Len Ziehm On Golf

After 57 years Murle Breer is competing again on Ross Course at French Lick.

Erynne Lee accepts the champion’s $30,000 check after winning the Donald Ross Centennial Classic.

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – How significant is the first Senior LPGA Championship that tees off today on the Pete Dye Course here?

Well, it’s so important that Murle Breer was willing to come out of a long hibernation from tournaments to be involved in big-time golf just one more time. Breer is 78 years old and hasn’t even been playing on the LPGA Legends Tour, the senior circuit that has been the only avenue for competition for the players that got women’s professional golf on the sports map.

Breer, as the U.S. Women’s Open champion in 1962, was a welcome addition to the Honors Championship — a nine-player one-day event that was weaved into the Symetra Tour’s Donald Ross Centennial Classic that concluded on Sunday on the Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort.

“My daughter wanted me to sign up for this,’’ said Breer. “Her husband came and my grandson was my caddie. We had a good time.’’

Using a mixed bag of clubs garnered from her daughter and French Lick director of golf Dave Harner, Breer shot 86 and tied for sixth in the Honors event, which was won – as usual – by Jan Stephenson with a 3-over-par 74. She has dominated that category during the last four years that the Legends Tour has visited French Lick.

“I never got a chance to play 18 holes before today,’’ said Breer, who plays most of her golf at Wilmington Island Golf Club in Savannah, Ga.. “I have no excuses, but my score was horrendous. I was embarrassed.’’

Murle Breer, the 1962 U.S. Women’s Open champion, recounts her return to French Lick after 57 years.

There was no need to be, as Breer’s connection to this historic event was special.

In 1960 the Ross course was called the Sheraton Hotel Country Club and it was in the last of a three-year run as an LPGA Tour site. Breer was in the field for the LPGA Championship, a major event then and now, on that layout.

“I was a youngster. I can’t remember how I finished,’’ said Breer, who was single and played as Murle MacKenzie then. “What I do remember was that they’d had a lot of rain and all the cornfields were dried because the sun came out and baked them. The sun also baked the greens and they were slick. Trying to putt on them, that’s what I remember about French Lick. It was a different sport then, but the people were great to us.’’

Breer’s caddie in 1960 was Bill Kendall, who emerged as a long-time club professional in the area. Now retired, he works part-time at French Lick and was on gate duty during Sunday’s competition.

The legendary Mickey Wright won the LPGA Championship at French Lick 57 years ago, beating Louise Suggs by three strokes. The LPGA didn’t return until the Legends – a circuit of former LPGA players who had reached their 45th birthday – landed an annual tournament on the Pete Dye Course in 2013.

Jane Blalock, a former LPGA star, organized The Legends Tour and was second to Stephenson – four strokes back – in the 18-hole Honors competition on Sunday. Both Stephenson and Blalock will be back today to play 54 more holes on the Pete Dye Course in the main event. At 71 Blalock will be the oldest player of the 81 competing over the next three days in the first nationally-television (Golf Channel) senior women’s tournament.

Jan Stephenson is the Honors winner again at French Lick.

The best golf played Sunday, understandably, was by the much younger Symetra Tour players. Their 54-hole Donald Ross Centennial Classic focused on the final threesome. Erynne Lee, of Silverdale, Wash., defeated August Kim, of St. Augustine, Fla., on the third hole of a sudden death playoff when Kim hit her second shot over the green and took a bogey.

Kim shot a 7-under-par 64 in Sunday’s final round to earn a shot at Lee, who posted a second straight 66, in extra holes. Lee, though, took home the $30,000 first prize and with it a likely place on the LPGA Tour in 2018. Interestingly, Lee and Kim were 12-under-par over their regulation 54 holes. Wright was just 4-under-par for 72 holes and Suggs, at 1-under, was the only other player to beat par during the LPGA Championship back in 1960.

“This is an amazing place,’’ said Lee, who used her father as her caddie. “The golf course was in great condition and it felt like a U.S. Women’s Open golf course. I’m just glad the greens weren’t any faster.’’

Thailand’s Benyapa Niphatsophon, who played with Lee and Kim, finished solo third – three strokes ahead of everyone else. Winnetka’s Elizabeth Szokol, who was tied for the lead midway through Saturday’s second round, struggled in with a 75 and finished in a tie for 34th.

Erynne Lee shows her winning form off the No. 10 tee at French Lick’s Donald Ross Course.

