Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, Luke Donald, had an interesting pairing in his two rounds at the Honda Classic last week. He played with Padraig Harrington, the European Ryder Cup captain when the U.S. scored its record victory at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits in 2021, and Zach Johnson, who will be Donald’s rival U.S. captain in this year’s Ryder Cup in Italy.
The trio got along well, though Johnson and Harrington survived the 36-hole cut and Donald – despite playing a rare event near his Florida home — didn’t. Given the contentious atmosphere in golf now that the PGA and LIV tours are both in action again, that was refreshing.
Granted, the next Ryder Cup is still months away, but there isn’t a more competitive event in the sport. Johnson, though, calls Donald “always a good friend, and to partner with him in this endeavor, in this distinct honor, is awesome.’’
The friendly vibes even go beyond the rivalry between two veteran touring golfers.
“It’s (Luke) and (his wife) Diane, for that matter,’’ said Johnson. “I love the Donalds.’’
The competitiveness of the Ryder Cup, however, won’t be lost in the sweet talk.
“We’re in this together,’’ said Johnson. “Bottom line is that we’re ultra competitors first. We’re probably similar in the way we approach the game, and our temperaments are pretty comparable….I’m confident in saying that we’ll both try to lead the proper way and let the golf clubs of our 12 players do all the talking.’’
Just who those players will be is a mystery.
Johnson knows he won’t be able to use players competing on the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Tour but Donald isn’t sure. The European powers that be are non-commital.
“There is some differences, some subtle and some substantial, between what he’s (Donald) going through and I’m going through,’’ said Johnson. “I don’t even understand it all with his team, but I don’t need to. I feel for him. It’s not the easiest thing to navigate. And I’m not sure what clarity I really have, to be honest with you, because it’s ever changing.’’
One thing is certain. Johnson’s game is better than Donald’s at the moment. Johnson finished tied for 12th in the Honda, his best finish in six starts in the 2022-23 season. Donald missed three cuts and tied for 40th in the Genesis event at Riviera in his four starts this season.
Both are in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill this week and Donald has a sponsor’s exemption to compete in the last event of the Florida Swing, the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor. Donald won there in 2012.
Before moving on from what was the final Honda Classic there’s some indications that PGA National will welcome the PGA Tour players again.
Florida native Billy Horschel was not happy that the Honda – the longest-running title sponsor on the PGA Tour – won’t return in 2024. The tournament began in Ft. Lauderdale, as the Jackie Gleason Inverarry Classic, in 1972. Honda was the title sponsor since 1982 and PGA National was the site since 2007.
“We used to have two tournaments in South Florida – here and Doral,’’ said Horschel. “Now we only have one, and we’re not going to lose this one. I’ve been told we’re going to stay here.’’
Difficult dates led to weak field at the Honda in recent years.
“You’ve got 30 to 40 PGA Tour pros who live within a couple miles of this place, and only a handful played last week. That’s disappointing,’’ said Horschel. “The PGA Tour needs to make sure this event is put in the right spot (on the schedule) so they get all the top players here on a regular basis.’’
Like Horschel, Jack Nicklaus – whose nearby children’s hospital was the Honda’s main beneficiary – also believes a tournament will be back at PGA National once new sponsorship is finalized.