PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Honda Classic won’t pack as many fans around its party hole this week as the Phoenix Open does, but there is something more intensely intimate about PGA National’s stadium setup.
Players feel like the spectators in the bleachers at the tee box at Honda’s 17th hole are right on top of them.
“If the wind’s wrong at the 17th tee, you can get a vodka cranberry splashed on you,” Graeme McDowell cracked. “They are that close.”
Plus, the 17th at the Champion Course is a more difficult shot than the one players face at Scottsdale’s 16th.
It’s a 162-yard tee shot at the Phoenix Open with no water in sight.
It’s a 190-yard tee shot at the Honda Classic, to a small, kidney-shaped green, with water guarding the front and right side of the green and a bunker strategically pinched into the back-center. Plus, it’s a shot that typically must be played through South Florida’s brisk winter winds.
“I’ve hit 3- and 4-irons in there,” McDowell said. “It’s a proper golf hole.”
It’s a shot that can decide who wins late on a Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.
Factor in the intensely intimate nature of that hole, with fans partaking in libations at the Gosling Bear Trap pavilion behind the 17th tee and the Cobra Puma Village behind the 17th green, and the degree of difficulty there makes it one of the most difficult par 3s on the PGA Tour. It ranked as the 21st most difficult par 3 on the PGA Tour last year with a 3.20 scoring average. Scottsdale’s 16th ranked 160th at 2.98.
That’s a fairly large reason why pros teeing it up at the Honda Classic don’t want to see the Phoenix-like lunacy spill over here the way it threatened to last year.
That possibility concerns players increasingly agitated by the growing unruliness at tour events outside Phoenix. Rory McIlroy said the craziness that followed his pairing with Tiger Woods in Los Angeles last week left him wanting a “couple Advil.” Justin Thomas, also in that grouping, said it “got a little out of hand.”
So players will be on alert arriving at the Honda Classic’s 17th hole this week.
A year ago, Billy Horschel complained to PGA Tour officials about the heckling Sergio Garcia and other players received there.
Horschel told GolfChannel.com last year that he worried the Honda Classic might lose some of its appeal to players if unruly fan behavior grew worse at the party hole, but he said beefed up security helped on the weekend. Horschel is back this year, and so is Garcia, good signs for Honda as it walks the fine line between promoting a good party and a good golf tournament.
“I embrace any good sporting atmosphere as long as it stays respectful,” Ian Poulter said. “At times, the line has been crossed out here on Tour. People just need to be sensible. I am not cool with being abused.
“Whenever you mix alcohol with a group of fans all day, then Dutch courage kicks in at some stage.”
Bottom line, Poulter likes the extra excitement fans can create, not the insults some can hurl.
“I am all up for loud crowds,” he said. “A bit of jeering and fun is great, but just keep it respectful. It’s a shame it goes over the line sometimes. It needs to be managed.”
Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly oversees that tough job. In 12 years leading the event, he has built the tournament into something special. The attendance has boomed from an estimated 65,000 his first year at the helm to more than 200,000 last year.
With Tiger Woods committed to play this year, Kennerly is hopeful the tournament sets an attendance record. The arrival of Woods, however, heightens the challenges.
Woods is going off with the late pairings on Friday, meaning he will arrive at Honda’s party hole late in the day, when the party’s fully percolating.
Kennerly is expecting 17,000 fans to pack that stadium-like atmosphere on the event’s busiest days.
Kennerly is also expecting the best from South Florida fans.
“We have a zero tolerance policy,” Kennerly said. “We have more police officers there, security and more marshals.
“We don’t want to be nasty and throw people out, but we want them to be respectful to players. We also want it to continue to be a fun place for people to hang out, because we aren’t getting 200,000 people here just to watch golf.”
Kennerly said unruly fans will be ejected.
“But we think people will be respectful, and I expect when Tiger and the superstars come through there, they aren’t going to have an issue,” Kennerly said.
McDowell believes Kennerly has the right balance working, and he expects to see that again this week.
“They’ve really taken this event up a couple notches the last five or 10 years with the job they’ve done, especially with what they’ve done at the 16th and 17th holes,” McDowell said. “I’ve been here a lot, and I don’t think it’s gotten to the Phoenix level yet.”
The real test of that may come Friday when Woods makes his way through there at the end of the day.