Legends Hall of Fame gets four new members

Steve Ferguson, Sandra Palmer, Nancy Scranton and Dave Harner are Legends Hall of Famers now.

FRENCH LICK, Ind. – The Legends Hall of Fame inductions had been a seasonal highlight at French Lick Resort the last four years, but none of the previous celebrations was like the event staged on Saturday night in the Hoosier Ballroom of the hotel’s Event Center.

According to script the induction was to honor two more top players – Sandra Palmer and Nancy Scranton. When the emotional night was over, however, the Hall of Fame – located in the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel – had four new members instead of two including the first men accorded the honor.

Joe Vezzoso, vice president of resort operations, also welcomed Steve Ferguson, chairman of Cook Group, and Dave Harner, French Lick’s director of golf, to the Hall – a tribute to their leadership in creating the first Senior LPGA Championship, which tees off on Monday on the resort’s Pete Dye Course.

And that wasn’t all.

Vezzoso also unveiled what is certain to be recognized as one of the most impressive trophies in all of sports. Dubbed “The Fergie’’ in Ferguson’s honor, the trophy will honor the champions of the Senior LPGA Championship and reside at French Lick. The winner will take home a smaller version.

Among those in attendance at the rousing gathering were golf architecture’s power couple, Pete and Alice Dye, and Suzy Whaley, who will become the first female president of the PGA of America in 2018. Whaley will play in the three-day 54-hole tournament on a sponsor’s exemption.

“The Fergie” is sure to become one of sport’s most impressive trophies.

Ferguson and Harner were instrumental in bringing the LPGA Legends Tour to French Lick in 2013, and Ferguson was taken aback with the trophy named in his honor.

“I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I am. I don’t feel I deserve this,’’ said Ferguson before the enthused attendees gave him a rousing ovation to assure him that he was.

Ferguson in turn put the focus on the $600,000 tournament that will receive three days of live television coverage on The Golf Channel. That represents the first TV coverage of the women’s tournaments at French Lick.

“This is the inaugural event,’’ said Ferguson. “It really is important, a really important time.’’

Palmer and Scranton both lauded the French Lick staff and Legends Tour for the creation of the upcoming big event. Palmer pointed out the big events that have already been played on the resort’s Donald Ross Course. It hosted LPGA events in 1958-60, the last two being a major – the LPGA Championship.

“French Lick is one of the richest communities in golf,’’ said Palmer. “Women’s golf got a big start in this community.’’

Both players also looked back fondly on their starts in tournament golf. For Palmer it came in 1964 when she left her home in Texas in a car by herself for her second professional tournament in Baltimore. She went on to a star-studded career from there, the highlight of which was a victory in the U.S. Women’s Open.

“I’m just as excited about golf now as I was then,’’ she admitted.

Scranton got her start as a teen-ager in Centralia , Ill. She went on to win three LPGA tournaments, one of them a major, and leads Legends players with five wins on that circuit. She thanked French Lick for creating a Hall of Fame for the 45-and-over circuit.

“It means so much to us to be recognized,’’ said Scranton. “We appreciate that you see the value in our tour.’’

Scranton, who combines her Legends tournaments with the demands of being the mother of 12-year old twins, credited fellow Legends Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez fot getting her serious about golf.

“I didn’t get interested until I was 15 or 16,’’ said Scranton, who received a set of clubs as a birthday present when she turned 8 years old but wasn’t excited about that gift.
“Then Nancy brought so much focus to women’s golf. I started thinking that would be a good thing to do.’’

At 19 Scranton qualified for The Rail Championship, an LPGA stop in Springfield, Ill. Her father was her caddie and a friendship with Joanne Carner, another Legends Hall of Famer, started that week with some tips on the practice range.

The induction ceremonies led into heat of the competition in the unprecedented six straight days of tournament golf in progress at French Lick. The Symetra Tour’s Donald Ross Centennial Championship concludes on Sunday and so does the Honors Division of the Senior LPGA Championship, which will be played along with the LPGA qualifying tour’s event.

Both the $200,000 Symetra event and Senior LPGA Championship will be played at French Lick for the next five years.

The Hoosier Ballroom was the site of the biggest Hall of Fame induction ceremonies yet.

Here’s why the John Deere Classic is so successful in the Quad Cities

Just how good can things get for the John Deere Classic?

Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour event will be played for the 47th time from July 10-16 at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, IL., on the outskirts of the Quad Cities of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa.

