The Florida swing is a thing again. After two years of being interrupted by a trip to Mexico, the Sunshine State has retaken its place as a four-tournament run of events as the Masters draws closer. And now, the Players Championship is again part of the lineup.
A few things to consider as Bermuda grass, overseed, palm trees and an abundance of sand and water become part of the golf lexicon over the next month:
- Honda Classic, Feb. 28-March 3, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens
- Arnold Palmer Invitational, March 7-10, Bay Hill Club, Orlando
- Players Championship, March 14-17, TPC-Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach
- Valspar Championship, March 21-24, Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor
For 10 years starting in 2007, the Florida swing consisted of the Honda Classic, the WGC-Cadillac Championship, the Valspar Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That changed two years ago when Cadillac left Doral in Miami as a title sponsor and the PGA Tour moved the tournament to Mexico, now calling it the WGC-Mexico Championship. Due to scheduling issues, it kept its same spot on the schedule as the Miami event, meaning the Florida events were split up, with just three in the spring. That was a first going back to 1965.
After an 11-year run in May meant to separate the tournament from being so close to the Masters and giving it more of a spotlight, the tournament is back to its original time in March. The tournament that began in 1974 and moved to its TPC Stadium home in 1982 made the switch in order to accommodate the PGA Tour’s desire to end its season earlier. By doing so, the PGA Championship was able to move to May.
Although it is only two months, the difference is quite pronounced. The course was firmer in May, and there was potential for significantly warm weather. March is a mixed bag. Spring in the Jacksonville area can range from cool and damp to warm and dry and all mixtures in between. The course will be overseeded with rye grass, so it will look brilliantly green, and probably play slower.
It is also a month prior to the Masters. It had been two weeks before for much of its time in the spring.
Somebody takes a hit
Through no fault of their own, the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship are in very vulnerable positions due to the new proliferation of big events that surround them.
Look at the lineup: Genesis Open, hosted by Tiger Woods and going forward an invitational; WGC-Mexico; Honda; Arnold Palmer Invitational; Players Championship, the tour’s flagship tournament; Valspar; WGC-Match Play.
If you are a player who always goes to the biggest tournaments, which ones are you going to skip?
The Honda already has taken a hit without Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both of whom live nearby. Dustin Johnson is skipping. So is Justin Rose. It’s hard to blame them. Last year the tournament had three of the top 10 in the world. This year it is three of the top 20.
The Valspar had Woods, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth last year. It is quite possible it gets none this time, although Woods is not out of the question. But when you’ve got the Players before and the WGC-Match Play after — and the API before the Players — it is going to be tough to attract a lot of big names.
What about Tiger?
Although he is skipping Honda, his hometown event, for the first time since he began playing it in 2012 (and wasn’t injured), it should not come as a surprise. Woods worked hard last year to qualify for the World Golf Championship events. While Mexico was a new venue for him, it is a tournament he won seven times. He also has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational eight times. Last week, Woods committed to the API and Players, two all-but-certain locks. Having played the Genesis and WGC-Mexico previously, Honda became the odd tournament out.
Another WGC looms, which would be an easy choice: play two, take a week off, play the Match Play, then have another week off before the Masters.
But Woods is not ruling out the Valspar. He tied for second there last year, enjoyed the experience, and would give himself two full weeks before the Masters to prepare. The Match Play is a tournament he has won three times, but as the Genesis Open showed, Woods does not need multiple rounds of golf in a single day if he can help it. That is the weekend format at the Match Play if he makes it that far. So an interesting decision looms.
Will Jordan find his game in Florida?
After another lackluster performance at the WGC-Mexico Championship, three-time major winner Jordan Spieth has dropped to 25th in the world. But if he’s looking to find his game in Florida, that is unlikely because he is expected to play only the Players Championship.
Spieth’s results this season starting with the Shriners tournament in Las Vegas: T-55, missed cut, missed cut, T-35, T-45, T-51, T-54.
And he doesn’t have a great record at the Players. After tying for fourth in his first appearance, Spieth missed three consecutive cuts at the Players and tied for 41st last year.
He’s expected to play the WGC-Match Play, but it appears Spieth will be trying to find his game in the dirt over the next several weeks leading to the Masters.
Who’s on the bubble?
There are five weeks left to qualify for the Masters via the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, with the cutoff coming after the WGC-Match Play. (A win also gets a player in the Masters if he’s not already qualified.)
Among those on the outside looking in at the moment are Ben An (54th), Abraham Ancer (60), Lee Westwood (61), Russell Knox (62), Adam Hadwin(63), Daniel Berger (67) and Brian Harman (73).
A first goal for them is to get in the 64-player WGC-Match Play, which will have an abundance of world ranking points being offered, providing another opportunity to leap into the top 50. The Match Play is expected to have some defections among the current top 64, so players such as Berger and Harman need a combination of good play and luck to make it there.
Cameron Champ is another player to keep an eye on. When he won the Sanderson Farms tournament in the fall, it did not qualify him because it is an opposite event.
Champ had several solid finishes in the fall but has stalled of late, with nothing better than a tie for 11th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He has missed two cuts since and is currently 81st in the world with work to do.
What does it all mean?
There is no longer a World Ranking qualification that ends in Florida for a trip to the Masters, but of course any player who is not otherwise qualified can get in by winning. It is also a chance to qualify for the WGC-Match Play, where a good week can move a player into the top 50 and get in the first major of the year.
Does success in Florida portend a good week at the Masters? It never hurts to gain confidence, and it’s certainly better than the alternative.
But winning in Florida does not guarantee success at the Masters. In fact, there is virtually no correlation.
Since 2007, the start of the FedEx Cup era, Jordan Spieth in 2015 is the only player to win in Florida — he did so at the Valspar — and go on to win the Masters in the same year. Woods won in Florida before his 2001 (Bay Hill, Players), 2002 (Bay Hill) and 2005 (Ford Championship at Doral) victories at the Masters. Before him? Fred Couples, who won what was then called the Nestle Invitational (Palmer’s tournament) in 1992 before winning the Masters.
And as a side note, Woods in 2001 is the only player to win the Players and Masters in the same year in its history dating to 1974.