And Away We Go! Unlike its founder, the vagabond Honda Classic is no longer a great one

March 18, 2002

Bob Heintz had his Jackie Gleason moment last Friday in the
players' dining room at the Honda Classic. Asked how he planned
to kill a long delay caused by Thursday rains, the 31-year-old
Heintz stuffed a piece of carrot cake in his mouth, licked his
fingers and mumbled, "Eat three desserts."

Gleason, rest his soul, would have loved that. The Great One
died of too much life almost 15 years ago at age 71, having
eaten, drunk, smoked or fondled practically everything within
his reach. He was best known for his TV shows and movies, but
Gleason was also host, from 1972 through '80, of Jackie
Gleason's Inverrary Classic in Lauderhill, Fla. In '82 the
tournament was renamed for a Japanese car not much bigger than
the luxury golf cart Gleason drove around Inverrary Golf and
Country Club. The Honda Classic has since moved four times, lost
its ability to attract the game's top players and generally
forfeited its cachet. At last week's tournament, at the
Tournament Players Club at Heron Bay, in Coral Springs,
officials announced that the Honda will move again next year.
This time, as Gleason did in his role as the frustrated sheriff
in Smokey and the Bandit, they're chasing the tournament clear
across the Broward County line.

Heintz, who was born in 1970, was asked if he remembered Gleason
in Smokey. "Absolutely," he replied. "He was always saying, 'I'm
in hot pursuit!'" When asked if he knew that the Honda was once
called the Gleason and that celebrities had flocked to
Lauderhill just to hear the Great One shout, "How sweet it is!"
Heintz shrugged and said, "Most people probably aren't aware of
that." The half-life of television fame, apparently, is about 20
years.

There are three reasons for picking Heintz to talk about the
Honda Classic's difficulty in finding a permanent home: As a
Yale graduate with a degree in economics, Heintz is smarter than
the average Tour bear; he spent the 2000 season, his rookie
year, writing an online diary about Tour life; and in a column
titled Top 10 Coolest Things about Being on the PGA Tour, his
No. 8 pick was "warm chocolate-chip cookies at the Honda."
Heintz, who reads psychological thrillers and collects chess
sets, had no problem coming up with a fourth reason to connect
him with the Honda. "We're both kind of vanilla," he said. "I
don't have much personality, and neither does the tournament."

Actually, the tournament has a history of quirky, spectacular
and historic play. John Huston won the 1990 Honda in
store-bought FootJoys after the USGA ruled that his
stance-building Weight-Rite shoes were illegal. The following
year Steve Pate won despite nearly losing his ball in greenside
rough on the final hole. In '92 Corey Pavin won by holing a
136-yard eight-iron shot for eagle on the 72nd hole and then
beating Fred Couples in a playoff. In 2000 Brian Gay missed a
chance to win because he waited more than the allotted 10
seconds for a putt to topple into the hole, incurring a penalty.
Last year a high school kid, Ty Tryon, qualified and made the
cut. And way back in '87, when equipment companies and rule
makers still got along, Mark Calcavecchia kicked off a nasty
legal battle by hitting a shot from deep rough that landed with
backspin, thanks to square grooves. No, the shortcoming of this
event has never been a lack of compelling action. It has been
that hardly anybody remembers where all these interesting things
happened.

It doesn't help that the tournament has had more homes than Ken
Lay. The first move, in 1984, from Inverrary to the TPC at Eagle
Trace, was about as popular as Waterworld. Greg Norman
complained of "carnival golf." Other players griped that there
were too many forced carries and greenside water hazards for a
tournament played in March. "Eagle Trace can make players look
stupid if the wind blows more than a breath," Heintz says.

After eight years the Tour tired of the whining and moved the
Honda to Weston Hills Golf and Country Club. Weston Hills had a
nice four-year run, but once the club's upscale housing
development was built, the owners saw no promotional value in
hosting a tournament. The Tour, planning to move in 1996 to the
new TPC in Coral Springs, asked for one more year at Weston
Hills. Unfortunately, the club had already booked a bar mitzvah
for the weekend of the '96 Honda, and the family refused to give
up the date without compensation, so the players smote their
foreheads and trudged back to hated Eagle Trace for a final
go-round.

Hoping to stop the wandering, the American Honda Motor Company
and the Classic Foundation, the tournament's designated
charitable organization, signed a 25-year agreement with the
town of Coral Springs and the TPC of Heron Bay. Alas, when the
Tour players tested the new course for the first time, in 1997,
they pronounced it boring. Course architect Mark McCumber,
remembering the criticisms of Eagle Trace, had softened the
contours of the greens and reduced the number of forced carries
to make Heron Bay playable in high winds. "If it blows, it's
fine," Heintz says. "If it doesn't blow, it plays like a resort
course."

The Tour might have ignored the complaints but for one thing:
Top players were skipping the Honda. Tiger Woods played at
Weston Hills on a sponsor's exemption when he was 17 but has
never returned. Norman, who lives just up the coast in Hobe
Sound, is another perennial no-show. Vijay Singh, the victor as
recently as '99, now sends his regrets.