That’s the smallest market on the PGA Tour but its tournament is the circuit’s best. Some may want to argue that, but the 2016 JDC was named the Tournament of the Year by the PGA Tour and the event also received first place awards for Most Engaged Community and Best Social Media Activation.

And that’s not all. The tournament received those accolades despite being pushed out of its usual July dates to avoid conflict with the Olympics golf competition in Brazil. The schedule conflict also hurt the tournament’s field, but that had little effect on the event’s success either.

Last year’s JDC, played in August, raised a record $10.54 million for charity and 491 participating charities benefitted from that. The tourney, known under various titles and played at different locations, has raised $81.3 million since its founding in 1971. Last year the tournament ranked first in per capital contributions at $28.10 for each of the 375,000 residents of the Quad City area.

The tourney’s volunteer base has grown nearly 30 percent over the last two years with 1,700 offering their services to the tune of 22,000 hours in 2016. And that doesn’t count the 750 boys and girls who participated in the tournament’s annual Youth Day on Tuesday of tournament week.

On the social media side the JDC’s Facebook page generated more than 150,000 “Likes’’ – more than any other event page on the PGA Tour—and the 38,000 combined followers on Twitter and Instagram was second on the circuit.

Most of the tourney’s great numbers came after locally based John Deere signed on as the title sponsor, and that event will be celebrated this year. John Deere will mark its 20th year with its name and financial backing on the tournament and the company has signed on through 2023.

Sam Allen, the chairman and chief executive office of John Deere & Company, earned an Evans Scholarship for his efforts as a caddie and played golf in college. His passion for the game are a big reason why John Deere and tournament golf are such a great fit but he insists that the event’s success isn’t just due to good sponsorship.

“You’ve got to recognize everybody that’s been involved with it,’’ said Allen, “and for the first so many years it was all about survival. It’s a great story from that perspective, that they were able to keep this tournament going without a title sponsor or the same title sponsor. That part of the journey was the hardest.’’

Now it’s not like that. Allen spent time on the tournament’s executive board when the partnership was evolving. John Deere was all in right from the start. The first contract signed 20 years ago was a nine-year agreement. A sponsorship agreement of that duration was unheard of at the time, but it was worth it to all concerned.

“We’ve emphasized that this is not the Quad City Open sponsored by John Deere,’’ said Allen. “It’s the John Deere Classic. The brand is first and foremost, and (the tournament) has got to end up shining the brand, not tarnishing the brand, and it has done that in spades.’’

This year the tournament is back on its familiar July dates, the week before the British Open, and it has an admirable defending champion. Ryan Moore used his victory in last year’s JDC to do even greater things. He was the last player named to the U.S. Ryder Cup team and he delivered the 15th and clinching point for the U.S. at Hazeltine National in Minnesota.

Moore has always played well at the JDC, which has called Deere Run home since 2000. Since 2012 he was tied eighth, tied 22nd, tied seventh and tied 24th prior to his win last year. This year he also played well in the first of the four major championships, finishing in a tie for ninth at the Masters.

This year Moore will bring his family – wife Nicole and two sons – to the Quad Cities in hopes of extending his run of 23 sub-par rounds at Deere Run. He shot 22-under last year with rounds of 65, 65, 65 and 67 and was bogey-free on the weekend.

“I want to go back and try to do the same thing this year,’’ he said. “(The tournament staff) has done a phenomenal job of making it a fun week, a family week, and really just a great event.’’

This year’s tournament will feature a record purse of $5.6 million with $1 million going to the champion.

“Tommy’s Honour” is a must-see movie for all serious golfers

I suspected finding a theater to watch “Tommy’s Honour,’’ the newest golf-themed movie, might be difficult and I was right.

The movie made its U.S. debut on April 14 when we were in the golf hotbed of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Much to my surprise, no theaters were showing it there. A few days later we were in the golf mecca of Pinehurst, N.C. No showings there, either.

Back in Chicago our plight was the same. Showings were extremely limited in the north suburbs, which was somewhat surprising given that two of the film’s producers – Keith Bank and Jim Kreutzer – are from Lake Forest. Finally, after eventually finding a theater showing the movie, we made an hour’s drive to Oakbrook and were among just four people in the audience for an afternoon matinee.

Don’t assume the movie isn’t worth seeing, though. Any serious golfer should see “Tommy’s Honour.’’ After all, it is the story of the father-son team from Scotland – Old Tom Morris and son Tommy — that really gave the sport its start in the mid- to late-1800s. A good case could be made that Tommy was the first touring professional.

