How the Honda Classic’s former home faded into oblivion
The news came down in April of 2021. After a lengthy struggle for survival, my childhood home course was mercifully released from its misery.
Heron Bay Golf Club in Coral Springs, Florida, unofficially shuttered its doors in 2019. Before that, severe and lingering drainage problems caused the club to shut down routinely for several months of the year during the summer rainy season. And long before that, the once PGA Tour-owned-and-operated course that proudly hosted the Honda Classic for six years had deteriorated into something unrecognizable.
Heron Bay’s rapid disappearance, leaving the golf world behind after just 23 years, felt impossible given the significant advantages it had.
Powdery white sand turned into the Deerfield Beach shore. The tour-quality practice facility where I took my first swings had become a soggy field littered with stubborn mushrooms. A small but stately clubhouse fell eerily silent, although we still went inside to see my great uncle Ross’ hole-in-one plaque from when he aced the par-3 15th a few hours before my dad’s 40th birthday party. The greens Ernie Els once called the best surfaces a tour player could find in the competitive leadup to the Masters were now no better than what you could find at a local pitch ’n’ putt. The picture on the scorecard hadn’t changed since the Miami Hurricanes were dominating college football in front of sold-out crowds at the Orange Bowl.
It was time. Gone were the days of paying $10 to walk as many holes as we could after school, getting picked up in the dark. The dozens of lessons and hundreds of rounds with family and friends became nostalgic memories, like Friday night movie bickering at Blockbuster.
ClubLink, the Canadian course operator that purchased Heron Bay for $4.75 million in 2010 amidst widespread economic turmoil, sold it to the local water utility company for $32 million. Most of the land, which borders the Heron Bay residential community, will become a “stormwater management area” with walking trails, while 70 of the 223 acres recently was purchased by the bordering city of Parkland for the possible development of a family-oriented town center.
It’s unremarkable that another Florida golf course is being developed into something else. We’ve all read the autopsies on the thousands of courses that have closed in the past two decades – a trend that thankfully has slowed significantly in recent times – and this story is not about golf courses dying.
This is a personal search about a place I loved.
Heron Bay’s rapid disappearance, leaving the golf world behind after just 23 years, felt impossible given the significant advantages it had.
I wanted to know why it fell apart.
No. 17, TPC Sawgrass
The initials TPC hold a certain cachet.
Either owned, operated and/or licensed by the PGA Tour, these Tournament Players Club facilities are built to host professional events and provide world-class amenities.
TPC courses inspire images of island greens, stadium seating, lush fairways, immaculate and vast practice facilities, wide corridors with room for concession stands and strategically placed risk-reward holes meant to increase entertainment value. Fans recognize the venues from memorable moments watching on TV or in a gallery, generating an added layer of demand to play the courses. This past season, 11 tour events were held on TPC courses.
It’s why TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship and PGA Tour headquarters, can charge upwards of $840 per person and still have a full tee sheet. Or why TPC Scottsdale, home of the raucous WM Phoenix Open, is a part of most every Arizona golf trip.
Although Sawgrass is celebrated for its innovative design, most TPC courses aren’t necessarily built to appeal to golf architecture nerds; they usually are utilitarian in nature, often constructed with logistics, practice facilities, fan interest and planned communities in mind. They serve a distinct purpose. Operationally, TPC facilities led by the tour itself are some of the most respected in the world.
The idea behind TPC courses dates to former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who famously had the vision for stadium golf set in 415 acres of Florida swampland purchased by the tour for $1. Ground broke in February of 1979, and Sawgrass came to life the following year. It became the original course of the TPC Network, a subsidiary of the tour that was founded in order to create and maintain high-quality facilities that could host tour events.
Pete Davidson, a PGA professional from the Met Section, was tabbed by Beman to oversee Sawgrass and later was asked to manage the opening of other TPC courses. From 1980 to 2004, Davidson oversaw the opening of 28 TPC clubs that generated a combined $1.6 billion in revenue, including $260 million sold in membership, over that time period. Those clubs hosted 235 professional events during his tenure.
Although some of these courses are now admired, the ones built in the ’80s were widely criticized at the time for being too difficult, a factor that would play a significant role in Heron Bay’s story.
