By DAVE GEORGE
Courtesy of the Palm Beach Post
Don’t let Camilo Villegas’ Honda Classic winning score of 13-under-par last year fool you. It wouldn’t take much to bring the Champion Course to the tournament toughness level of a major.
Truth is, this hearty par-70 challenge is almost there, even under normal springtime wind and weather conditions.
Throw out Villegas, whose worst round was a Sunday 68, and the rest of the 2010 Honda field had a real fight on its hands.
Runner-up Anthony Kim was five shots back, with a third-round 73 weighing him down. Justin Leonard, who went 24-under to win the 2003 Honda across the street at Mirasol, finished even par after four laps around the Champion and that was good enough for a respectable 17th-place tie.
Altogether, there were just 16 players under par for the tournament, and the overall average score fit right in there with some of the most beloved and brutal venues in golf for 2010.
The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was the most maniacal, with an average score of 3.983 shots over par. Next came the Honda Classic at 1.64, followed by the Masters at 1.293. That’s fairly monstrous company, which explains why the Champion is one of the most respected courses on the PGA Tour.
"One of the biggest components is the re-design that Jack Nicklaus has done," said Lukus Harvey, who as PGA National’s Director of Agronomy still was working around members and guests on the Champion until the course finally was closed on Friday afternoon.
"A lot of that comes with the placement of tee boxes that can accept the resort golfer, but at the same time, you can go all the way back to the tips and allow us to grow the rough up, bring the fairways in another 12 yards and increase the green speed and all of a sudden you’re ready for the PGA Tour.
"And you know what? If we took the rough another inch or 2 up, and the greens another foot faster on speed (as measured by the distance a ball rolls off a Stimpmeter device), then it would be ready for a major."
Shag-carpet rough of 4 inches and more is the norm for U.S. Opens and PGA Championships. The Honda crew stops at about 2-1/2 inches, with one last trim on Sunday night prior to the tournament. That’s hardly a buzz cut, especially with warm temperatures rocketing the grass up to 3 inches and more by the end of the final round.
In 1987 the Champion, still a par-72 according to the original Tom Fazio design, did host a major. Larry Nelson won the PGA Championship here in a playoff with Lanny Wadkins. They got it under par – precisely one shot under par – but nobody else did. Vicious August heat and a fungus that left several greens with patches of emerald-dyed dirt took all the fun out of the thing.
The Honda is much more exciting as it will play out this week, and the Champion more appreciated with a little age on it. The course will be 30 years old in November, which means that kids like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler may genuinely view it as a classic. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
What I see is a tournament that finally has some personality.
Before, as the Honda traveled from one South Florida real-estate boom project to another, the living was easy and fairly monotonous for those Tour stars who bothered to show up, like an afternoon at poolside.
Since moving to PGA National in 2007, the face of the tournament is changed. Think Marine drill instructor. You know, like you’re at Parris Island, all balmy breezes and palm trees, but there’s too much gut-busting work to recognize the beauty all around.
Every hole is a handful, and we’re not just talking about the Bear Trap, the wind-whipped trio of 15, 16 and 17.
There’s water everywhere on this property, but No. 6 is particularly aquaphobic, making a reachable par-5 hole not worth the risk of going for the green in two. No. 11 is a peach, too, leaving no room to scramble and save par if you miss the putting surface. The whole back nine, for that matter, is a place where pars fairly sparkle.
That’s why the average winning score in four years at PGA National is just a touch higher than eight-under 272, Villegas or not.
In other words, if somebody splashes a 64 on the scoreboard, as four players did in last year’s second round alone, don’t get too excited.
Reality eventually catches up to everybody around here, and the reality is that the trophy will probably go to somebody in single red digits Sunday afternoon.
That’s the versatility of the Champion, a beastly course wrapped inside a relaxing resort. About 90 players in the 144-man field will taste it all by staying on site.
"The resort has done a fantastic job giving the guys an attractive rate," said Honda Classic tournament director Ed McEnroe. "They want to see the players walking through the lobby."
Tournament officials also want to see them back next year. Thanks to the Champion, Honda’s best-ever host, that’s no problem at all.