Rickie Fowler primed to defend Honda Classic title, hopeful Tiger Woods joins fieldSun Sentinel — Craig Davis Sun Sentinel
Feb. 13--PALM BEACH GARDENS -- One of the best aspects of winning last year's Honda Classic for Rickie Fowler was being able to celebrate at home.
The Jupiter resident is eager to defend his title in familiar surroundings next week at nearby PGA National. The most intriguing question Tuesday during media day was whether another esteemed resident of northern Palm Beach County will elect to join the party Feb. 23-26.
Honda organizers remain hopeful Tiger Woods, early in a comeback from spinal fusion surgery, will return for the first time since 2014 when he had to withdraw from the final round due to back trouble.
"It's great to see him healthy and pain free to where we can go out [on the course and] ... he's just enjoying having fun," said Fowler, who won the Hero World Championship in the Bahamas in early December when Woods made his return to competition by tying for ninth place.
Whether Woods plays Honda will depend on how he feels this week in Los Angeles at the Genesis Open, his agent said Saturday. He has until 30 minutes after completing his round Friday to commit.
"We're prepared for him, our community is prepared for him," said Ken Kennerly, executive director of the Honda Classic. "I think if his back can hold up, if his doctor agrees that he's able to do two [tournaments] in a row -- that seems to be the hang-up right now -- I think we'll see him."
As of Tuesday eight of the top 20 players in the world rankings had committed to Honda, topped by No. 4 Justin Thomas.
Fowler (No. 7) knows the odds are stacked against him repeating due to the quality of the opposition and the rigors of the Champion Course. Only Jack Nicklaus has won back-to-back in the 36 years of the tournament, way back in 1977-78 at Inverrary.
"It's a course where there's a lot of trouble that's in play, it wears you out mentally and physically. So to have the win last year was pretty special," Fowler said after making the short drive to get in some practice. "This has been a tournament that I always look forward to. I love playing the Champion Course with all the ups and downs."
Other top-20 players entered so far include 2012 Honda champion Rory McIlroy (No. 8), reigning Masters champ Sergio Garcia (No. 11), Tommy Fleetwood (No. 12), Tyrell Hatton (No. 15), Alex Noren (No. 16) an Brian Harman (No. 20).
Former Honda winners entered are Adam Scott, Russell Henley, Padraig Harrington, Rory Sabbatini, Michael Thompson, Luke Donald, Vijay Singh and Camilo Villegas.
Woods has played Honda three times, beginning in 2012 when he tied for second behind McIlroy.
Playing Honda would make sense, both for the proximity to his home on Jupiter Island, 20 minutes from PGA National, and because there are few other opportunities to hone his game prior to The Masters.
Woods hasn't played in a major since missing the cut at the 2015 PGA Championship. But his health is better than in years.
"I remember in the fall we just finished playing 18 and he went back to go play another nine," Fowler said. "In the last eight, nine years you haven't seen that. Any time that he's been out he's been fighting through just trying to get enough work in, dealing with some sort of pain or issue. But now to see where he can just go play for fun, it's pretty cool.
"He's definitely one of the best that we've seen, especially in his prime. I'm not sure he'll get back to where he was in the early 2000s, but I don't see any reason why he can't win on tour."
Even without Woods' presence in recent years, the Honda Classic has ascended to a premier event on the PGA Tour since moving to PGA National in 2007. Following the departure of the World Golf Championship event at Doral to Mexico, it's the only tournament drawing the world's best players in South Florida.
Even lacking Woods and McIlroy, last year's Honda set an attendance record of 203,815 confirmed spectators over seven days between the Monday Pro-Am and Sunday's final round.
Being named the Tour's most fan-friendly event has been a reflection of an emphasis on creating an entertainment experience, Kennerly said. There are a number of public hospitality features on the course, notably at The Bear Trap, holes 15-17.
Among the enhancements this year are a Lily Pulitzer tent, for shopping and lounging off the 10th green, and charging stations where fans can leave their phones in lockers and pick them up later.
"We don't talk much about golf. We talk more about entertainment," Kennerly said. "If we were just focused on the golf brand, you certainly wouldn't see the crowds that we see out here. You certainly wouldn't see the average age being as young as it is."
Admission is free for ages 15 and under accompanied by a ticketed adult. Various ticket packages are available at thehondaclassic.com or by calling 1-844-846-6328.
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