The model that Beman, Davidson and Vernon Kelly – the “godfather of the TPC Network” and a former tour executive – designed was fairly straightforward. The tour started by identifying certain markets where tournaments could be held, found relatively cheap land in that area, often worked with another developer that could sell real estate around the property and then hired a noteworthy course designer who could build a fan-friendly layout.
Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman were main contributors, and often other tour players were included as architectural consultants. When tour events are held on a TPC, the proceeds remain with the tour rather than having to share revenue with external course owners.
By the end of the 1980s, the tour collected a handful of TPC courses: Sawgrass, Las Colinas, Eagle Trace, Connecticut (later renamed River Highlands), Prestancia, Scottsdale, Potomac at Avenel Farm, Piper Glen and Southwind were among the first crop. All of them currently host tour events or previously held a professional event.
It was just the beginning of what would become rapid expansion, especially during golf’s boom period of the 1990s and early 2000s. Although some of these courses are now admired, the ones built in the ’80s were widely criticized at the time for being too difficult, a factor that would play a significant role in Heron Bay’s story.
“The greatest players in the world can play our golf courses, but they don’t enjoy playing them,” Beman told Sports Illustrated in 1990. “The influence of Sawgrass, the heroic philosophy, has led to disaster holes at every turn. You either make a birdie, or you make a 6 or a 7. We think we have a responsibility to change that trend. From this day forward, our philosophy – when we have complete control – will be to build traditional golf courses.”
Enlisting the help of a tour employee, it is believed there have been 51 facilities that have held a TPC designation at some point. Only 12 of the 30 active TPC facilities are owned and operated by the PGA Tour. Five facilities have a licensing agreement and are operated by the tour but are not owned by the tour.
These 17 facilities in particular are the most prominent clubs the TPC Network has in its profile, and virtually every name on the list is recognizable: Sawgrass, Scottsdale, River Highlands, Harding Park, Boston, Potomac, Southwind, San Antonio, Louisiana and Deere Run highlight the exclusive list.
Of the 17 venues, 13 have hosted a PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour event in the past three years. Almost all of them have been in the tour’s portfolio for multiple decades. (The other facilities are purely licensed, getting to use the TPC name as a marketing tool.)
As the golf industry entered a dark time in the late 2000s, the TPC Network went through a significant restructuring. For example, TPC Michigan, Piper Glen, Prestancia, Tampa Bay and Eagle Trace were sold by the tour in a package deal with Heritage Golf Group in 2007 under the condition that the facilities get to maintain their brand as a TPC course. Heritage still owns Prestancia and Tampa Bay, while ClubCorp (now known as Invited) bought Michigan and Piper Glen in 2019. Eagle Trace, which is located just a few miles from where Heron Bay used to be, eventually was bought by ClubLink in 2014 and converted into a public course without TPC branding.
It’s a mixed bag for facilities that have been sold off or lost TPC status. Some live on as rebranded public or private clubs in great health, such as the former TPC Starr Pass that hosted the Tucson Open in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Now Starr Pass Golf Club, the renovated course subdued a lot of its severe features and is now a favorite in southern Arizona.
However, many others have fallen sharply from the TPC standard.
Tampa Bay and Prestancia, for example, are reported to be in mediocre condition and have struggled at times. Eagle Trace, where the Thompson kids – Lexi, Nick and Curtis – lived off the 12th fairway and practiced endlessly, is a ghost of the high-end private club it once was. You can now play in-season for $50 instead of $250. In 2010, Piper Glen fell into bankruptcy. Two years later, the club defaulted on payments to a lender and became insolvent, although the private club in Charlotte, North Carolina, has revived itself in recent years.
In recent times, the TPC Network has added Harding Park, a public course owned by the city of San Francisco but operated by the tour; Danzante Bay, a visually arresting course at a Mexican resort; Colorado, a semi-private club set amongst the Rocky Mountains; Toronto, a 54-hole public facility that has received rave reviews; and Wisconsin, a private club that is spending $15 million to have Steve Stricker redesign the old Cherokee Country Club that is owned and operated by Cherokee Park Inc.
“Our assessment of new clubs focuses on strategic value, with the main two components being the capability to host a tournament across our tours and the market/location of the club,” a TPC representative said.
The TPC Network is rightfully celebrated. The tour has established tremendous facilities and, regardless of economic troubles with some of the weaker clubs, they essentially all live on with a purpose.
