2017-02-16 / Top News


A look behind the scenes of golf’s annual classic
Florida Weekly Correspondent

Fans crowd the stands at PGA National for last year’s Honda Classic.TRY A PEEK UNDERNEATH. The build-up to this year’s Honda Classic, set for Feb. 20-26 on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, wants everyone’s eye and ear for its array of big-time competition and entertainments.

The build-out lies around and beneath it all, its crucial role in the PGA Tour stop left mostly invisible and unheralded. This is a glimpse, before the preparation ends and the party starts.

Each year, from scaffolds and plywood, tenting and mesh, a legion of men and women raise a vast village of venues. PGA Tour people call this “the build” or “build-out,” and, on a morning in late January, the skeletal beginnings stand in plain view.

Honda’s tournament director, Andrew George, from IMG Golf North America, starts at the end of the Champion course, the very back of the green complex at Number 18, in the framework for the vast Nicklaus Village and a new showcase near its center: at this moment a wall of windows, supported by steel poles. From the inside, Mr. George steps to the glass.

A scene during play at a previous Honda Classic. A scene during play at a previous Honda Classic. This, he says, will be the Legends Club, the high end, on the order of Berckmans Place at the Master’s in Augusta. Ticket price: $750. View: Priceless. Through the glass, privileged fans can peer down over a player’s shoulder as he flanges out of the sand or bumps a putt for wealth and glory. They can look up over the green and out across the lake and see the full sweep of the finishing hole. Here, even the portable restrooms will be better. “Guests expecting stone crabs,” Mr. George says, “don’t expect Porta-Potties.”

For those of more modest means, don’t despair. To embrace more than 200,000 spectators, the build-out extends across the course, through 26 structures and more than 220,000 square feet of hospitality space (nearly double that of five years ago), carefully sited for proximity to players and elevated views of the action on two, three, even four holes.

The Legends Club offers a view of the 18th hole of The Honda Classic. The price for cooling your heels here? $750. 
COURTESY PHOTO The Legends Club offers a view of the 18th hole of The Honda Classic. The price for cooling your heels here? $750. COURTESY PHOTO With the Honda’s 10-year run of record revenues and donations to charity, the build gets bigger every year, and it snowballs into the avalanche of Advance Week and the tumble of Tournament Week.

“This is the earliest we’ve ever started,” Mr. George says. “The scaffold vendor is T&B (Equipment Co.), out of (Ashland) Virginia. There are very few contractors who can do that magnitude of the steel, the temporary stuff, in the time frame that we need. We came out here before Thanksgiving, with the T&B lead foreman, and we spent a good three days laying out the flags exactly how the layout will look, and they pulled the strings to show us what that line is going to look like.

GEORGE GEORGE “We had these guys come to start the scaffold flooring on Dec. 5. It’s about a 10-, 11-week build, and then it all comes down in four weeks.”

T&B is the largest of more than 50 vendors raising the parapets and pampering the customers, and part of the challenge, Mr. George says, is “to make sure all the vendors play nice in the sandbox.”

That’s just the action end. The sales staff, George says, works all year to find paying sponsors for chalets and sky suites and public venues to mingle and feast, with prime backer American Honda and major sponsors United Technologies and Tire Kingdom and the likes of Cobra Puma Golf, Anheuser Busch, Florida Power & Light and Jupiter Medical Center taking the lead. Sponsors want comfort and, especially, exposure, and they count on the build-out to provide them.

A view from the top of the sky suites at the 18th green at PGA National, where crews were preparing for the 2017 Honda Classic. A view from the top of the sky suites at the 18th green at PGA National, where crews were preparing for the 2017 Honda Classic. Off a meeting and a phone call, Ken Kennerly walks up from another cart. He’s the top man, the Honda’s executive director and, Mr. George says, its guiding light. Each year, since the tournament moved from Mirasol across the street for 2007, the build-out has grown, and Mr. Kennerly’s efforts are a big reason. “Ken is an awesome boss,” Mr. George says. “We trust him, he trusts us. And he listens.”

Rounding the back side of the nascent Legend Club, the leadership encounters a man named Jim, head of a crew of four from Clayton Floor Covering & Design out of Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s in charge of carpets and floor-covering, been on site for the last three weeks, and says, “I push these guys in front of me, because you never know when the weather’s not gonna cooperate or something. At the end, you still gotta get finished on time, so I’m always pushing.”

KENNERLY KENNERLY He looks over at Andrew George and adds, “It’s nice to have someone even-keel to direct all of it.” Mr. George smiles and says, “If you get upset, it doesn’t change anything.”

