What does the Honda Classic’s future look like? There’s reason for hope
Even after nearly 17 years of running the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic, Ken Kennerly doesn’t have to think long when asked about his favorite moment. His mind races back to 2012.
“I was right on 18 green,” said Kennerly, who stepped down as the tournament’s executive director last year but remains active in an advisory role. “We were coming down the stretch. Of course, I was there to say thank you to Tiger for playing.”
Tiger Woods, by then a Jupiter Island resident, was playing his hometown event for the first time, which was a major boon for the Honda.
Woods hadn’t won on Tour since 2009 — the longest winless drought of his career at the time — and began the final round nine strokes back of Rory McIlroy.
Then he started doing Tiger things.
“He shot 62, eight under par, his lowest final round on the PGA Tour,” Kennerly said. “It was obviously electrified.”
Woods capped off the charge with a stunning second shot on the watery par-5 18th. With 218 yards left to a pin tucked in the front-right corner of the green, he went flag-hunting.
“He hit that shot, pushed it a hair, hit the front of the bunker, popped up to eight feet and, of course, he made the putt,” Kennerly said of Woods’ approach. “Friends of mine were following Rory, who at the time was in the last group, and they said they heard the roar all the way down on 13 green when Tiger made the eagle on 18.”
But it wasn’t enough. McIlroy shot 69 and beat Woods by two to win for the third time on Tour and ascend to World No. 1 for the first time in his career.
There was another winner that week: the tournament itself. Thanks to Woods, McIlroy and many other top pros calling nearby Jupiter home, the Honda was becoming a big-time event. Two years later, the tournament had its strongest field ever, with eight of the top 10 players in the world teeing it up.
But that was then.
Fast forward nine years to this week’s Honda Classic and just three top 20 players are in the field. Jupiter residents and former champions Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are taking the week off. So, too, is 2016 champion Adam Scott. Fast forward another year — to 2024 — and the Honda Classic won’t even be called the Honda. The PGA Tour’s longest-running sponsor, dating back 42 years, announced last year that it is not renewing its partnership.
Which raises the question: What is to become not only of the Honda but also other non-designated PGA Tour events in this new era? On the surface, the schedule now appears to be comprised of the haves (the 13 events that offer purses of $15 to $25 million) and the have-nots (the AT&T Pebble Beach and Honda Classics, which this year drew their weakest fields in recent memory).
In this week’s event in Palm Bech Gardens lie at least some of the answers.
The Honda originated as the Jackie Gleeson-Inverrary Classic in 1972. During its early years, the tournament regularly attracted top stars such as Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, among others, but it struggled to find a permanent home with five different host venues from its founding through 2006.
That’s when the Tour recruited Kennerly, a veteran of the sports marketing industry since 1987, to lead a reimagining of the tournament. Kennerly saw an opportunity. The tournament, as he saw it, was lacking in one key area: community engagement.
“We focused our customer energy, enthusiasm, as opposed to an old-fashioned golf tournament,” Kennerly said. “We focused on the energy. Making it fun for families, so many of the things that have taken the event from where it was in ’06 to where it is now.”
In 2007, the event moved to its current home, PGA National, which played host to the 1983 Ryder Cup.
“Our strategy when we took over the harbor again after 2006 was to really embrace our community, to embrace Palm Beach county, embrace the Nicklaus family,” Kennerly said. “The assets were there. The tools were in place. They just weren’t being utilized properly.”
The tournament’s primary beneficiary since 2007 has been the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, started by Nicklaus and his wife Barbara when the tournament originally moved into Palm Beach County. [Ed. note: Nicklaus Companies and GOLF.com are affiliates of 8AM Golf.]
Kennerly said the Memorial Tournament, which Nicklaus runs at his home course in Columbus, Ohio, may be Nicklaus’ first love, but the Honda has become nearly as big of a priority for the Nicklauses.
The Honda has been in a tough spot on the schedule before — in 2012, it was sandwiched between two World Golf Championships — but this year it is at even more of a disadvantage with two designated events directly before it (WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational) and two more directly after it (Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players).
Designated events are must-plays for the Tour’s stars not only because those tournaments offer lager purses but also because those players who finished in the top 20 of the PGA Tour’s 2022 PIP ranking are required to play in all but designated event to get their cut of the $100 million bonus pool.
When the PGA Tour originally announced the concept, then known as “elevated” events, the WM Phoenix Open wasn’t yet slated to be one, but the Honda was still in a bad spot on the calendar. If a top player wanted to play at PGA National, he would have to play four weeks in a row.