In my research, I could find only one former TPC course that closed permanently.
No. 18, Eagle Trace
Greg Norman called it “carnival golf” played on a “Mickey Mouse course.” Steve Pate said it was “not terribly fun.”
Paul Azinger was the most direct.
“The severity of this course takes the joy out of the game,” he said after finishing one shot out of a playoff.
They were all talking about Eagle Trace.
The course is part of the Honda Classic’s nomadic history. To understand what happened to Heron Bay, you have to understand what happened to Eagle Trace. And that means you have to understand what came before both of them.
The tournament now known as the Honda Classic began in 1972, replacing the short lived National Airlines Open Invitational in Miami. Comedian and actor Jackie Gleason brought the new event to his home course, Inverrary Country Club – a now-closed facility once visible from Florida’s Turnpike in metro Fort Lauderdale – where it was a smashing success.
Then called the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, the tournament had the single highest purse in golf at the time. Gleason himself subsidized part of that $260,000 prize fund to give the tournament momentum. The crowds were electric, especially those who came to see Gleason play in the pro-am with entertainers such as Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney. Joe DiMaggio and Evel Knievel came along. In 1976, Gleason even persuaded Gerald Ford to become the first sitting president to play in an official pro-am golf tournament.
Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Larry Nelson, Johnny Miller and Tom Kite were all winners during this period. Every top player was there, and the TV coverage was as good as there was for that era. Even the Goodyear blimp showed up.
Broward County, which was seen as the nebulous space between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties at the time, experienced a huge boom. There were about 620,000 residents in Broward County by 1970. The number had more than doubled by 1990.
Gleason’s presence played a role in the population swell.
“That sporting event did more than any other single thing to create interest in Broward County on a national basis,” local writer Larry Dorman wrote.
But the tour often butted heads with Gleason, a golf-cart-horn-blaring figure who pushed his way into the spotlight whenever and wherever he could. That was what Gleason did.
“Jackie Gleason was a Rat Pack of one,” said Cliff Danley, formerly the executive director of the Honda Classic. “He didn’t need six or seven other people. He was a party unto himself. He would play through everybody; it didn’t matter who you were. When he was ready to play, he’d hit that horn and go.”
Then-tour commissioner Joe Dey wrote it into Gleason’s contract that the event host couldn’t go inside the ropes during tournament play, a signal of the tension. Backed by the tour, CBS demanded a title sponsor in order to televise the tournament. Gleason didn’t like that, either, and the tour wanted to move forward without him.
Honda started as a sponsor in 1982, the event controversially pushing Gleason aside and starting anew. The brand kept that role until announcing last November that this week’s tournament will be the final time Honda serves as the title sponsor. It was the longest-running uninterrupted title sponsorship on the PGA Tour.
As Gleason’s influence in the event came to an abrupt halt, the tour was beginning its rapid expansion of TPC courses. Inverrary was too small for the growing TV compound, so it was time to find a new host regardless. The tour wanted to stay in Broward County, given what was established at Inverrary.
The city of Coral Springs was developed and master-planned by Coral Ridge Properties, which was acquired by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, an international giant, in 1966. In the early 1980s, Robert Kirby, then Westinghouse chairman, became an honorary member of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board and convinced Beman that the small city of Coral Springs – which at the time was in the middle of nowhere relative to its larger neighbors and had plenty of land to spare – was the perfect place for stadium golf magic.
The concept of Eagle Trace was nearly identical to Sawgrass in every way. Eagle Trace, which was owned and operated by the tour from the onset, was built on uninteresting swampland bordering the Everglades, in a city of about 40,000 at the time, a full 30-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale. Arthur Hills came in to design the course and did his best Dye impression, including an island green on a par-5, bulkheads at every turn and long bunkers that ran alongside water hazards.
Like Sawgrass, early reviews were harsh. Unlike Sawgrass, they never got better.
To this day, the course is punishing. There is water in play on almost every hole. The landing areas, built tightly between houses, are nowhere near big enough considering how windy it can get. Revisiting the course now is like going to a defunct sports arena that hasn’t been torn down yet. Behind the 18th green, there is still a literal wooden grandstand built into the side of a hill – a specific dream Beman had from the onset of stadium golf – so several hundred fans could sit. It’s gone mostly untouched for more than 25 years.