It's not simply the course. Wedged between the Genuity
Championship and two can't-miss events, the Bay Hill
Invitational and the Players Championship, the Honda suffers
from the reluctance of the stars to play too many consecutive
events. Phil Mickelson was a surprise entrant last week, and PGA
champion David Toms and defending champion Jesper Parnevik
supplied some TV punch, but the Honda has become a fast check
for hungry-for-a-first-win players like Sunday's champion, Matt
Kuchar, who shot a 19-under 269 to edge a pair of veterans, Brad
Faxon and Joey Sindelar, by two strokes. Or Heintz, whose best
finish on Tour is a tie for 10th at the 2000 B.C. Open.

"Sometimes I feel as if I'm in hot pursuit," Heintz said last
week, picking up on the Smokey and the Bandit analogy, "but then
sometimes I feel as if what I'm pursuing is mediocrity." That
was certainly the case on Saturday afternoon, when Heintz pushed
into contention at 11 under only to fall back with three bogeys
in four holes before play was suspended because of darkness. "He
probably needs to clear his head," said Bob's mother, Elsa,
watching her son hike back to the clubhouse alone, a silhouette
at twilight.

Later, while Bob and his very pregnant wife, Nancy, waited for
room service and got Eryn, 5, and Phillip John, 2, ready for bed,
the erstwhile web columnist let out an exhausted sigh. A crabby
P.J. had kept him up all night on Friday, he said, and he had to
start his second round at the crack of dawn before going out
again for round three in the afternoon. "As I grow more fatigued,
I weaken mentally," Heintz said. "I start thinking about what can
go wrong instead of pulling the trigger."

Heintz's spasm of self-doubt will come as no surprise to fans
who e-mailed him letters of encouragement and the occasional
scolding as he missed 25 cuts in 34 tournaments and struggled to
184th on the 2000 Tour money list. One reader likened him to "a
kid standing in the main gate to Disney World and just staring"
and wrote, "I don't think you have the killer instinct to be a
professional golfer." The e-mailer added, "Please don't take
offense."

An angry Heintz used his column to fire back. "Do you understand
it is not possible," he wrote, "to tell a professional that he
sucks at his job and then ask him not to be offended in the very
next sentence?"

"I didn't figure on being criticized for what I wrote," Heintz
says. "I was trying to provide a lighthearted look at Tour life,
and some people inferred that I wasn't serious enough about what
I was doing. It hit me hard." In fact, Heintz sometimes felt like
throwing his laptop in the nearest water hazard. "Every Monday
night I had to write about how bad I was the week before. That
kind of beat me down," he says. He regained his Tour card in
December at Q school, but the three-time Ivy League champ doesn't
plan to resume the column anytime soon. "There are too many
experts at home behind their computers," he says.

No matter. As Heintz's swing deserted him last week, he served
up the usual polished analysis, saying, "The last two weeks I've
hit the ball better on Monday and gotten progressively worse the
rest of the week. I need to learn to peak in the opposite
direction."

There was, of course, no Gleason at the Honda to cheer up
Heintz. That was a shame, because in Gleason's day, when players
such as Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf won the
trophies and celebs such as Joe DiMaggio, Evel Knievel and Andy
Williams turned the heads, no chin stayed down for long.

"Jackie turned it into a party," says Cliff Danley, the
tournament's veteran executive director. "He called everybody
Pal. He drank, he ate, he smoked, he did whatever he wanted, and
by getting his Hollywood friends to come, he put Broward County
on the map." One year, after undergoing heart bypass surgery,
Gleason ordered Danley to bring five-gallon cartons of chili and
a couple of gallons of ice cream to his Inverrary mansion to help
him convalesce. "Jackie's idea of cutting back was switching to
filtered from nonfiltered cigarettes." Danley smiled at the
memory. "It was a different time, the '70s. Things were less
serious."

No one mentioned Gleason during a press conference last Saturday
morning at Heron Bay, but you could take the proceedings as a
sanitized, corporate version of "and a-way we go." Next year's
tournament, it was announced, will be played on an Arthur
Hills-designed course at the Country Club of Mirasol, a luxury
development in Palm Beach County. The following three years the
Honda will be held at a $10 million-plus, 7,500-yard Tom Fazio
layout now under construction at Mirasol. As for the 25-year
deal that had seemingly bound the tournament to Heron Bay and
Coral Springs, the parties have agreed to file that under
Wishful Thinking. "We really thought we had a 25-year home,"
said Classic Foundation president Cy Case, who acknowledged,
with a wistful shrug, that even a warm chocolate-chip cookie
sometimes crumbles.

Heintz, meanwhile, played his final round at Heron Bay as if
he'd been up all night watching The Honeymooners. "I hit, like,
four fairways and maybe half the greens," he said after shooting
a 73 and finishing 54th. "If it weren't for my short game, I'd
have shot 76." Asked if the blandness of the course had lulled
him off his game, he shook his head and said, "I don't have
anything bad to say about this course. It's gotten more
criticism than it deserves."

Without Gleason on hand to raise a glass to the parting Honda,
that had to pass for a requiem.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTO TRENDS Colorful past For the eight years that Gleason was the front man, the top pros and A-list celebrities played in the tournament. COLOR PHOTO: COLIN BRALEY/REUTERS Fresh face Kuchar, a third-year pro hungry for a first win, is just the sort of player who has contended in recent years. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Flip response Heintz, with P.J., was stunned by the reaction to his web column.

"Jackie's idea of cutting back was switching to filtered from
nonfiltered cigarettes," says Danley.

"We're both kind of vanilla," says Heintz. "I don't have much
personality, and neither does the tournament."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)