Granted, the Scottish dialect used by the actors was hard to understand at times and some background in golf history was a requirement to fully appreciate this movie, which was based on a book of almost the same name by Kevin Cook. His title (called “Tommy’s Honor’’) just had a slightly different spelling. As is so often the case, I found the book – which came out in 2007 — better than the movie.

Still, the film received a warm welcome overseas. It was nominated for awards in two categories in the British Academy Awards.

“Tommy’s Honour’’ should be easier to see as it works its way out of the theaters and into other distribution areas. It’ll be a perfect fit for The Golf Channel.

Unfortunately, I suspect the next “required movie’’ for golfers will encounter the same difficulties that “Tommy’s Honour’’ did in getting into theaters. “The Founders’’ is the story of the 13 women who started the Ladies PGA Tour in 1950. Their story is every bit as important historically as that of the Morris clan.

I haven’t been able to find “The Founders,’’ but it has been in some film festivals and – like “Tommy’s Honour’’ — was well received in Europe. I have seen the trailers for “The Founders.’’ They contain some vintage clips of Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Louise Suggs and Patty Berg but their story merits more than just a few classic action shots from the “good old days.’’ Their accounts of the tough days in founding the LPGA is long overdue.

“The Founders’’ shouldn’t be confused with “The Founder,’’ another recent release profiling Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s hamburger chain. Only four of the 13 LPGA women who started the LPGA were alive when “The Founders’’ was filmed. Like “Tommy’s Honour,’’ I’m sure more than just golfers will find it well worth seeing.

Eglin’s Eagle was among the first Florida courses to lure Chicago golfers

A typical tee shot on Eglin’s Eagle course offers wide, tree-lined fairways

NICEVILLE, Florida – Every year we’ve made a conscious effort to visit some of the 53 courses on the Florida Historic Golf Trail. This Trail isn’t like many of the others around the country. Its courses are selected for historical purposes, and more states should create such trails.

The Florida courses must be open to the public for at least 50 consecutive years. Each has an interesting history. Some have suffered, some flourished over the years but all have survived. You never know what you’re going to get golf-wise when you play a course on the Florida Historic Golf Trail, but you know you’ll get a taste of what golf was many decades ago.

We’ve played 12 courses on the Trail, the most recent being the Eagle Course at the Eglin Golf Club, which is part of the Eglin Air Force Base nearby. It’s not the best course on the Trail – El Campeon at the Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills rates above it – but none of the courses we’ve played on the Trail have quite the interesting history that the Eagle does.

It was built as part of a resort in 1923 by a group of businessmen from Chicago. James E. Plew, founder of the Chicago Towel Company who also built the nearby Valparaiso Inn, was the leader of that effort and his cohorts reportedly included the infamous gangster Al Capone. The course was in the town of Valparaiso then and was called the Chicago Club of Valparaiso.

The members built their own nine-hole course before bringing in the architectural team of William Langford and Theodore Moreau to design an 18-holer. After they finished it in 1927 a trainload of 200 golfers from Chicago came for the grand opening. The course went bankrupt in 1929 and the name was changed to the Valparaiso Country Club.

Eglin’s clubhouse wall contains memorabilia from its early days as a get-away for Chicago golfers.

It operated as a resort in the 1930s, during which it was reduced to nine holes again. In 1937 the course was renamed Eglin Field in honor of an airman who had been killed in an airplane accident. In 1942 Plew sold the course to the U.S. Government and it is now part of what is a bustling Air Force base. Under the new ownership the Eagle was restored to an 18-holer that is ranked among the best military golf facilities in the country. The course was also deemed good enough to host a pro-am event for the top PGA players in the 1960s. (Doug Ford and Mason Rudolph comprised the winning team).

The course was named the Eagle after the F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft and it received a companion course, called the Falcon with nine holes being built in 1960 and another nine in 1989. The Eagle greens underwent a renovation in 2008 and the routing was changed after a new clubhouse was built. The present Eagle has five sets of tees, with the course playing at 6,861 yards from the tips and 4,484 from the front.

Even a week after aerification procedures the course was very playable. It has spacious, undulating fairways but walkers can certainly enjoy it, too.

The Eglin clubhouse is more than adequate for the wide range of golfers visiting the course.

Our golf team now has a Florida connection — Jason Bruno’s LinksNation

I’m happy to announce the addition of a sixth golf website partnership for www.lenziehmongolf.com.