Some of the top players, notably Nicklaus and Norman, stopped showing up even though the tournament was just down the road from their South Florida homes. The fields weakened, and it somehow seemed to rain every year.
Eagle Trace turned out to be a bad location for other reasons, too. Honda officials constantly battled Coral Ridge over the use of parking and hospitality areas, which were quickly shrinking as residential real estate sold in record numbers. It became an untenable situation, so the Honda Classic and Coral Ridge cut ties two years before their Eagle Trace contract was set to expire in 1993.
The tournament was “rapidly slipping into a coma of negativity,” Dorman wrote for Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper at the time.
The tour needed a new plan to revive the event. There would be another TPC course, one that would be the opposite of Eagle Trace and many of the “contrived” venues built in the ’80s. It would be more playable in windy conditions. More land for hospitality. More logistically convenient for the players. Fewer houses infringing upon the course. Honda officials wanted to stay in Coral Springs after putting down roots in 1984, and there was still plenty of space available on the western edge of the city where the serenade of bullfrogs pierced the humid soup.
Tim Finchem, who had taken over for Beman as PGA Tour commissioner in 1994, believed that the path forward for the quickest expansion within the TPC Network was to add more daily-fee courses. TPC Las Vegas, Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach soon followed Heron Bay in a flurry of public TPC openings (the tour currently owns and operates only four public facilities: Sawgrass, Scottsdale, Deere Run and Las Vegas).
While Heron Bay was being built, the tournament would take place at nearby Weston Hills Country Club from 1992-95. The players generally liked Weston Hills, which was more forgiving and convenient than Eagle Trace. The best players showed up and won there, putting some momentary life back into the tournament. Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Nick Price and Mark O’Meara were the four champions. A 17-year-old Tiger Woods showed up on a sponsor’s exemption for the 1993 tournament but wouldn’t play in the Honda for another 19 years.
However, it was a predetermined short stay – just long enough for Arvida, the developer that owned the course, to successfully sell real estate and move on.
The new TPC course being built would be a long-term home with a 25-year contract.
But by the time the contract was meant to end, there would be no golf course at all.
No. 9, TPC Heron Bay in 2001
Mark McCumber seemed like the right person for the job.
A native Floridian and a 10-time PGA Tour winner, McCumber experienced a late-career renaissance in 1994 when he was the top American on the money list. When McCumber got the call to design Heron Bay, it wasn’t a massive surprise. At the time, his architectural firm had built 50 courses and he had personally designed 30 of them. McCumber, a devout Jehovah’s Witness who spent three years after high school as a full-time door-to-door preacher, spoke passionately about his burgeoning business – and it picked up rapidly after he played well in 1994.
“People think you’re a lot smarter when you start winning,” he said jokingly at the time.
In 1995, McCumber played 19 events on the tour while managing five design projects. He also had three young kids, including 3-year-old Tyler, who would go on to reach the tour a couple of decades later.
“Of course I’m a little nervous, but I’m happy with what we’ve got. I’m convinced the approach we’re taking is the right one.” –Mark McCumber
Despite having to manage such a chaotic schedule, McCumber was confident in Heron Bay. The course would be wide, so it could be played in the wind. The main defense would be 103 gaping bunkers, all with shallow lips, that eventually would be combined with others later in the process. (My uncle still has a Heron Bay hat with large “98 bunkers” embroidered on the side. Part of the broader marketing strategy revolved around getting everyone fired up about how much sand was on the course.)
“I know some players won’t like it, because when you have so many different tastes you can’t make everyone happy,” McCumber, who declined comment for this story, said in 1995. “Of course I’m a little nervous, but I’m happy with what we’ve got. I’m convinced the approach we’re taking is the right one.”
Finchem publicly displayed confidence on many occasions.
“We’ve all agreed that this is the long-term home of the tournament,” he said a year before Heron Bay was scheduled to host the Honda Classic.
But before the course opened its doors, there were problems so insidious that Heron Bay was doomed, even if the general public wasn’t aware of the issues.
The first part was more cosmetic, yet symbolic of a troubled future.
