PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — It was mid-afternoon on a sweltering South Florida Saturday at the Goslings tent at the “Bear Trap,’’ a 30,000-square-foot elevated party pavilion that surrounds the 17th tee at PGA National for the Honda Classic, and it was packed with fans standing elbow-to-elbow oblivious to the heat or the golf.
Just feet away from one of the biggest parties in golf, some of the world’s best players were taking on one of the toughest par-3s on the PGA Tour — the 190-yard tester over water with a small green well bunkered on its left side.
Jack Nicklaus, the designer of the course, described No. 17 as “a par-3 that will present a lot of problems.’’
The masses convened at the huge party that has turned this event from a golf tournament to a sporting event appeared completely unaware of any “problems.’’ Most were far too busy tugging on their plastic cups filled with Dark and Stormys to pay any attention to the golf.
Though it may sound harsh to the old-school golf junkie (of which I am a card-carrying member), this is exactly where golf tournaments need to be headed if they’re going to draw big crowds and create buzz — particularly if the top-ranked players in the world are not in the field.
“This is the future,’’ said Eddie Carbone, the former tournament director at the PGA Tour event at Doral and now the executive director for the 2017 U.S. Senior Open, which will be played from June 26-July 2 at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts. “This is what the PGA Tour needs — this energy. This aligns more with a typical sporting event.’’
This was the vision of Ken Kennerly, the Honda Classic executive director, who has brought this event from the relative stone ages to its current 2.0 version.
Fitting to the atmosphere he has created, Rickie Fowler is the tournament leader, taking a four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round at 13-under par after his 5-under 65 on Saturday. Fowler, young, personable, colorful and someone with a lot more than golf going on in his life, is the exact demographic these tournaments are seeking.
It seemed like half the fans in the Goslings tent were dressed just like him with their bright colors and big, gaudy belts.
At the Waste Management Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., the stadium-like par-3 16th hole is the gold standard for what the Honda Classic has created at the “Bear Trap,’’ which consists of Nos. 15, 16, 17 and 18 at PGA National’s Champions Course.
“We wanted to build something special something for people to be out socializing outdoors,’’ Kennerly said. “Some of them are watching golf. Most of them are not watching golf.’’
This, however, has become a problem for some players who’ve had some bad experiences at 17.
On Friday, for example, some knucklehead fan yelled to soon-to-be-married Sergio Garcia, “I hope your marriage fails.’’
I'm all 4 fans having a great time/memorable experience but I'm not pleased w/the scene around the 17th hole last few yrs @TheHondaClassic
— Billy Horschel (@BillyHo_Golf) February 24, 2017
Then: “16th at Scottsdale is a 9-iron to an easy hole. 17th at PGA National is a TOUGH hole. Crowd by tee needs to show more respect to the players.’’
Kennerly took notice to the issue and said he assigned 18 more marshals and police to the 17th hole on Saturday “trying to get people to quiet down.’’
The horses, however, are out of the barn. The Honda Classic is past the point of any return, because this is what the fans want. This is what brings them to the event.
“This has become something that is truly remarkable from a social aspect,’’ Goslings owner Malcolm Gosling said. “This is such an important part of golf’s future. It needs to be an event.’’
Dan Baker, who was the tournament director at the Greater Hartford Open from 2000-04 who now works for the PGA of America, surveyed the scene at the Goslings tent and said, “When you have this, it doesn’t matter who plays in the tournament. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the five best players in the world or not.’’
That’s a good thing, because none of the top six players in the world rankings are playing this week and just 12 of the top 25 are here.
No matter though. The place still has been buzzing.
“When I got here 11 years ago, I had to create some energy,’’ Kennerly said. “I had to draw a crowd here.’’
And so he has.
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