Jason Bruno’s LinksNation.com is our first website partner in Florida. Bruno, from West Palm Beach, founded LinksNation in 2009 and is also a contributor to GolfLife.com as a PGA Tour reporter

While LinksNation specializes in course and resort travel features Bruno’s site will particularly complement our other member sites by providing equipment and apparel reviews. He is a five-time winner of Hampton ExecGolf events.

Jason Bruno and I hooked up at the Arnie statue at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Bruno’s career in golf started in 1987 when he worked in the landscape and turf field at Atlantic Technical College in Coconut Creek, FL. He was also on the agronomy staffs for the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic from 1992-94, the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion and the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. Bruno has also worked on course operations staffs, as a caddie and as a golf coach.

While at Atlantic Tech he also performed a redesign and construction of a par 3 practice center on the campus.

He joins our five website partnerships that have touched many phases of golf media from basically a Midwest perspective. Rory Spears’ Golfers on Golf is prominent on the radio side. Tim Cronin’s Illinois Golfer is emerging as a must-read online publication. Rory, Tim and I have functioned as a Big Three partnership since 2009 and our team has grown from there.

Cheryl Justak’s Golf Now! Chicago and Brian Weis’ comprehensive GolfTrips.com are travel-based sites with Cheryl operating from Indiana and Brian from Wisconsin. Cheryl’s upscale Golf Guide, has been produced annually for 15 years.

Dave “Links’’ Lockhart, Chicago’s premier videographer, rounds out my partnership connections. He’s been creating TV productions for over 20 years and they have they included three award-winning golf TV shows.

`The Elegant Mouse’ should be required reading for golf fanatics

Who is the smallest player to compete successfully on the PGA Tour?

My guess is that it was Bob Toski. He stood 5-foot-7 and his fighting weight in his playing days was just 118 pounds. There may have been shorter players, but none lighter.

Now 90, Toski’s stature in golf is that of a giant. As a player he won five times on the PGA Tour and six more times in other notable tournaments. In 1954 he was – at least arguably – the best player in the game. He won four times that year, including the World Championship of Golf at Chicago’s Tam O’Shanter club. The $50,000 he won for that victory helped him become the year’s leading money-winner with $65,820 – and that enabled him to erase a record that had been set by Byron Nelson in his epic 1945 campaign when Nelson won 18 tournaments including 11 in a row.

Toski didn’t stop after reaching the top as a player. He turned to teaching, and was – again arguably, I guess – even better at that than he was as a player. He was also among the first pro golfers to make custom clubs. Toski is in both the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame and the PGA Golf Professionals Hall of Fame.

All these accomplishments are crystallized in “The Elegant Mouse: The Bob Toski Story,’’ by former Palm Beach Post sports writer Brian Biggane. If ever there was a golfer without a victory in one of the major championships on his resume who deserved a book, it’s Toski.

Biggane and Toski worked on the book together and no less a golfing icon than Jack Nicklaus wrote the Foreward. Nicklaus called the account “truly an inspiring story’’ and I would be the first to second that.

Much to Biggane’s credit, he didn’t just let Toski tell his story. He dug deeply into the research end and interviewed extensively. Not only that, but he touched on a few topics that might have been on the sensitive side for Toski – notably a snub from the PGA of America in leaving him off the 1955 Ryder Cup team and a dispute with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman following a Senior Tour event in Japan in 1986.

Sam Snead respectfully dubbed Toski “the Mouse,’’ believing that the diminutive Toski’s competitive spirit and ability to drive the ball long distances created a likeness with the Mighty Mouse cartoon character of the 1950s.

“The Elegant Mouse’’ is enhanced by a wide variety of photographs, some dating back to the days when Toski was growing up as Bobby Algustoski, one of nine children in a Polish family from Haydenville, Mass. Toski’s rise to the heights he reached in golf is truly a story worth telling. The book initially may be hard to find in book stores, but it’s available through www.bobtoskibooks.com.

NEXT UP of the new golf books worth reading is “Gary Player’s Black Book,’’ which will be released on April 4 by Skyhorse Publishing. Lee Trevino wrote the forward for this golfer’s guide. It’s presented in the form of 60 questions with detailed responses from Player on his life, golf and business.

