Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the rise of the Honda Classic

Stuart Franklin

A tournament that was just a regular stop in a long PGA Tour season now boasts one of the most loaded fields of the whole year. The neighborhood No. 1 in the world, who had never played here before 2012, is the biggest reason for the continued ascendance of the Honda Classic.

The Honda Classic, once an afterthought and a tournament on the ropes in the PGA Tour rotation, may now be the deepest non-WGC, non-major event of the season. The stop at PGA National in Palm Beach was always a part of the regular Florida swing, but it's suddenly and dramatically ascended to one of the must-watch events of the season. That's because seven of the top 10 in the world (which was eight until Justin Rose's withdrawal due to injury on Tuesday), will be teeing it up this week, led by the sport's ultimate money maker; Tiger Woods.

we're in an era where an event is categorized as either a Tiger Woods tournament or a non-Tiger tournament.

The PGA Tour, unlike other pro sports leagues in America, is an organization made up of independent contractors who make their own schedules. The league has little authority and ability to compel its players to play certain events, and it's a constant struggle and competition for title sponsors, venues, and host markets to elbow one another out and draw the biggest names. We've seen tournaments like the Byron Nelson and Colonial, carrying the weight of two of the original greats of the game (Nelson and Ben Hogan), recede from the perch they once enjoyed because of positioning on the schedule and the domino effect certain players can have on other big name golfers when they start passing.

The independent contractor status is a recurring problem for several of the lesser stops, but then there's the one independent contractor who stands above all of the others and can make a tournament a must-watch cash cow with one simple announcement.

There are plenty of great tournaments on the PGA Tour played at awesome venues with loaded fields, but we're in an era where an event is categorized as either a Tiger Woods tournament or a non-Tiger tournament. It may be a simplification, but it's inarguable that Woods changes the dynamic of a tournament, for the TV partner, the host city, the course or club, the title sponsor, and the Tour.

Woods played in 16 official full FedExCup PGA Tour events last year. He was locked into the four majors, the four FedExCup Playoffs events, and the three WGC events (one of which he skipped this season; last week's Match Play). That leaves five "wild card" events, and at this point in Woods' career, they're pretty predictable. Much like the WGC events at Doral and Firestone -- two Tiger favorites -- he's always going to tee it up at Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, and Muirfield Village. The Players Championship at Sawgrass, while not a favorite of Tiger's, has been pounded into fans and the pros as the 5th major, and given the field and enormous purse, will continue to draw the No. 1 player in the world.

What's left? The Honda Classic, which Tiger stamped with his approval for the first time in 2012, and which he will now play for the third time ever this week. How did this event nudge its way into Tiger's schedule? The main reason might be one of pure coincidence. Tiger's move from his central Florida home at Isleworth to South Florida has made this an easy event for him to attend, and one he's said he likes to boost because of the money it puts back into his new home community. Woods lives just 20 minutes away from PGA National, and much like Doral he can quickly zip back-and-forth without having to take the full Team Tiger show on the road. The Honda's move to PGA National's Champion Course is also relatively recent, the switch from Mirasol occured in 2007 as an attempt to push the profile in a crowded Florida swing.

So Tiger's relocation to South Florida and the tournament's move to one of Jack Nicklaus' better designs were a chance combination that brought the biggest name in the history of the game to this once afterthought stop. The Tiger effect on attendance was dramatic (via the Palm Beach Post):

Woods' presence was viewed as a key factor in a 44 percent increase in Honda attendance from 2011 to 2012, from 112,000 to 161,000. Last year's total rose again, to 169,000.

In addition to location and proximity to Tiger's new home base, the Honda Classic also falls in a good spot on the schedule. For the best players in the world, the Florida swing is a nice bit of pre-Masters prep. They'd love to pick up wins, but they can also spend a month playing against loaded fields and rounding their game into shape for Augusta. The WGC money and ranking points are enough to draw big names to Doral, the imprimatur of Arnold Palmer is usually enough to draw the big names to Bay Hill, and Honda piggybacks off those two with a nice spot on the schedule when players are rested and ready to put in some work in advance of Augusta.

How to watch: The Honda Classic

Scheduling and location are two factors that many second-tier tournaments may try to change or agitate for change with the Tour, but with which they have little control over.

And with Tiger signed up, lots of his top-notch friends who also live in the tax-friendly state and South Florida locale joined the No. 1 in making the short trip and getting in some work at a point in the season when then they're trying to ramp up, not find breaks in the action.

The result is as loaded a field that you will find at a non-major, non-Players tournament this season. In addition to Tiger, the Honda boasts Phil Mickelson (the undisputed No. 2 legitimizing name with years of a built-up fan base) and Rory McIlroy, Woods' Nike stablemate and global superstar many claim to be the next closest thing to a Tiger. Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, and Zach Johnson round out the group inside the top 10 in attendance this year. Here are those marquee groups that will be in front of the cameras throughout the first two days:

Players Round 1 Tee Time Round 2 Tee Time
Sergio Garcia Henrik Stenson Luke Donald 7:25 a.m. ET 12:25 p.m. ET
Tiger Woods Keegan Bradley Zach Johnson 7:35 a.m. ET 12:35 p.m. ET
Rory McIlroy Adam Scott Billy Horschel 12:25 p.m. ET 7:25 a.m. ET
Phil Mickelson Graeme McDowell Rickie Fowler 12:35 p.m. ET 7:35 a.m. ET

That's a lot of star power in two clusters.

The swing back to Florida marks the unofficial start to the season for most casual fans. And following Tiger as he begins his push to the Masters, as well as all the talent around in him in the top 10, will make this year's Honda Classic one of those must-watch non-majors. The calendar is just flipping to March, but it makes a mind wander to April at Augusta, which is just 42 days away.

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