Veteran Florida golf writer Leigh MacKay takes a look at the Champion Course at PGA National, which hosts the PGA Tour's Honda Classic Feb. 25-28.
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The Champion is one of the great golf treasures on the Gold Coast of Florida.
The flagship of the five-course PGA National Resort and Spa, the Champ, as locals call it, becomes home during the last week in February to the Honda Classic, the first stop on the PGA Tour's Florida Swing and a magnet for an elite field.
As former Honda Classic winner and three-time major winner Padraig Harrington has said, "Outside of the majors, the Champion is the best course we play on Tour."
The legacy of PGA National's Champion Course
The Honda Classic has been played here since 2007, but the Champ has hosted numerous PGA of America events since 1982, one year after Tom and George Fazio opened its greens for play. It has been the site of the 1983 Ryder Cup, the 1987 PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship from 1982-2000. Golf Channel's "Big Break: The Palm Beaches," debuting in 2015, was filmed at PGA National and the Champion Course.
Golfweek has dubbed the Champion as one of the nation's "Best PGA Tour Courses You Can Play" and as one of the "Best Resort Courses."
The walls inside the clubhouse are filled with rare pictures and memorabilia of the events and the victors. If you love to play on superb layouts, play where the pros play and share a sense of golf tradition, then the Champion is the course for you. Six sets of tees range from 7,045 to 5,145 yards and allow you to choose just the right distance for your game. I like the blue tees at 6,373.
The legend of the "Bear Trap"
What makes the Champion an incomparable experience is the redesign of the Fazios' original layout by Jack Nicklaus in 2002. He invigorated the 18 holes by adding length and bunkers and by resculpting the fairways and the greens.
His piece de resistance was his "Bear Trap" on holes 15-16-17, the three most famous holes due south of Augusta National's Amen Corner.
Coined as a tribute to the holes' intricacies and to Nicklaus himself as the designer, this intimidating trifecta invariably determines the winner of the Honda or even a match among PGA National's guests.
As Jack himself has said, "it should be won or lost right here."
So, what can you expect?
The 15th plays at 153 yards from the blues -- 179 yards from the tips -- and shows a diagonal green running left to right with water all along the right side. A big bunker in the back prevents easy up-and-downs as the green runs away from the bunker and toward the water.
Sixteen is a relatively short par 4 at 391 yards from the blues and 434 for the pros. Well trapped right and left to present a small landing area, the hole demands a precision drive. Most of the tour pros use irons or hybrids. The second shot is played completely over water to a large, undulating and elevated green.
Seventeen, at 155 yards from the blues and 205 yards from the Honda tees, is an imposing hole. From both tees, all you can see is water in front and then a sliver of a green with a cavernous bunker on the left. Even hitting the bail-out area left of the green and short of the trap requires great skill.
Include the blustery and unpredictable south Florida winds and the pressure of the moment, and the Bear Trap leaves only the winners somewhat unscathed.
The other 15 holes are pretty special, too, and will require every club in your bag and all your talent as well. The course is always in immaculate condition with lush, generous fairways and large, rolling TifEagle greens that Stimp in double digits and roll true. The swirling wind, the ubiquitous water, the well placed bunkers and the abundant Florida vegetation only add to the golfer's appreciation of the round. The carts have a Garmin GPS for easy distance reference.
Amenities of PGA National Resort and Spa
PGA National Resort and Spa, which has just completed an extensive $100M renovation of all its facilities, also has four other championship layouts: the Palmer Course, Squire Course, Fazio Course and off-site Estates Course. The David Leadbetter Golf Academy, Dave Pelz Scoring Game School, and the Tour-level Club Fitting Lab complete the resort's repertoire.
The 379-room hotel has revitalized its outdoor pool and pavilion area and created the new Ironwood Grille and iBAR to make a total of nine on-site restaurants and lounges. The resort also boasts a luxurious European Spa, a contemporary health-and-racquet club facility with 19 Har Tru tennis courts, and nine recreational pools.
Getting to PGA National
The AAA Four Diamond resort is 15 minutes from Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), one hour from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) and 90 minutes from Miami International Airport (MIA).