Florida Swing: The Power of 4
Two tournaments in successive weeks in the same US state is a “double-stop”, three in a row is almost a “Swing” but not quite; it’s a handy triple. So if you want a real Swing on tour it has to be to the power of four, and as Robin Barwick writes, that is what has been restored in Florida on the PGA Tour in 2019
Before the world famous Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard there was the Florida Citrus Open Invitational. The same tournament but different name, different golf course and a different generation. The Florida Citrus joined the pro circuit in 1966 and it was the final link, seeing the PGA Tour achieve a four-stop “Florida Swing” for the first time.
That original Swing of ’66 started in the Florida Panhandle with the Pensacola Open Invitational in the first week of March, before sweeping 700 miles south to Doral in Miami for the Doral Open Invitational. Then it was 240 miles back north to Orlando to Rio Pinar for the Florida Citrus before the 150-mile journey to Selva Marina CC for the Jacksonville Open.
If a full-blooded Florida Swing has to incorporate four Florida tournaments in successive weeks (and really they need to be in March and coincide with Spring Break), then the last time the PGA Tour presented a Florida Swing was in 2016 (Honda Classic at PGA National; WGC Cadillac at Doral; Valspar Championship at Innisbrook; “Arnold Palmer” at Bay Hill). In 2017 and 2018 the Tour had the Honda, Valspar and Arnold Palmer but with a World Golf Championship event in Mexico breaking over the border to snap the swing. But in 2019, with the Players Championship returning from a May slot to its rightful place in March, the full Florida Swing is back, and back with a running order that is probably its strongest ever in terms of venues, sponsorship and tournament heritage, which will inevitably lead to very strong playing fields.
“We are extremely pleased with the schedule,” said PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan when it was announced last year. “It’s been our stated objective to create better sequencing of our tournaments. Now in March the schedule really gives us an accelerant earlier in the year that we’re really excited about. TPC Sawgrass is a perfect fit to hold a tournament in March.”
And the commissioner is under-stating the obvious. The fact is that Florida as a state is perfect for hosting the PGA Tour in March—it would be more than perfect if that were possible—with the balmy Florida spring weather, golf fans spilling out of their course-side villas and condos to watch, and an array of tour-ready venues. TV ratings are fuelled by the new season freshness and so no wonder the sponsors flock to the Florida Swing.
“All four of us Florida tournaments agree that it is great to get the swing back in place,” starts Marci Doyle, Tournament Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “The Florida Swing had become more of a hop with the schedule going from Florida to Texas or Mexico and there was so much back and forth, so the four-stop swing does nothing but benefit all of us.”
Innisbrook Resort has been home to the Valspar Championship since it started out as the Tampa Bay Classic in 2000 and Director of Golf there is Bobby Barnes. “Call me biased but I think Florida should have even a few more tournaments,” starts Barnes. “I like the idea of the Florida Swing and it will help the strength of the field for the Valspar Championship, rather than having the Florida Swing interrupted by players flying off to Mexico and back. At Innisbrook we take a lot of pride in being one of those Florida stops.”
And who wouldn’t enjoy being in Florida in March, when the heat is not too stifling and the top players are looking to build some momentum ahead of the Masters at Augusta in April.
“We have rolling hills at Innisbrook that are unique within Florida,” adds Barnes, “and the Copperhead Course is going to provide a great test for golfers as they start to get ready for the Masters, as we have a lot of uphill and downhill lies like Augusta. The Masters is only three weeks later so the Valspar could make a really good fit to close out the Florida Swing.”
Tiger Woods certainly thought so last year, when he made a late entry into the Valspar Championship field—unsure if his recovering back could last four tournament rounds—and finished in a tie for second for his best PGA Tour finish in more than four years. The place went nuts.
Crowds were up 35 percent to 150,000 and the TV ratings were off the charts.
Recalls Barnes: “When Tiger teed off early in the morning for the second round from the 10th tee, the sun was barely up at 7:30am and it was pretty chilly, but as I looked down the length of the 10th hole all you could see were rows and rows of people. Some of those people would have got up at four o’clock in the morning to make sure they were there for Tiger’s tee time. The atmosphere was more like a Ryder Cup.”
The other critical factor in support of the Florida Swing is that with so many tour pros based in Florida these days, the Swing means a minimum of travel for a lot of players and to them that music is sweeter than Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album.
Don’t forget, when most tour golfers say they love to travel, what they actually mean is that they hate to travel but love playing great courses, in front of big crowds and for huge prize funds. Many of them do enjoy playing in different countries but the worst part of tour golf is the time spent on the road and in the air. It is boring, time consuming and bad for your back.
Most tour golfers’ top three vacation destinations—particularly those with young families—are Home, Home and Home.
“The players love to come into the state of Florida and stay here, and some bring their families,” adds Doyle, who is looking forward to showcasing expanded and renovated practice facilities at Bay Hill this year.
And herein lies the final magic ingredient of the Florida Swing (version 2019): the three journeys between the four tournaments total only 550 miles. Palm Beach Gardens to Orlando: 160 miles; Orlando to Ponte Vedra Beach: 140 miles; Ponte Vedra Beach to Palm Harbor: 250 miles. On the PGA Tour in 2018/19, this is by far the tightest cluster of four tournaments on the entire schedule and that is great for everyone (apart from northerners, but they get their turn over the summer).
In Florida, in March, great things can happen.