ALSO not to be missed is “Tommy’s Honour,’’ a movie that will hit the U.S. theaters on April 14. It’s an historical drama on the lives of legendary Scottish professionals Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom Morris. The movie was based on a book that I found an excellent read and the movie, which had its grand opening in June in Scotland, has already been named Best Feature Film at last year’s British Academy Scotland Awards.

PGA Tour’s Florida Swing won’t be the same without Doral, Palmer

The Bear Trap could foil many a contender at this week’s Honda Classic. (Rory Spears Photo).

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida – The Florida Swing of the PGA Tour season, which tees off on Thursday at PGA National, has changed dramatically from a year ago.

One tournament, known since 2011 as the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, left its home of 55 years at Trump National Doral’s Blue Course in Miami and moved to Mexico City. Another popular event, at Bay Hill in Orlando, lost its charismatic founder and namesake with the passing of Arnold Palmer in September.

Those represent big changes in the golfing world. Still, the circuit’s traditional run through the Sunshine State remains a significant part of the season – that time of year when winter starts turning to spring and the bulk of players from across the country warm up to the idea of pulling out their clubs again.

First stop of the usual Florida Swing – minus Doral – is the Honda Classic, an event with proven staying power but not quite the field it was hoping to offer. Honda is the longest-running title sponsor on the PGA Tour, dating to 1982. AT&T (Pebble Beach Pro-Am since 1986) is the only other PGA Tour sponsor that started its run prior to the 1990s.

The Honda Classic began as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1972. It’s been played at PGA National since 2007 when long-time Chicago resident Mark Wilson won the first of his five PGA Tour titles.

The Snake Pit, at Innisbrook, will be a dangerous stretch of holes for players at the Valspar Championship March 9-12.

This year’s tourney figured to be a gallery spectacular when Tiger Woods announced it would be among the first four events on his ambitious comeback schedule. Woods lives in nearby Jupiter, just a 20-minute drive away, and considers the Honda his hometown tournament.

Any hopes for a return of Tiger mania evaporated when Woods’ back problems surfaced again at the Dubai Desert Classic. After missing the cut in his first tournament at Torrey Pines Woods withdrew after one unimpressive round at Dubai. He didn’t even show up for last week’s Genesis Open in Los Angeles, an event that benefits his own charity foundation, and isn’t expected at the Honda since his representative, Mark Steinberg, told media members that doctors have advised Woods to “stay horizontal’’ until his back spasms subside.

Woods isn’t the only notable absentee for the start of the Florida swing. Dustin Johnson, now the world’s No. 1-ranked player after a run-away win at the Genesis Open last week, isn’t here, either. Neither is Jordan Spieth or Hideki Matsuyama, the tour leader in money and FedEx Cup points earned at this point in the season.

Rory McIlroy is back in the United States, but not competing here. Neither is Phil Mickelson, who played the Honda the last two years and stayed around to play in an event at nearby Seminole. The top six in the Official World Golf Rankings are missing, with Jason Day and Henrik Stenson joining the already mentioned Johnson, McIlroy, Matsuyama and Spieth. Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed are also taking the week off.

The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without Arnold Palmer could be the most emotional tournament of the 2017 PGA Tour season.

That’s not to say the Honda has a weak field. Defending champion Adam Scott, No. 7 in the world rankings, is here as are Sergio Garcia, last year’s runner-up; Paul Casey; Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. Thomas, with three wins already this season, and Fowler are both Jupiter residents.

Two of the more interesting entrants are Thomas Pieters, the Belgian golfer who tied for second in the Genesis Open, and Ian Poulter, who is rounding back into shape after being sidelined 5 ½ months with foot injury. Pieters, the former University of Illinois golfer who played so well in Europe’s Ryder Cup loss to the U.S. in October, is competing on a sponsor’s exemption. A regular on the European Tour, he could earn temporary PGA Tour membership with another good showing this week.

Scores at PGA National figure to be unusually low since the course got a good soaking from heavy afternoon rains that forced the cancellation of the afternoon portion of Wednesday’s pro-am. The players will enjoy the soft greens, at least in the early rounds.

The Florida swing gets interrupted after the Honda with the circuit going to Mexico City instead of Doral. The PGA Tour dumped Doral after hearing Donald Trump’s negative remarks about Mexico during his presidential campaign. Now, with Trump winning that election, there seems to be a making up period going on. Woods, Ernie Els and McIlroy all have come to Trump International in nearby West Palm Beach to play rounds with the new president.

McIlroy visited last Sunday for his presidential round, skipped the Honda and will return to competition in Mexico City. After that event the circuit returns to Florida for the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa from March 9-12 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill March 16-19.

