by Jeff Skinner
This week we are treated to a very strong field of golfers on a very demanding course. But it hasn’t always been that way. This tournament had struggled to get top players to play in it for a long time. There appears to be many reasons behind the growth of The Honda Classic. While there are many factors that have contributed to The Honda being frequented by more and more top players they all start at one place: Ken Kennerly.
Kennerly is the tournament director of The Honda Classic and over the years he has singlehandedly dragged The Honda from the Netherlands of the PGA Tour to the top. Any tournament that has Jack and Barbara Nicklaus as partners is extraordinary.
Tim Rosaforte of Golf World and the ultimate insider for all things golf in the Palm Beach area profiles Kennerly and his quest to rebuild a tournament that was all but abandoned by the upper echelon tour players.
Ken Kennerly realized he’d put the Honda Classic on the map in 2008 during a visit to the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks after Ernie Els’ victory that year. Confirmation came at the crossover from the 14th green to the 15th tee at Bay Hill on pro-am day — from a guy who’d watched Kennerly’s event on TV. “Ken, congratulations on the Honda!” yelled Phil Mickelson, who had spotted Kennerly in a sea of spectators. “You’ve done a wonderful job. I really want to come and support it one year.”
The courtship of Phil heated up at last year’s PGA Championship when Mickelson called Kennerly to his table in player dining. Sitting next to Mickelson were three impressionable young players based in the Palm Beach/Jupiter area: Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein and Brooks Koepka.
Mickelson, who had played the 2002 Honda at TPC Heron Bay when it was struggling at the gate and bouncing between venues in Broward County, talked to Kennerly about potential changes to his 2014 schedule, mentioning that he also wanted to support the Jack Nicklaus family and their involvement with the Honda through the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.
When the commitment was official, Kennerly didn’t get all choked up the way he did when Tiger Woods committed for the first time as a pro in 2012, but in a way, Mickelson playing Honda was a bigger get because of his allegiance to the West Coast swing.