Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 2, 2014

Henley Wins, But The Golf Course Triumphs

The Champion Course at PGA National, which has hosted the Honda Classic since 2007, is a golf course decidedly unlike many of the weekly stops on the PGA Tour. Fans who follow the Tour week in and week out are used to seeing their favorite players go low in round after round, posting scores that leave weekend duffers agape. In the thirteen stroke play tournaments played during the current PGA Tour season, which began last October, the average winning score has been more than 17 under par, and in four of those tournaments the champion bested par by more than 20 shots over four rounds. Prior to this week only the Farmers Insurance Open produced a winning score just single digits under par; and the 9-under total which was good enough to give Scott Stallings his third career PGA Tour victory was the highest winning number in relation to par at Torrey Pines in more than three decades.

But every year as February gives way to March to Tour moves east to Florida, where the first stop is in Palm Beach Gardens for the Honda. Originally a Tom Fazio design, the Champion Course underwent an extensive renovation under the practiced eye of Jack Nicklaus a decade ago, and the result was a layout that can be every bit as tough as a major venue. The three hole stretch of the 15th, 16th, and 17th, two demanding par-3s sandwiching a difficult par-4 is known as the Bear Trap in honor of the legendary golfer nicknamed the Golden Bear. It’s a course with water in play on many shots, and if the wind picks up, or just with the pressure of trying to close out a PGA Tour win on Sunday afternoon, it’s a layout that can make the world’s top professionals look like 15 handicappers at a country club outing.

That’s what happened this Sunday when this year’s edition of the Honda became the tournament that seemingly no one could win. The day began with Rory McIlroy holding a two shot lead at 12-under par; but the former world number one and two-time major winner was trying to do perhaps the hardest thing in golf, namely lead a tournament wire-to-wire. He had opened with a scintillating 7-under par 63 on Thursday to claim the first round lead; then followed that up with rounds of 66 and 69 to remain atop the leader board at the conclusion of play both Friday and Saturday.

While casual fans may only recognize a familiar handful of names, the reality is that today’s Tour is deep with talent. To be able to hold off a field of confident and skilled fellow professionals for four straight days is a tall order, even for a golfer with McIlroy’s resume. Plus the 24-year old from Northern Ireland is coming off a dismal year, as the sport’s media members are only too happy to constantly remind us.

After ascending to the top of the world rankings and winning his second major in 2012 McIlroy changed equipment, moving from Titleist to Nike after signing a huge endorsement contract. Even amateurs can sometimes discern a difference between sets of clubs; for a professional any change in equipment represents a significant risk. In addition to changing his sticks, McIlroy went through a messy change in management companies that ultimately led to competing law suits. He also had to learn that with the glamour of the spotlight comes constant scrutiny of every aspect of a star athlete’s life. Scarcely a week went by last year without some breathless report that his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was in turmoil, or over, or back on again; while the pesky detail that most of the reports were little more than gossip mattered little to those spreading the chatter. With all of that it’s hardly a surprise that McIlroy’s game suffered.

The good news for his many fans is that of late McIlroy has shown every indication of climbing out of his slump. The gossips were silenced, at least for now, when he and Wozniacki announced their engagement on New Year’s Day. This came shortly after he ended his victory drought with a one stroke triumph over local favorite Adam Scott at the Australian Open in December. He followed that by finishing runner-up by a single shot to Stephen Gallacher at the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic just a month ago. Then for three rounds on the Champion Course the Honda belonged to McIlroy.

But tournaments are four rounds, and the wee lad from County Down was unable to become that rarest of PGA Tour winners, a wire-to-wire champion. It wasn’t just the Bear Trap, but all 18 holes of the Nicklaus redesign that proved daunting on Sunday. As the tournament turned to its final nine holes, just three of the thirty-four golfers still on the course were under par. At that point four players remained in contention. Remarkably enough, not one or two but all four had a moment down the stretch that made it look like they really, really wanted someone else to claim the trophy.

After driving into a fairway bunker on the 16th hole, McIlroy faced a difficult but not impossible mid-iron to the green. But he caught the shot fat and his 6-iron came up yards short of the putting surface. Unfortunately that green, like so many at PGA National, is fronted by water. The splashdown led to a double bogey for the one-time tournament leader.

Earlier Russell Knox, a 28-year old Scot playing in just his second full season on the PGA Tour faced his own approach shot from a patch of dirt well off the fairway on the 14th hole. The ball caught a bit of the lip of turf immediately ahead of his lie, sending it sailing well right, to its own watery demise. As with McIlroy at the 16th, the result was double bogey.

Not to be outdone, Russell Henley came to the par-3 15th on a high, having just chipped in for birdie on the previous green. His tee shot started right and stayed there, never coming close to dry land. A familiar refrain, double bogey.

Finally Ryan Palmer, who with three PGA Tour wins was the most accomplished of the golfers in contention other than McIlroy, could have claimed his fourth victory with pars on the final three holes. Instead he made bogey at two of them, including the relatively easy par-5 18th.

In the end all four went to a playoff after finishing at 8-under par, and because someone has to win every tournament this one went to Henley, whose two putt birdie on the 18th, the first hole of sudden death, bested three pars. The record books will reflect that it was the 24-year old Georgia native’s second PGA Tour victory, coming less than two months after his first win at January’s Sony Open. But in truth this week, as happens only rarely on the PGA Tour, the golf course won.


  1. […] of months ago one of the hardest things in golf is winning a tournament by leading wire to wire ( Conversely since a tournament is four rounds, there is plenty of time for a pro who just manages […]

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