Poulter, who lives in Orlando and had ties with Palmer through their connection to tournament presenting sponsor MasterCard, expects the tourney to carry on without Palmer’s leadership.

“I’m not concerned about it,’’ said Poulter. “The players will certainly embrace it this year, and they should. It’s obviously going to be an emotional week – not just for the family but also for the players, for the fans and for the media. This tournament’s going to be in good shape.’’

One reason for that could be a boost in prize money. It’s now up to $8.7 million, compared to $6.4 million at the Honda and $6.3 at the Valspar. The World Golf Championship event in Mexico City is at $9,750,000.

“Not that that’s going to be a big factor,’’ said Poulter. “We play for enough week-in and week-out. But that also helps. It’s going to have the same power as a WGC event. It’s going to have a very strong field.’’

To offset Palmer’s presence the Bay Hill stop will have five hosts – present or former players Graeme McDowell, Annika Sorenstam, Peter Jacobsen and Curtis Strange – and former U.S. Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, a long-time Palmer friend.

Our revealing inside look at the best in women’s college golf

HAIL TO THE CHAMPIONS: Furman’s women won their second tourney of the season at St. Lucie Trail.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida — We received a great inside look at women’s college golf when we volunteered to host a player participating in the Central District Invitational on the St. Lucie Trail course here. What an eye-opening experience it was!

Michigan State University hosted the tournament, and the players on all 14 participating schools were housed by local residents like us. Our player was Alice Chen, a junior at Furman University in South Carolina. Not only was she a delightful houseguest, she also proved a great player in winning her first-ever college tournament. (Alice had already been crowned the New Jersey Women’s Amateur champion).

Alice and I have something in common as far as our golf games go. After most of our tee shots our playing partners say `Nice drive, Alice.’’ Just a joke, folks.

Furman head coach Jeff Hull and individual champion Alice Chen had plenty to celebrate at the Central District Invitational.

Furman was also the run-away winner of the team title at St. Lucie Trail, much to the delight of two of the school’s most celebrated golfing alumni – LPGA legends Beth Daniel and Betsy King. Also on hand was another LPGA great, Meg Mallon.

Ranked No. 7 in the country entering the tournament, Furman appears a sure bet to get into the NCAA tournament and I’m hoping the Paladins (they’re knights on horseback, according to Chen) can make it all the way to the finals. They’ll be played at Rich Harvest Farms In Sugar Grove, IL., from May 19-24. I can take that favoritism approach now because head coach Jeff Hull told us afterwards that “you’re now part of the Furman family.’’

I’ve watched plenty of women’s golf over the years (four U.S. Women’s Opens, four Legends Championships, a flock of LPGA Tour events and 21 Illinois Women’s Opens), but not much at the major college level.

When flying isn’t a necessity this is how the Furman women’s team gets to its tournaments.

Hull drove his team to Port St. Lucie – a 9 ½ -hour drive – in a luxury Mercedes tour bus with reclining leather seats, surround sound, flat-screen TV and disco lights. I’d say that was traveling in style. The team played at a high level as well, posting an even par 864 in winning by 23 strokes over second place Memphis. Louisville, North Carolina and Maryland rounded out the top five.

The Furman team arrived in late afternoon on Saturday, played a practice round on Sunday, then endured a 36-hole session on Monday before Tuesday’s final round. It was all walking golf with most of the players using push or pull carts. Some, though, carried their bags all 54 holes. That made for a good physical test, and St. Lucie Trail is (my opinion) the most difficult of the four courses that encompass PGA Golf Club – the winter home for the PGA of America’s 28,000 members.

Furman has a long way to go before it can win the NCAA title at Rich Harvest Farms, but the Paladins – if they get there – will visit a course big in the history of women’s golf. Owner Jerry Rich hosted one of the most successful-ever Solheim Cup matches there in 2009 when Daniel captained the U.S. team to victory.

Alice Chen shows her winning form on her final tee shot of the Central District Invitational.

IT ZIEHMS TO ME: Couples, Daly are off to encouraging starts

The stands are empty around the 18th green at Broken Sound now, but they won’t be for long.

BOCA RATON, Florida — You don’t see this very often any more.

Fred Couples is healthy for a change, and John Daly is not only belting his tee shots further than last year, his drives are straighter, too.

