2012 Honda Classic - A Recap from the Gallery

By: Nancy Berkley

Rory McIlroy's goal coming into the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was to be the Number 1-ranked golfer in the world. And, with his win in Sunday's final round, he is.

The Sun Came Out on the Honda Classic

Earlier on Sunday morning, I would have bet that expected rain would have delayed the final round until Monday. Around 9:30 a.m., as I waited at an entry gate tent by the 13th green, the winds gusted up to 35 miles per hour and the rain poured down. Play was suspended. At 11:30 a.m., play resumed and the sun was out the rest of the day to allow an exciting finish right on schedule at sunset in the Honda Classic.

I am going to leave all the reviews of Rory's shot-making and Tiger Woods's final eagle on the 18th hole to other writers. After four days of observing the tournament all from the gallery, I have other topics to cover.

First, about the Champion course: I have lived at PGA National since 1980 and watched George and Tom Fazio design and build the "Champ." Their challenge was to design a really great tournament course that would become a draw for PGA National, a then new golf and residential community many miles west of the ocean in a very unpopulated area.

The result of the Fazios' effort is a course with an exceptional routing. Jack Nicklaus receives well-deserved credit for his revisions to Champion and his famous "Bear Trap" - a three-hole stretch on the back nine, but the original layout distinguishes the Champion course.

It's important to note that back in 1980 courses were built with fewer environmental restrictions. If the Fazios were building the Champion in 2012 - assuming the land had remained undeveloped - they simply could not build the same course today. There would probably be long cart paths over sensitive nature areas and portions of the land would be restricted from any use. We are lucky that the Champion was built so many years ago.

And, the course is not just great for the pros it's a great for the gallery. Because of the tight routing the course is easy to walk. For example, spectators can watch players on the fifth green, walk a short distance to the sixth tee and turn right to the seventh fairway. Similarly, while watching the 15th green, you can watch players approach the 12th green, see players teeing off on the 13th and take a short walk to the infamous 16th tee. Yet, the layout never feels cramped.

Over 100,000 spectators watched great golf "live." As I chatted with fans in the gallery, I asked why they came to the tournament. Why not watch it on TV and see the better shots up close? After all, there were times when the big crowds made it impossible to see the green where Woods was putting.

The answer I most frequently heard, which I totally agree with, is that when you are on the course you "feel" the atmosphere in a manner that is just unattainable even when captured in live video for the TV. Plus, you don't have to listen to Johnny Miller tell you that a player hit his putt too hard. You saw it happen!

What always impresses me is the focus the professionals must maintain as they walk among the gallery and fans. We shout and clap and some fans yell, but the players cannot lose focus. They keep walking forward with eyes above the crowd. There are a very few who even wave or tip their hat. The golfers are "in their office" as they play the round and have decided not to take any calls. Their discipline is admirable and necessary.

Because I have a special interest in women's golf, I asked many women in the gallery whether or not attending a men's tournament made them want to play more golf. The answers were consistently "yes." One woman explained it to me this way: She said when you see those swings and how easy they make it look, you "catch the bug" to play more often. And then we watched Ricky Fowler tee off and discussed whether his shirt was purple, fuchsia or magenta.

On Friday at the seventh hole - a par-3 - a young boy and his dad were standing next to me as we were waiting for Tiger to tee off. Noah and his father had driven about an hour to get to the tournament.

I asked Noah, who I learned was eight, whether or not he was a golfer. "Yes," he said. I looked back at the tips where Tiger was hitting and pointed to the forward tee and explained that I hit from that tee up there. He said that he would probably hit from that spot also. His father added that Noah hits his drives 150 yards and is a Tiger fan.

We watched Tiger hit a fine drive onto the sixth green. And as Tiger walked past us, I saw the awe on Noah's face. That only happens when you are at a tournament; it cannot happen on TV.