As the Tour began searching for four additional events to be given designated status, Kennerly said the Honda didn’t even apply.
“We knew that with Bay Hill [Arnold Palmer] and the Players after us and Tiger’s event [Genesis] being before us — this was before the Waste Management was elevated — we knew that even if we wanted to be elevated, the PGA Tour wasn’t going to have four elevated events in a row,” he said.
There was also one other complication: Honda nixing its sponsorship.
While the timing of the announcement may have led observers to believe Honda’s decision was related to the restructuring of the Tour schedule, Kennerly said that was not the case.
“We knew Honda was not going to renew shortly after the ’22 event,” he said. “Forty-two years is a great run. We’re fortunate to have had Honda for that long, the longest-running sponsor in golf. And we’re going to celebrate 42 years this week with American Honda.”
Kennerly said the tournament hoped to have a new sponsor lined up by now but that discussions are still ongoing.
“We’re working together,” Kennerly said of the tournament and the Tour. “The transparency is there, the relationship between the Tour and our team is there. So while I don’t want to say it’s been easy, but it’s been a better experience.”
This week, Shane Lowry, Sungjae Im and Billy Horschel are all playing the role of Iron Man.
No, they’re not donning red and gold suits and flying high above PGA National, but the trio is in the middle of a run of five-straight Tour starts. They’re all playing the Honda this week after the Phoenix Open and Genesis. They will then go on to Bay Hill and the Players.
Lowry will sleep in his own bed this week while Horschel lives near the Tour’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and seems to have an affinity for the Honda. This is his 11th time teeing it up in the event.
“When I look at the Honda, I grew up 90 minutes from there,” Horschel said in a statement when committing to the event. “I’m born and raised in the state of Florida. My family’s been in the state of Florida for nearly 100 years now. There’s a big Florida Gator contingent down there. So there’s so many reasons why I just couldn’t have skipped this event.”
In his pre-tournament press conference Wednesday, Horschel noted that there used to be two South Florida Tour events, but with the Tour leaving Doral several years ago, there’s now only one.
With the Honda’s sponsorship in doubt, Horschel said he approached the Tour about making sure this tournament stayed in South Florida.
“We’re not going to lose this one. I’ve been told that we’re going to stay here,” he said. “Now we’ve just got to find who that sponsor is going to be for the future, and at the same time, we need to make sure that the date itself is in a better spot. You’ve got 30 to 40 PGA Tour pros that live within a couple miles of this place, and I think you’ve only got a handful of them playing this week, and that’s disappointing. It really is.
“The Tour needs to understand that, that when you have 40 guys here that could stay in their bed, hop in their car and drive 10, 15 minutes to a tournament, they need to make sure that they’re putting this in the right spot so they get all those top players playing here on a regular basis.”
Added Lowry: “It’s a proper championship golf course, and it deserves a good field, and it deserves a good tournament. That’s why I’m here playing. Hopefully going forward it can get that.”
When the designated events were selected for the 2023 season, they were picked from a schedule that already had been decided. The Honda was stuck in its date. But Kennerly is optimistic about scheduling changes coming for next year and beyond.
“Will we have an opportunity to be elevated at some stage? I don’t think it’ll be in the next year based on what we’re hearing,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re a PGA Tour event, we’re in a tough spot on the calendar this year, but next year will be better.”
One of Kennerly’s focuses when he took over the Honda was to ensure the tournament never was far from the community’s spotlight, even outside of tournament week.
“The PGA Tour is like a circus,” he said. “It rolls into town, seven days later it rolls out. If you don’t market the event 52 weeks, people don’t know it’s here.”
One of the ways Kennerly does that is by hosting a weekly radio show, Honda Classic Live.
The tournament also doesn’t market itself on golf. It sells itself on fun.
“We continue to build the event around our excitement, around the enthusiasm, the energy of the event,” Kennerly said. “We made it an event where people, whether you like golf or don’t like golf, don’t follow golf. You come out and you want to be seen. You want to come out with your family.”
That’s one of the reasons Kennerly isn’t overly concerned about the event’s future.
His optimism is buoyed by the fact that even when Covid hampered efforts in 2021, the tournament raised more than $5 million for charity. In 2022, it raised more than $6 million.
“That’s how we measure our success,” Kennerly said. “It’s not who plays the event, it’s not how many under par they go. At the end of the day, it’s what are we doing to give back to our community?”