top ten in the world, lives in northern Palm Beach County, just a 10-minute drive from Honda’s home course, PGA National. It’s an event they could participate in while sleeping in their own beds, eating home-cooked meals, and giving their local tournament a boost.
Despite this, none of the elite golfers who have come to the area to take advantage of the weather, world-class golf courses, restaurants, and, most crucially, tax breaks feel obligated to volunteer one week of their time.
One week to the community that has provided them with everything they need to accomplish at the greatest level by participating in a PGA Tour event in their hometown.
‘Fans tossing beers is just not something we can do,’ says Honda Classic security surrounding the 17th hole.
Thomas, who is ranked No. 7 in the world, has not competed in Honda since 2019. McIlroy, who is ranked fifth, has now missed four in a row. Johnson, who is ranked ninth, hasn’t played since 2015. No. 3 Cantlay has never teed it up at Honda.
The tournament, which begins on Thursday, is held on the Champion Course, which was voted the third most difficult on the Tour last season. ‘Just a thought.’
In recent years, Honda has faced lackluster fields, partially due to the tournament’s location on the PGA Tour schedule and partly due to the absence of a handful of the world’s best golfers who live in our town.
With a lineup that features six of the world’s top-25 players and 11 of the top 50, the tournament gained a boost by being moved to the start of the Florida Swing this year (plus Nos. 51 and 52).
“With so many strong players out here, the Honda Classic will develop its own stars,” said Jack Nicklaus, whose Nicklaus Children’s Health Care foundation is the Honda Classic’s principal beneficiary.
“Guys will play well at the Honda, and they’ll keep coming back; they’ll eventually be the PGA Tour’s lifeblood.”
Nicklaus, like Honda officials, is cautious not to openly criticize professional golfers who could get out of bed and on the course in less time than it takes to play the Bear Trap. McIlroy lives so near to the course that he could walk there in the time it takes him to play nine holes.
This time of year, the calendar is jam-packed. Honda is sandwiched between two invitationals this year — the Genesis hosted by Tiger Woods and the Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill — and The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass two weeks later.
Many others, including fan favorites Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger, Rickie Fowler, and Gary Woodland, as well as other top 50 locals like Genesis champion Joaquin Niemann, Shane Lowry, and Matthew Wolff, manage to fit the tournament into their schedule.
“It’s a lot,” Thomas expressed his displeasure. “There are probably four or five events I’d like to play that aren’t in a convenient time slot.” That’s just how things are.
“Unfortunately, you have to take a break now and then, and if I played that, it would be a lot of golf in a row, and I don’t need to be hating golf in the middle of February.”
Thomas has competed in two tournaments in the last two weeks: the Phoenix Open and the Genesis. Prior to this, he had only performed twice since the first week of December. He’s also unlikely to compete in the Palmer the week after Honda. Since 2015, he hasn’t played Bay Hill.
In the 94 days leading up to The Players, he will have played 16 rounds of competitive golf.
McIlroy is taking a break from Genesis and the Arnold Palmer Invitational during Honda week. After that, he’ll be on The Players’ field.
Both Thomas and McIlroy have won on the Champion Course. Thomas won Honda in 2018 after finishing third the previous two years. McIlroy won the tournament in 2012 and finished second in 2014.
Johnson tried three times to play Honda. He finished 46th after missing the cut twice. In his eight rounds, he has a total of 27 over par.
So the player who has topped the world rankings for 135 weeks has given up trying to play the difficult course. His most recent effort was in 2015, when he failed to make the cut. Johnson has played two rounds of competitive golf since February 6, after missing the cut at Genesis last week. And if he skips the Palmer, as he has done every year since 2011, he will have played two rounds of competitive golf in 31 days by the time The Players rolls around.
Johnson flew farther for an appearance for Swiss watchmaker Hublot staged on Palm Beach three years ago than he would have if his itinerary had called for a trip to PGA National on the same day.
Missing the cut is more expensive than hawking Hublots.
Long Beach native Cantlay recently acknowledged his enthusiasm for “California golf.” He’s appeared in the last three weeks, as well as four of the last five. He’ll most likely take a two-week vacation.
Between 2014 and 2018, Honda attracted over half of the top 20 golfers in the world, with more than half ranking in the top ten. For the second year in a row, the field is devoid of a player currently ranked in the top ten.
The Honda field was influenced by two scheduling adjustments. In 2016, the World Golf Championships event at Doral was relocated to Mexico, and the Players Championship was rescheduled from May to March in 2019.
Honda got commitments from 19 players in the top 20 and four in the top 10 over the last four years, while participating in two invitationals, a WGC event, and The Players.
These events have squeezed the tournament with the longest-running sponsor on Tour, making it easier for many to skip this week.
This year’s Honda was pushed up three weeks to the start of the Florida Swing, following a WGC event at The Concession, Bay Hill, and The Players the year before, and it paid off.
But it’s nothing compared to the fields of the early to mid-2010s.
“The Honda is in a difficult position,” Nicklaus remarked. “They’ve had a string of good tournaments, with Riviera being the most recent. The boys enjoy Riviera because it is a beautiful golf course that is enjoyable to play. After that, they had to travel across the nation before teeing it up at the Honda.
“A lot of people are heading to Bay Hill out of respect for Arnold. Following that, they play TPC. They won’t be able to play for all of those weeks. That is something I am aware of. I wasn’t able to play for all of those weeks.”
Golfers are not able to play every week. That’s all right. The bigger names, on the other hand, who are now frequently skipping their hometown event, could easily fit Honda into their itineraries.