Those two items are what matter most going into the start of Florida’s turn to host the men’s pro golf tours. Couples and Daly are here for the Allianz Championship’s 54-hole run that begins on Friday on The Old Course at Broken Sound.

The 50-and-over circuit moves to Naples next week for the Chubb Classic at TwinEagles. Then the PGA Tour arrives for three tournaments in four weeks. The sport’s premier circuit has the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens from Feb. 23-26, the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook in Tarpon Springs from March 9-12 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando from March 16-19.

That’s five tournaments in six weeks for the Sunshine State, and the PGA Tour will be back one more time — for The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra in May.

Charity benefactor Boca Raton Regional Hospital will be a big winner at the Allianz Championship.

NO FIDGETING FOR FREDDIE: Last year Fred Couples’ season was limited to three tournaments. Back problems, his nemesis for years, nearly wiped out his competitive schedule but don’t look for a repeat in 2017.

Couples started the year shooting 65-65 in the weather-shortened Mitsubishi Classic in Hawaii two weeks ago to finish second behind Bernhard Langer in a limited field event. Couples is also in the field at Broken Sound, his second start in three weeks to begin the new year.

Over the years Couples has tried a variety of cures to fix his sore back. None quite worked long-term, but he hopes a change in routine will keep him on the course more this year. Under the impression that he needed to keep his back loose, Couples would twist and turn throughout his rounds in the past. He’s since learned that such squirming might have exacerbated his back issues.

During the Hawaii tournament Couples admitted “Just physically I can’t stop doing it…. I wish I could because I might last longer.’’

At 57 – and despite his relative inactivity in tournaments – Couples may be the most popular player on the PGA Champions’ circuit. The tour needs him out there – if he could only stop fidgeting.

DALY’S PLAYING IT STRAIGHT: Last year, in a shortened rookie season on the Champions’ circuit, Daly led the tour in driving distance with a 303.6-yard average but hit fairways only 57 percent of the time on his tee shots.

In the Mitsubishi event, however, he averaged 310.5 yards and kept 75 percent of his drives on the short grass. Though his tie for 23rd place wasn’t impressive, Daly’s driving was much better than it’s been in years and he credits a new, unique driver for the improvement.

Daly started playing the Vertical Groove driver in Hawaii and spent last week promoting it at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. The company, which produces the club with vertical instead of the usual horizontal groves, has hired him as its ambassador.

“I’m hitting it so much further and straighter,’’ he said during one of his promotional appearances. “It’s like all I have to do is just aim and hit it. No spin. I’m hitting it straighter than my putter actually.’’

The practice range was a busy place, even though the Allianz Championship won’t start until Friday.

KELLY OPTS FOR PEBBLE: Jerry Kelly was to make his Champions debut here, but he opted to play in the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am after getting a spot in the field there. The Allianz field also lost an even bigger name when Tom Lehman withdrew.

Also on the WD list were Scott Verplank and Gil Morgan. Their spots were filled by Marco Dawson, Guy Boros, Willie Wood and Jim Carter.

MILESTONE YEAR FOR SLUMAN: Jeff Sluman, the only Chicago player on the Champions circuit, begins his 27th season as a PGA tour player this week. He contended in the Allianz Championship last year after a 69-67 start but faded to a 70 in the final round and finished in a tie for fourth behind champion Esteban Toledo.

Sluman his a birthday milestone when he turns 60 later this year but there’s no indication he’ll slow down. Last year he went over the $10 million mark in winnings on the Champions circuit.

BITS AND PIECES: The Allianz Championship is in its 11th year at Broken Sound but next week’s Chubb Classic is even older. It’ll turn 30 next week and legendary Gary Player will be on hand to hit the ceremonial first tee shot. Player, now 81, won that tournament in 1988.

Bernhard Langer notched his 30th Champions win at the Mitsubishi tournament and has had some success at Broken Sound. He has six top-10s in nine starts including a victory in 2010.

Pro-ams are on tap for both Wednesday and Thursday with double shotgun starts at 7:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. both days. Wednesday’s schedule also includes a special ceremony honoring soon-to-be World Golf Hall of Famer Ian Woosnam. He’ll compete on a sponsor’s exemption as will former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, NBC announcer Gary Koch and Tom Petrovic, a PGA journeyman who will make his Champions debut.

Youngest player in the field will be Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal. The two-time Masters championship and former European Ryder Cup captain turned 50 on Sunday.

Corporate support is a big reason the Allianz Championship has been a successful Champions event.