But the best experience was when Noah and his dad spotted Tiger's mom watching from the sidelines. They had learned that Kutilda Woods has little pins with Tiger's name on them that she gives to young golfers, especially if they are wearing something with a Nike logo. Noah, wearing his Nike-logo hat, walked up to her and introduced himself and, sure enough, Mrs. Woods reached into her pocketbook and handed Noah a Tiger pin. I thanked her for that gesture and wished her son good luck. I won't forget the moment.

My gallery-watching also included a study of the players' pre-shot routines on the tee and on the green. Was there a single common technique? Perhaps I would find a "key" to my own game?

On the first day of the tournament I decided to station myself at the 13th green which is just steps away from the 14th tee. I would be able to study players' routines on the green and tee within minutes of each other.

But sometimes things just happen - not always as planned. If you are in the right place at the right time, a reporter can happen upon an unexpected story. Thursday was one of those days. On that particular round I watched Harris English and Gary Christian hit good approach shots to the 13th green that landed within six feet of the pin. English was having a good round.

The TV Tower Where
Seung-Yul Noh's Ball Landed

But then Seung-Yul Noh, the third player in their threesome, hit an approach shot that skimmed across the putting surface and down into the curtained base of the TV booth tower behind the green. The ball was absolutely unplayable!

I know my golf rules pretty well and knew that an official would arrive shortly. I watched the official determine the nearest point of relief no closer to the hole and advise Noh that he would have two club lengths from that point in which to drop a ball and play it.

What surprised me was that the driver Noh had pulled out of his bag to measure his two-club distance had a bulky head cover on it. Certainly Noh would pull it off before measuring the two-club length. A head cover could easily add a few extra inches to club length. But I was wrong.

Noh measured two club lengths using his driver with the head cover on. He placed a tee on the ground two club lengths plus head covers, and then dropped his ball well within the distance between the tower and his tee. Do the Rules of Golf allow that? Was I watching a rules violation? Was I supposed to call someone?

Not surprisingly, the first thing I did when I opened my computer to begin writing this article was to check the USGA rules. Noh broke no rules. The key is that the ball must be dropped (or placed) no further than the two clubs "would be" without the head covers. If the head covers are on, that's okay. But if a fellow competitor were to question the drop, the two-club distance would have to be measured without the head covers. I'm filing that away in "lessons learned."

But that was not my only rule experience of the day. I decided to follow Rory Sabbatini, who won the Honda Classic last year but who has been struggling with his swing. On Friday, Sabbatini teed off shortly after noon on the first hole of the Champion course. I walked down the first fairway on the far right-side path to be about even with where the drives would land and they would hit their approach to the green.

Next I heard "Fore." I ducked, turned away from the fairway and covered my head. I heard a "bonk" like a ball hitting a tree. The "bonk" was actually the ball beaning a spectator and then ricocheting farther right. The next thing I knew the ball landed a couple of feet away from me in a clump of weeds next to a tree and very close to the path I was standing on. The ball was barely visible.

I know the rules - don't touch the ball! I was the only one there who saw it. I raised my hands and kept everyone away until the first official arrived. I pointed to where the ball was lying. A very ugly shot coming up I thought. Spectators gathered as we waited for Sabbatini to walk down the fairway to his ball. A couple of fellow spectators and I started talking about what he would do once he discovered that lie.

If Sabbatini were to try to hit the ball where it was, as he took his stance the heels of this shoe would probably be on the concrete path. We knew that he could get relief - one club length no closer to the hole - if he was standing on a path.

Sabbatini arrived and looked at the situation very carefully. He started moving away some of the loose pine needles behind the ball trying to assess the lie. Then he asked for a rules official. Wise move!

The official confirmed that if he were to take his stance at the ball, he would be on the path. So he would be entitled to a free drop - one club length back. Sabbatini took his free drop. Now he would have to hit a ball lying on pine needles, close to another tree root, behind a clump of grass and have a shot over a tree and onto a green 129 yards away with a stance that left him with his feet on the path.

And that's what he did. The shot was clean but a little short of the green. He had a great chip and a one-putt for a par.