Heron Bay was meant to host the 1996 Honda Classic, taking over for Weston Hills. Just five months before the tournament, the course was deemed unready to host. More than 60 inches of rain fell from June to November, stunting the seeding and sodding process. Although the course would open for public play in March of 1996, there was unanimous agreement before that point that the course wouldn’t have been ready to host a tour event. Honda took a financial hit, losing incentives and benefits from Coral Springs and incurring increased costs, but it was seen as necessary short-term pain in the process of laying down long-term roots.
The 1996 event was expected to return to Weston Hills, and Weston Hills was open to hosting. However, in 1993, two bar mitzvahs had been booked during what would be the 1996 tournament dates. The tournament tried to reach a settlement with the families to move the bar mitzvahs to either the weekend before or after – both of which were available – but the families refused. The celebrations had hundreds of guests coming to the clubhouse, and it wouldn’t be possible to host a tour event concurrently with the bar mitzvahs.
So Weston Hills and Heron Bay couldn’t host. Inverrary was long past its prime.
Oh, no. Cue the carnival music.
“When we end up at Eagle Trace, it’s not because we want to be there,” Danley, the Honda’s executive director, said at the time.
Tim Herron won by four strokes, over McCumber. And yes, it rained heavily one more time.
But despite having to reverse course momentarily to a much-maligned venue, there was still ample room for optimism as the tournament looked to the future.
Little did the public know, Heron Bay had a more significant problem than being unable to host the 1996 event.
In a conversation with a former “day one” TPC Heron Bay employee, I learned part of why it became lampooned as one of the worst-designed golf courses in modern history.
Coral Ridge, the developer that built Eagle Trace, was also the original owner of the land that had been working alongside the tour to create Heron Bay. Their goal, of course, was to sell houses. But the common sentiment at the time of construction was that Heron Bay had the parking, hospitality and space advantages that Eagle Trace didn’t have, and the golf course would be a significant improvement upon Eagle Trace.
Everything was going along smoothly – including McCumber being in place and plenty of funding available for the design – until the developer was unexpectedly bought by a group of investors led by Tampa businessman Al Hoffman for $556 million in July of 1995.
Coral Ridge, then known as WCI Communities, suddenly became uninterested in a great golf course and cut upwards of 20 percent of the course’s design budget during the most important time in the construction process.
“It changed the scope of the project, and it changed the financial backing of the project,” the source explained to me.
The land was flatter than the ice that would soon be put in at the new Florida Panthers hockey arena 15 minutes down the Sawgrass Expressway. A lot of the money that was meant specifically to create a stadium style with more land movement was removed from the budget.
There was only so much McCumber could do. And what he could do was create a course design that would be publicly and privately mocked immediately once players got onto the property in 1997.
“(McCumber) had marching orders,” the former employee said. “He had a flat piece of property off the Everglades, that quite honestly, I said to myself shortly after I got there, ‘I’m not sure there should be a golf course here.’ ”
The tour moved forward despite being caught in a losing battle with the developer. Heron Bay had a 25-year facility management agreement with PGA Tour Properties, and the Honda Classic also had a 25-year agreement with PGA Tour Properties. In the fall of 1997, the tour purchased the course to become the owner and operator.
At the time, it was just the ninth TPC course fully owned by the tour. (The previous eight up to that point are still among the current 12 owned by the tour. Six of them have hosted a tour event in the past two years.)
“The main reason the tour bought it was because they had a commitment to Honda,” the former employee said. “And Honda was still making a commitment to stay at Heron Bay at the time because Broward was home for them. … They wouldn’t have bought it without Honda’s interest. And once Honda wasn’t interested, they didn’t need it.”
The tour had something specific in mind with its Heron Bay daily-fee model. A $25 million, 224-room Radisson hotel was built just a pitching wedge away from the ninth green so players could stay on-site. Media, player dining and other operations were run out of the hotel, while the clubhouse included necessities for the other 51 weeks of the year. It was seen as extremely valuable for players to stay on-site, a strategy that went on to work at places like TPC San Antonio. Snowbirds would flock to the hotel and golf course in the winter, it was believed.
The practice facility and surrounding areas could fit a college football stadium, let alone corporate hospitality and galleries. Parking was no issue, either. There were tons of empty fields surrounding the property, all of which have since been developed. We lived a couple of miles away; my brothers and I would go to the vacant fields to shoot off bottle rockets.
The city, up against the edge of the Everglades, was growing like a swamp fire and figured to grow alongside the tournament.
