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Honda Classic tees off run-up to Masters

Things have changed a bit since the PGA Tour went to its wraparound schedule in 2013, but something happens when golf's traveling circus hits Florida every year, as it does this week for the Honda Classic.

2340232+PGA Rory McIlroy black white.jpg
Rory McIlroy hits from the eighth tee during the final round of the Northern Trust Open golf tournament Sunday at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. (Gary A. Vasquez - USA Today Sports)

Things have changed a bit since the PGA Tour went to its wraparound schedule in 2013, but something happens when golf’s traveling circus hits Florida every year, as it does this week for the Honda Classic.

Everybody seems to get a little more serious.

Greg Norman was wrong when he said infamously 20-some years ago: “The season doesn’t start until Doral,” which is where the Sunshine State opener was held in those days. “I’ve always looked at Florida as the start of my season.”

Perhaps it was no surprise that the Great White Shark would dis the West Coast swing, because none of his 20 PGA Tour victories came in the Hawaii, California and Arizona tournaments.

Even though those events do not mark the official start of the season any more since the kickoff now comes in October, they serve a very important function.

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After the Christmas holidays, with millions of golfers and other sports fans kept indoors by cold weather in the eastern and northern parts of the United States, golf is right there in living color when they sit on their couch or easy chair in the living room or den.

With football winding down and pitchers and catchers not quite ready to report to spring training for the start of the baseball season, the PGA Tour gives TV viewers the promise of spring.

The weather was mostly good on the West Coast swing this year, but even when it is not, the homebound still get those views of Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines and Riviera on or near the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California, the Plantation Course and Diamond Head in Hawaii, plus the stark beauty of the deserts in the Southwest.

Many of the pros take their families with them for extended working vacations in the islands and/or on the West Coast because the modern golfer has very little of what can be called an offseason.

And then many of the best golfers in the world arrive at PGA National this week, realizing that the Masters is only six weeks away, and it really is time to get down to business.

Those swing changes that were made in what little down time they had should have become almost second nature, and the new clubs in their golf bags hopefully have become trusted friends.

This is where Rory McIlroy usually starts his PGA Tour season, although he took a detour to play the Northern Trust Open at Riviera for the first time last week.

“I haven’t missed a year (in the Honda since 2008),” said McIlroy, who has a home in Palm Beach Gardens, where PGA National is located, and is engaged to Erica Stoll, a local PGA of America employee. “Always enjoyed it here.

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“I feel the golf course is a course that sets up well for me and is sort of like a hometown event these days, being in this area for the last couple years.”

Now he will begin the run-up to Augusta National and his second bid to complete the career Grand Slam at the first major of the season.

“These tournaments that we’ve got coming up, we’ve got some of the strongest fields of the year,” McIlroy said last week before fading with a 75 on Sunday to tie for 20th at Riviera.

“This is the start of the road to the Masters, and for everyone, if not thinking about it directly, it’s definitely in the back of their minds. Obviously, I’d love my game to be in peak shape for Augusta in April.”

McIlroy, No. 3 in the World Golf Rankings, won the Honda Classic in 2012, and another Irishman, Padraig Harrington, claimed the title for the second time last year.

Phil Mickelson has not been a frequent visitor to the Honda Classic, but he tied for 17th last year in his fourth appearance. After a strong start on the West Coast swing, he is in the Palm Beach Gardens field along with Rickie Fowler, who is No. 4 in the world.

This is where some of the Europeans and other international players, such as 2008 Honda Classic champion Ernie Els of South Africa, kick off the year on the PGA Tour.

Dozens of players on the circuit have homes in the Sunshine State, and most will play two, three or even all four of the events on the Florida swing - which also includes the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

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All on the road to Augusta.

Related Topics: GOLF
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