It seemed to be my day for being near trouble shots. I was walking up the eighth fairway on my way to catch up with Tiger's gallery. There's a stand of pine trees between sixth tee and seventh fairway. That's not where you want your drive off the seventh tee to be, but that's where Charlie Wi's tee shot landed.

A few spectators and I gathered around the ball waiting for Wi to arrive. Could Wi hit a 120-yard low shot under the fairway pines over the water and up onto the green? What club would he use? One man suggested a 7-iron, another said a hybrid, and I said a 6-iron played back in the stance. I guessed right and won a dollar from my gallery friends. Wi hit an amazing 6-iron shot on to the back of the green and made two putts for par.

A Sign Warning Players about
the Bear Trap at the Champion Course

And all the while I am watching the pre-shot routine of the golfers. Was there a common style? The answer is "no." Some of the professionals line up and visualize the shot from behind the ball looking at the target and take a few practice swings from there; then step up to the ball and hit. Other pros stand behind the ball for the line but then move and take their practice swings parallel to the line of the ball's flight and then step to the ball and hit. One golfer stands behind the ball and only visualizes the swing and line, never taking a practice swing before moving to the ball and quickly hitting it.

There did not seem to be any correlation between the pre-shot routine and the success of the shot for the professionals I observed. What I did conclude is that recreational and amateur golfers like me have just about the same range of pre-shot routines as the pros. But the real difference between recreational golfers and pros is that the upper-echelon players spend much more time studying their putts than the rest of us.

This is particularly true with women golfers, who are always concerned about not holding up the course. We don't take enough time on the green, and we don't spend enough time reading the slope and preparing for the shot. So, my advice to golfers - especially women - is to speed up your pre-shot routine on the tee and on the fairway but take more time on the greens.

What I also observed is that the short game is just as important for professionals as it is for recreational golfers. Even the pros with very long tee shots often win or lose a hole based on their short games. I'm taking my wedges to the practice tee tomorrow!

My final observations about the gallery are very encouraging. First of all, this gallery was younger than most galleries at most tournaments I've attended. More young couples - some with babies and strollers - than I have seen at other events. My guess is that the young stars of both the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour are attracting a younger following. If I'm right, that's great news.

And there seemed to be more women in the gallery than at other tournaments. I estimate that on Sunday about 30 percent of the spectators in the gallery were women. That's amazing and also good news.

The challenge is how to convert a non-golfing-spectator into a golfer. The golf industry in the U.S. is struggling to grow a game that takes a long time to play and is difficult. And sometimes it doesn't look like those golfers out there are having any fun.

I spoke with Lauren Gates, the wife of Christian Gates, a young professional who unfortunately did not make the cut. Lauren is a golfer herself and played at Texas A&M and has been a golf instructor. I asked her why she thought that we were not getting more women taking up the game. Her answer was that golf just looks too intimidating to women. They need more encouragement and they don't find it watching Tour players.

As exciting as the Bear Trap is, it is hardly encouraging to average golfers. Look at those yardages! Actually the par-3 15th has a friendly forward tee and a bail-out area!

Yet, the commentators on TV never talk about the recreational golfer and never offer encouragement. Instead, they use words that most of the 25 million recreational golfers can't even relate to. How many viewers know what is happening when Johnny Miller says the golfer "cut" the ball? Why is there so little dialogue by commentators that is directed specifically to encouraging and educating the vast majority of golfers?

Why didn't any commentator find the time to mention that the forward tees on the Champion course are among the most playable forward tees on any great course in the country? And, while on my soap box, why didn't any TV producer or director of NBC or the Golf Channel find the time to interview Jane Broderick, the director of golf at PGA National Resort and Spa who may have one of the biggest golf resort jobs in the country?

Until the PGA Tour figures out how to include more women in the announcer's booth, I can't take seriously any industry initiative about increasing the number of women golfers. And until the Tour figures out how to talk to recreational golfers, I have my doubts about the future of the game.

The Honda Classic was a great tournament and we are lucky to have it here for four more years. Rory McIlroy is an awesome talent. The gallery loves Tiger again. All's right with the golf world . . . almost.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.