How PGA Tour plans to return Cognizant Classic to its glory days

How PGA Tour plans to return Cognizant Classic to its glory days

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And spectators have been treated to exciting golf. Last year was decided in a playoff between winner Chris Kirk and Eric Cole, who went on to win PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. In 2022, Sepp Straka outlasted locals Shane Lowry and Daniel Berger in a sudden downpour that arrived when the last group approached the final hole.

Week now separates PGA Tour West Coast, Florida Swings

The adjustment in the schedule was the simplest way to get everything started. This year, the calendar provided an extra week between the start of the season and the Masters, and the Tour used that week to separate the end of the West Coast Swing and the start of the Florida Swing.

Instead of a six-week stretch that included Pebble Beach, Phoenix Open, Genesis, Cognizant, Arnold Palmer and the Players, the Tour scheduled an event in Mexico between Genesis and Cognizant.

Adding to the past insult, the two events before and following last year’s tournament had purses of at least $20 million, while Honda’s prize money was $8.4 million. That number increases to $9 million in Cognizant’s first year.

“They were in a terrible position last year,” Matt Kuchar said. “Happy to see a better field. I’ve played the Honda at lots of different venues. I feel like PGA National is such a great home for Cognizant. They got a great identity there.”

Kuchar and Glover are old school. They have teed it up a combined 24 times and have little sympathy for golfers who avoided the Champion Course because of its difficulty.

The Champion Course, with all its water and wind, was the third most difficult course on the PGA Tour during the 2020-21 season, playing at 1.904 strokes over par. Last year, one in which the winds were pretty benign all week, it was the 10th most difficult at .359 over par. Kirk and Cole carded the lowest scores since the tournament moved to PGA National in 2007, 14-under 266, before Kirk won the playoff.

“I like the challenge of the golf course, I like the difficulty of it,” Glover, 44, said. “There’s a lot of strategy there. There’s a lot of shots you got to hit well. Pretty big fan of the course itself.”

Kuchar, 45, believes the course lends itself to a great leaderboard. And that Bear Trap, holes 15-17, is must-see TV.

“It’s something people are anxious to tune in to,” he said. “That Bear Trap, when I’m not playing, I tune in. I want to see how guys are doing in those holes.”

Gary Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open champion from Delray Beach, played in nine Honda Classics and is playing this year. He missed 2021 because of COVID. Woodland calls the course one of the most demanding they see every year, which is part of the reason he likes the event.

“I think if you go there, play well there, you can play well anywhere,” he said. “That’s why I like to go.”

The course opened in 1981 and was originally designed by George and Tom Fazio. Nicklaus redesigned it in 2000. The 18-time major winner from North Palm Beach has made several tweaks since.

And Nicklaus is of the same mind as Kuchar and Glover, telling me two years ago he wants the Champin to be a fair test.

“Golf courses are getting so much easier for these guys, they go out and shoot 6-, 7-, 8-under par every round and they get used to that,” Nicklaus said. “They get to a golf course they’ve got to play a little bit and all of sudden they don’t like it.

“I’m sorry, but the game of golf is always supposed to produce the best golfer that week, not necessarily the best putter.”

Rapp and interim executive director Joie Chitwood — Todd Fleming will be the permanent director following this year’s event — are focused on the player experience when it comes to growing the field and the fan experience when it comes to growing the tournament.

For the players, that covers everything from the course and pro-am set up to the amenities and family experience. One example: The pro-am will be reduced from four to three amateurs, much to the delight of the players. More amateurs make for longer rounds, not the preference on the day before the tournament starts.

“We understand some of the things players want to experience when they come to an event,” Chitwood said. “They’re working. We need to make sure we provide an environment for them that allows them to participate and compete at the level they’re expected.”

Spreading the word on Cognizant, formerly Honda Classic

With more skin in the game, the Tour is counting on those who play this year to spread the word about their experience as the event enters a new era.

McIlroy is close with Lowry, his Jupiter, Florida, neighbor and teammate on the winning European Ryder Cup team. Lowry has played here six times, including the last four, and will return this year. Lowry is one player who has had no complaints and that resonated with McIlroy, who returns this year after a five-year absence.

“The player experience, it’s always been a good event in that way,” McIlroy said. “But I think the last few years there’s been a lot of things going against it and now with the schedule change, different sponsor, PGA Tour running the thing, I think there’s more and more things going for it.

“And professional golfers are little bit like followers. People are going to see, hopefully, better players playing that event and talking about what they experienced and it will hopefully encourage other players to play.”

In other words: A second chance to make a first impression.

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