FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Farewell, Honda: An ode to the Honda Classic as its longtime sponsor signs off
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
The first time I went to Honda was in 1985, to caddie for Brad Faxon. Curtis (Strange) won that year. More recently, Curtis and I were both cycled off the World Golf Hall of Fame selection committee. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
Anyway, Curtis and I talk semi-regularly, which is kind of weird for this reporter, because when I was a high school golfer trying to break 90, Curtis was at Wake and a golfing god. The chasm was endless. Now he picks up the phone sometimes when I call.
“Honda, back then, it was one of the few events you called by the corporate name,” I said.
“That’s true,” Curtis said. “You said, ‘I’m playing Honda.’”
You played Honda. You played Disney. You maybe played Buick, although you could also say you were playing Flint. You played Kemper. You played Doral, but that was the name of a hotel, and it came from combining DORis and ALfred, the wife-and-husband team who developed it. (Charming!) You maybe played Anheuser-Busch, although Kingsmill was a more common shorthand. My friend Mike Donald won there in ’89. Curtis, like Mike born in ’55, was the longtime host of that event.
Honda, Kemper, Anheuser-Busch, Disney.
Cars. Insurance. Beer. Family holiday.
Salesmen/golf nuts playing in Monday and Wednesday pro-ams. Players pressing flesh, collecting business cards, leaving them at the hotel bar.
The old Tour.
This was the final Honda. The fellas played for $8 million. At Bay Hill this coming week, the fellas are playing for $20 million. The following week, at the Players, the purse is $25 million. The other elevated events—Genesis (L.A.); Memorial (Jack’s tourney); Travelers (Hartford)—will probably go up to $25 million before too long. This is all under the category Keeping Up With the Saudis. It is not (this reporter believes) sustainable. Golf is a niche sport. In the culture at large, nobody knows who Patrick Cantlay is. Virtually nobody.
The PGA Tour was built by all those people selling shiny Datsuns and cradle-to-grave State Farm Insurance policies and (as Ben Franklin said) proof that God loves us, beer. Golf delivered. Regular-looking athletes, even though they packed gifts, to regular people. Golf is “aspirational” now, whatever that means.
Honda sells cars to people who save up to put a down payment on a car. Those people have most likely never heard of NetJets, and even if they have, it means nothing to them. The tour got fancy, and Honda, understandably, is getting out.
The Honda in its 1990s heyday. (Getty Images)
Since 1985, I’ve been to Honda 25 or 30 times, at all its various courses, Eagle Trace and Heron Bay and the others. It was never a great event. It was a good one, and that was good enough. At PGA National, where the event has been played since 2007, there’s a hotel at the course, and one year, before he moved to South Florida, Rory McIlroy stayed there, as did I. I saw Rory in the lobby and said, “You got to be careful with these shower floors. They’re slippery.”
“I know!” Rory said. “I put a towel down on the bottom of mine.”
Rory was just a kid, an only child, from a working-class family in suburban Belfast. He was 19, maybe 20, and he had a certain charm. He was starting out. Somewhere along the line, golf became a business and his business. That’s the course of human events. Lately Rory has been talking about the possibility of more PGA Tour events having 70-player fields, no cut. I believe that would be a disaster.
Last week, at the Genesis, the leaders played great on Saturday and poorly on Sunday.
The tournament was at Riviera.
That is golf.
Tiger Woods grew up on that tournament, when everybody called it L.A.
Keith Mitchell, a good golfer with a lovely swing, made the cut (not a given) and played his way into the day’s final threesome, with Max Homa (very good golfer) and Jon Rahm (likely future Hall of Famer).
That. Is. Golf.
I said to Curtis, “The tour used to have charm. Charm’s dead.”
He agreed. Curtis, by the way, in his prime, had no charm. That was his charm, his intensity, his lack of charm. He was long when he got on the “pro golf tour” out of Wake. Long swing, long hitter. He got shorter on tour, with a backswing that did not go past parallel. He made a great living by driving it in the fairway with metronomic rhythm and hitting irons hole-high and grinding his bottom off. But you could talk to him. He wasn’t cordoned off. Don January, the same. Rory, in that lobby. Chat him up, no charge, and he didn’t seem to mind.
I saw Ernie win. Mark Wilson, too. Corey Pavin. Justin Thomas. Fluff, poolside, with his bride. Boo Weekley, poolside, with his afternoon six-pack. Tiger walked off the course one year. Rory did too. John Daly did too. A fan snapped a photo while Daly was making a swing, he tried to abort the swing and he pulled something. Golf’s weirdness is part of its appeal.
Matt Jones, from Australia, won in 2021. It was a surprise win, for sure. But that’s part of the joy of golf. The unexpected. The other day, my partner and I were even on 18. I drove it in the creek. Dropped. Borrowed a 5-wood from my playing partner. (Go ahead, rat me out to the USGA. Winter golf.) Uphill, into the wind, fluffy lie, maybe 185 yards. Hit it to six feet, made the putt for 4 and the win. The other guys were better than us, but we played straight up, better ball. There’s no way I ever did that before, not exactly that. The surprise.
Last year, when he defended at Honda, Matt Jones missed the cut. The cut is a spectacular aspect of tournament golf. You can’t win or top-10 or do anything except practice over the weekend if you miss the cut. Jones has since gone LIV. This week, he is playing the no-cut LIV event in Mexico.
LIV will last as long as the Saudis want to fund it.
The Honda lasted for as long as Honda wanted to fund it.
Fun while it lasted.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com