Then Mr. George and Mr. Kennerly cross paths with two other key managers, Nick Schling and Karla Wallace, on a Skype call just then with the high-end caterer, Spectrum Concessions out of Houston.

Mr. Schling has taken the job that Mr. George stepped up from, director of operations, ram-rodding builders and vendors, making sure all is safe and in working order and compatible with laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under Mr. Schling’s direction, the interior of the Legends Club, now just steel scaffolds and plywood flooring, will soon take on its tented roof and walls of layered mesh. Then Ms. Wallace will tackle the inside décor and catering.

Stands can accommodate 4,500 golf fans. The first year, they held 350. ‘We thought it was the Taj Mahal,’ says Ken Kennerly, executive director of The Honda Classic. 
COURTESY PHOTO Stands can accommodate 4,500 golf fans. The first year, they held 350. ‘We thought it was the Taj Mahal,’ says Ken Kennerly, executive director of The Honda Classic. COURTESY PHOTO The whole management team must harken to both sponsors and contractors, and to representatives from the PGA Tour, to building inspectors, on site from Palm Beach Gardens, and to Palm Beach County and the water district and, especially, to residents of PGA National, whose daily routines face disruption. Happily, George says, many of them volunteer at the tournament.

On his staff, Dawn Shnur and Jim Coleman guide more than 1,600 volunteers in efforts across the course, from transporting players and marshaling crowds to registration, cart control, child care, starting and standard-bearing and sharpshooting the ShotLink lasers. They, too, stand in awe of the city mushrooming across the course.

Most who will surge into the habitats of the Honda Classic will miss the build-out’s dynamics. The structures funnel crowds and carts and food and the players on the PGA Tour. They need power. They need water. They need kitchens and product storage and avenues for delivery and removal. And they need nearly all of that action to play out behind-the-scenes.

The Champion is a wonderful course, Mr. George says; within 600 yards of the resort, patrons have an easy walk to holes 18, 17, 16, 10, nine, one three, four and eight. It suffers only from too much frontage. With little back-of-house, reduced even more this year as PGA National expands its merchandise shop, staff have had to create places to cook and store food and hardware.

Seen from the end of the complex at 18 this January day, immense lattice-works clearly surround two open “tunnels,” where working machines and people will hide from view. “Air conditioning guys will start all the way down at the end of one tunnel and drop the units in,” Mr. George says. “They go underneath, and they have ducts, going up through there. They’ll cut holes and put grates on top. The next tunnel over will be for the caterer. They’ll have back-of-house, coolers down here to store product. Inventory. Looks like a Sam’s Club or a Costco down here.”

Those cooking the food face an added challenge. “You can’t go underneath when you have a grill, so we have a compound for those guys over on the Fazio (course),” Mr. George says. “They certainly burn through the miles on their golf carts going back and forth.”

So much of the operation depends on timing, starting with the barn-raising. Maybe that’s why Andrew George first likens the build-out to “Legos,” then amends it to “Tetris,” a video game where tiles in various colors and shapes drop in an accelerating avalanche, while the player tries to match them in the right order before they land.

Crucially, the structures also need sight-lines. Fans and players alike want unobstructed views, from multiple directions. And viewers are not just looking out. Thanks to roaming cameras and another part of the build, TV towers, millions are looking in. So sponsors have their vision-quests, too.

The biggest of those has created a distinctive clean look, echoing the vast White City of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893. It springs from the colors of American Honda, blue and white, and the need to be seen. “As we’ve continued to build down this line on 18,” George says, “we’ve noticed that a lot of the camera angles from the player’s second shot going into the green really pan out and see this entire run. On the white, the blue really pops. This will be a Honda logo on top of the tent, so every time there’s a shot from TV, you’ll see it.”

Under the structures, wide areas of grass seem submerged … in shade. Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy and head greens-keeper, will lose mower-access to these areas for the duration of the build-out and the tournament.

Don’t he and his crew have enough to handle just keeping the Champion and four other courses at PGA National in prime playing shape? As it is, they’ve had to over-seed the Champion’s Bermuda grass rough with rye twice, when the weather balked. Through the weeks leading up to the tournament and the final push of Advance Week, the groundskeepers will have exactly one full day, the Saturday before, to whip the course into final PGA playing shape.

From the 18th hole on this cool morning, Andrew George and Ken Kennerly head for the heart of the Honda, or at least the teeth and claws.

The Bear Trap, holes 15, 16 and 17, weaves among waterways and narrow greens, and it bedevils players and entices everyone else. In 2007, Mr. Kennerly says, he and former tournament director Ed McEnroe envisioned it as a signature, like Augusta’s Amen Corner. In its first year, the stands hosted 350 patrons.

