The condensing of the PGA Tour schedule is forcing players to make some tough decisions, and the Honda Classic didn't exactly benefit from a lot of those choices. Only three of the top 20 players in the world ranking are in the field for the event beginning Thursday — No. 3 and defending champion Justin Thomas, No. 4 Brooks Koepka and No. 9 Rickie Fowler.
Next up: No. 21 Webb Simpson and No. 23 Gary Woodland. "There are a lot of guys who live down here," said Woodland, who is one of the South Florida-based players who gets to sleep in his own bed this week. "But with tournaments moving around, there are a lot of tournaments right now that are really good in a row. I skipped Riviera, which is one of my favorite golf courses, but you have to find the time."
Last year at this time, the run of tournaments saw players deciding among Riviera one week, then the Honda Classic, then a World Golf Championship in Mexico, then Tampa, then Bay Hill, then another WGC for Match Play.
This year, it goes Riviera, Mexico, Honda, Bay Hill, The Players Championship, Tampa and then the WGC-Match Play. That is a lot of really good options, all coming with a lot of players probably mindful of making sure they are fresh for the Masters as well.
"Nobody's playing five in a row," Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly said. This isn't an issue exclusive to the Honda Classic. Phil Mickelson skipped playing at Torrey Pines, his home course, this year for the first time in 29 seasons — and has hinted that he could sit out The Players Championship as well. Woodland loves Bay Hill but can't fit it into his schedule this year.
"The field isn't as strong as it typically is because of where it is right now on the schedule," Woodland said. "It's in a tough spot." Johnson hasn't played the Honda Classic since posting rounds of 77 and 75 and missing the cut by eight shots in 2015, so his absence this week can't be considered surprising.
Not having Woods or McIlroy is different. Woods finished 12th last year at the Honda Classic, which he often calls his home event. McIlroy had appeared in the tournament nine times in the last 10 seasons. Woods and McIlroy waged one of the most memorable final-round matchups in Honda history in 2012 — Woods carded an 8-under 62 to vault up the leaderboard, and the then-22-year-old McIlroy wound up winning by two shots to become No. 1 in the world for the first time.
Woods is likely to play four times in a five-tournament stretch. He is coming off starts in Los Angeles and Mexico and plans to compete at Bay Hill next week and The Players the following week. To play five consecutive weeks is a big ask for anyone, particularly someone like Woods, a 43-year-old who has dealt with injuries for years. McIlroy is in the same four-start, five-week stretch as Woods.
It's easy to see how the Honda Classic paid the price. "There are still some great players playing," said Daniel Berger, who — like Johnson, Woods and McIlroy — lives a short drive from PGA National. "But you want guys like Dustin, guys like Tiger, Rory. But it's just a give-and-take. Players can only play so many weeks in a row, and there's a bunch of great tournaments around it. The Honda is a great tournament as well, but it's never going to work out for everyone."
The schedule was changed for the 2018-19 season in part so the FedEx Cup playoffs could wrap up in August at the Tour Championship before college football and the NFL get rolling. That led to plenty of moving parts, with traditional spots for players to compete not seeming so traditional anymore.
"Potentially I could play 11 out of 13 weeks, which is a lot of golf and that's too much for me," McIlroy said last month when laying out his thinking regarding scheduling this season. "I know myself and I know by that fifth or sixth week I'm going to hate the game and I'm going to need to take a break."
And the need for players like McIlroy to take a break means the Honda Classic didn't catch a break. DIVOTS: Padraig Harrington, the 2005 and 2015 Honda Classic champion (the second of those at PGA National) who was set to play this week for the first time in 2019, withdrew because his injured wrist is not yet ready. "It's behind my own expectations," Harrington said. ... Two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton is in a PGA Tour field for the first time since the Sanderson Farms Championship in October 2016. Compton, whose Miami home is about 90 minutes south of PGA National, made eagle on the 18th hole to finish off a 7-under 65 and Monday-qualify for the Honda Classic.