The Problem With The Florida Swing

I am a native Floridian. So it should come as no surprise that the Florida Swing is my favorite part of the PGA TOUR season. Sure, having 4 high quality PGA TOUR events in my backyard is cool, and each course is accessible to the public, but it’s the build up to Augusta, the tradition of the 4 events and the regularity of outstanding fields that makes me giddy this entire month.

But I think it’s too much of a good thing.

The Honda Classic, WGC-Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational seem to have no problems attracting top players and, more importantly, $ponSor$hip dollar$. The Tampa Bay Championship has not had as much success, mostly with the latter. Since moving to its current March position in 2007, the tournament has had 2 different title sponsors (PODS 07-08, Transitions Optical 09-12) and had no title sponsor in 2013, with Jacksonville-based Everbank swooping in late to be the presenting sponsor. While it was certainly a good move for the tournament to have Tampa Bay-area based corporate sponsorship with PODS and Transitions it didn’t stick. Why?

Every year, the players and media covering the event rave about the venue, the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort. More than anything, the Copperhead is unlike any of the other courses played in Florida on the PGA TOUR, including TPC Sawgrass and the Magnolia and Palm courses at Walt Disney World. The broadcasters and players are not simply paying lip-service when they talk about the Copperhead. It is lined with pine trees and has elevation changes unmatched on any other Florida TOUR course. The hole that most exemplifies the elevation change is the par 5 fifth. Measuring 605 yards, the players hit their tee shots to the bottom of a hill and are faced with a blind second, up over the steep hill then back down to the green. The course features sloped fairways and undulating greens, while the pines lining the fairways force players to work the ball both ways. As many players said last week, the Copperhead course tests every club in the bag.

It can be said that the field in Tampa is not as strong as other Florida Swing events, and this is true, but the gap is not as wide as one might think. Consider this: in 2011 the field included world-number-one Martin Kaymer; in 2012 Luke Donald won the tournament to regain the number one ranking. The list of champions since 2007 is certainly as good as the Honda Classic’s list in the same time frame. Tampa’s winner in the FedEx Cup era include Mark Calcavecchia, Sean O’Hair, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk, Gary Woodland, Luke Donald and this year’s champion, Kevin Streelman. Arguably, Streelman is the weakest link in this chain. Compare that with Honda’s list: Mark Wilson, Ernie Els, Y.E. Yang, Camilo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini, Rory McIlroy and Michael Thompson.

The biggest issue with the field in Tampa is that the three biggest draws on tour don’t play there. Neither Woods, McIlroy nor Mickelson have ever been in the field in the 12-year history of the event.  All three obviously play the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral the week before Tampa and Woods and Mickelson have been fixtures at the Arnold Palmer Invitational the week after. McIlroy and Woods are also residents of South Florida, so each has played the Honda recently as well.

The problem with the Tampa tournament is not the course or the field, it’s the spot on the schedule. It is simply sandwiched between too many other strong events.

Three weeks before Tampa is the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which most of the world’s best play. Not to mention that it is the end of the busy West Coast swing.

The following week is the Honda Classic in Palm Beach, the new “it” place for tour pros to live. Residents include Woods, McIlroy, Els, Lee Westwood, Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, among many others. Luke Donald also lives in Palm Beach during the winter but has skipped Honda the last two years to make room for Tampa on his schedule.

After Honda is the WGC-Cadillac at Doral. Like the Match Play it draws the best players because of the no-cut-guaranteed-paycheck effect of a WGC. Additionally, the Doral Resort has hosted a TOUR event for 50 years and the tradition of winning there is as strong as that of any venue.

Additionally, during the two weeks that the TOUR is in South Florida, there are many “extra-curricular” events that take place. Notably, the Member-Pro at historic Seminole Golf Club, the Els For Autism Pro-Am, benefitting Ernie’s Autism awareness charity and the Member-Guest at Medalist Golf Club, the home of Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler among other PGA TOUR pros.

Do I think the Tampa Bay Championship should be moved back to its original fall date? No. March is one of the best times to play golf in Florida, and the most challenging. Generally there is little threat of rain, but the wind tends to blow. This makes for ideal championship conditions with a firm and fast course. I have two solutions:

1)      Add a week to the schedule. The Puerto Rico Open is an opposite-field event played the same week as the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. Why not make this a full event played the week after Doral? It would allow some higher-profile players to make the trip to Puerto Rico should they choose. It would also give players an extra week off to play in Tampa. This would make it four out of five weeks to play each of the Florida Swing events, rather than four in a row.

2)      Rotate the scheduling of The Honda Classic and Tampa Championship. If 2013 had the Honda Classic as the first Florida event, then 2014 should have Tampa first. While this will likely not draw players from South Florida, it’s at least a chance for players to play the same week they normally would and boost the Tampa Bay Championship.

Whatever happens, it’s always a shame when a tour event goes away. It would be especially sad if the Tampa Bay Championship were gone.

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