“We thought it was the Taj Mahal,” Mr. Kennerly says. Now it holds 4,500. People come just to rub the nose or claws of the bear statue.

In full array, it’s party central. At this moment, it’s a set of steel poles capped in a large plywood platform pieced by palm trees. It will never, Mr. Kennerly promises, become the enclosed stadium of the 16th hole at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, but it will continue to grow, out and up. And the tournament staff will scramble to sell space and keep it hopping.

Marketing may prime the pumps, but the flow of services is human, and relentless. Those doing the planning and labor refer to the tournament office in PGA National as the “war room.” Every napkin, every sign, every railing and fold-out seat, Karla Wallace says, must be put in place, and she adds, “We have millions of moving parts.”

There’s a lot of money in the mix, too. “Total cost of the build is into the millions now,” Mr. Kennerly says. “Our total expense budget for the tournament is around $12 million. Our revenues are getting up to $15 million. Once we’ve taken the expenses out, every dollar that’s left over goes to the charities.” With the enthused stewardship of Barbara Nicklaus, her son, Gary, and their Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, the Honda scores near the top in percentage of income given to charity, setting records even in years (such as 2015) when weather and the absence of a certain Tiger Woods work against them.

On the day he committed to play in the Honda, ticket orders jumped. On the day he withdrew, staff and fans alike issued a collective sigh. This year, he had to withdraw again, citing back injuries.

Regardless, staff and workers are busy putting the finishing touches on a dynamo. This business, Mr. Kennerly says, is sales and marketing, and what they’re selling is not just golf but entertainment. It’s creating and sharing energy.

From his vision, Mr. Kennerly decreed not so much a dome as a box.

“I call it the Big Box theory,” Mr. Kennerly says. “It’s kind of the Sam Walton idea, what he did with Walmart. You create these big stores, and then Home Depot comes in and a PGA Tour Superstore. So, right away, we created the Wine Garden. We sold it to our sponsor. That was 2012. Then there was the military, what we could do to honor and recognize them, so the Patriots Outpost is a bigger box. I knew if we filled up 17 that energy would come out, you could really feel it, the players love it, as opposed to just 120 feet of sky suites.”

The biggest, loudest box spreads around the Bear Trap. Here, normal discourse edges into the raucous as fans boost their favorites or bet on longest drive or nearest the pin or whose caddy reaches the green first.

There’s no party here on this day, but there’s another buzz in the air. The rising tide of digital technology has washed over the Honda. No more phone zones. This year, outside normal decorum around greens and tee boxes, users of phones and electronic devices can talk and click anywhere on the grounds. And the phalanx of electronic scoreboards, including five of the Honda’s own and 11 from the PGA Tour, will be joined along these platforms by moving bands of light, the kind marching across the balconies of sports stadiums everywhere.

“People were telling us they couldn’t keep track of scores and players,” Mr. George says. “We don’t have a space to put the video board, so we’re going to have a ribbon board all the way around. This one alone, we’ll have about 300 feet of the ribbon board.”

A last surprise waits, just ahead.

Mr. George and Mr. Kennerly stand on a bare platform on the western end of the course, above the 14th hole. This, if you will, it’s the People’s View. It’s as good as any, here and maybe anywhere: tees, greens, fairways and players in full view, water and tropical landscape in full array, and everyone’s invited. It only stands to get bigger.

Workers scrambling now among the scaffolds have a small city to build, and little time. Not long before, Mr. George and wife Alexandra’s son Evan, age 18 months, was kicking a soccer ball across this bare platform. Walls and a tent-roof, added by workers from Proteus On- Demand Facilities, out of Atlanta, will be up within the week. Mr. George himself used to run in the morning and play enough golf to compete. Now, he says, “Especially at tournament time, any free moment that I have I want to zip home and see the family.”

That word resonates through the build-out. The main contractor, T&B, books a dozen rooms in local hotels, and Mr. George says many of the workers leave their families for a month or more. Others pounding the temporary structures into place, sometimes in cold rain or high wind or afternoon heat, are from Caribbean islands, from Mexico and Central America, and, he says, “They do a tremendous job.”

That might apply to the tournament staff, too. Karla Wallace puts it this way: “We have to really take control of our areas. We’re like family, and we get along really, really well. It’s very stressful at times, and we can always count on each other.”

To those passing through the turnstiles into the Honda Classic, that spirit may seem as invisible as the underpinnings of the build-out. Just as surely, they can rely on it. ¦

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