To the public, it felt like a long-term home.
Everything felt right from the outside. Everything except the golf course.
Phil Mickelson during the 2002 Honda Classic at TPC Heron Bay
One of my close friends – a former college golfer who would play eight days a week if he could – once likened Heron Bay to a series of Tinder dates in which each girl stares at her phone throughout the entire night.
“It’s the single worst-designed course ever built,” he opined.
I should note that it wasn’t all disastrous. There were six Honda Classics held at Heron Bay from 1997 to 2002. Only one of the six winners finished their careers with less than five tour wins, and the six players combined for 72 tour wins. Stuart Appleby (9), Mark Calcavecchia (13), Vijay Singh (34), Dudley Hart (2), Jesper Parnevik (5) and Matt Kuchar (9) made for a solid list of champions. Junior golf participation experienced a significant boom in the area, and the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County and other local charities were helped greatly at a time when Coral Springs was growing exponentially.
It’s also vital to say that, similar to the present day, the Honda Classic was laboring through an identity crisis and poor positioning on the calendar when it reached Heron Bay. Doral had just invested $6 million in renovations to the Blue Monster, and most of the top players showed up there the week before Honda because it had a higher purse. Bay Hill, which was the week after Honda, was also increasingly popular with Arnold Palmer as host, and of course the Players Championship always received the best players. The Tampa Bay Classic, now the Valspar Championship, was added as a fall event in 2000, creating more competition on the Florida Swing. Also, the tour invested heavily in the West Coast Swing at the time, meaning more players were competing in California just before the Florida Swing. There was even a “King of the Swing” bonus prize for the top finisher on the West Coast.
To put it generously, the course could never overcome that stacked deck. While the tournament had seven of the top 20 players in the world by its second year, the competitors openly criticized the layout, the stars rarely came to play and the fields got progressively worse. And again, it somehow rained buckets during an otherwise pleasant time of the year.
Set amongst a canal system that separated homes from the course, seemingly every hole was a dead-flat fairway and green surrounded by a sea of white sand (14 acres of sand, to be exact). Water came into play on only three holes, which is virtually unheard of for a Florida golf course. The water supply company, the same one that bought the property recently, had strict rules about water levels and what could be altered.
It ranked high in playability and didn’t frustrate players like Eagle Trace did, but there was no strategy to the place. The tee boxes, fairways, bunkers and greens were nondescript, and there was not a single tree in play, at least for the pros. Only two holes had a meaningful dogleg, and more than half of the holes were as straight as a golf shaft.
“It’s a flat piece of land and no matter what you do, it is going to be a pretty flat golf course.” — Davis Love III, stating the painfully obvious
In 1997, the tour came out with a computer game that featured Heron Bay. The par-4 sixth hole – straight and flat, naturally, with massive bunkers on each side of the fairway and nearly identical bunkers on each side of the green – was described as “quintessential target golf.”
That is one way to put it.
The greens were indeed in beautiful shape, as Els stated, and the overall conditioning was lauded. There were plenty of cool birds, including the course’s namesake. Beyond that, there wasn’t much more that could be said about it. Everyone involved had whiffed, except the developer. The tournament took place with massive sand dunes in the background where homes would be built, and real estate sold quickly.
“It’s kind of boring,” said Singh, the 1999 champion, who declined to show up two years after he had won.
“It’s a flat piece of land and no matter what you do, it is going to be a pretty flat golf course,” said Davis Love III, stating the painfully obvious.
“Eagle Trace could make players look stupid if the wind blows more than a breath,” Bob Heintz said. “If it doesn’t blow at Heron Bay, it plays like a resort course.”
Because of its relationship with Honda and the vision for daily-fee TPC golf, the tour never wavered. It went the other way, actually.
Early on, Finchem went on a diatribe about how happy the tour was with Heron Bay, pointing to course conditions, improving fields and the new hotel on site.
“The best players in the world think it’s a good golf course,” he said during the hotel groundbreaking in 1997.
“We have a really good field this year,” Finchem would say a year later. “That’s a product of a good golf course. I think the word has gotten around to players. I think the entire Florida Swing will continue to develop, and I think what you will see is a balance of good fields all four weeks in Florida.”
That never came to fruition. The tour, initially having promised extensive facelifts to fix the course, appeared to abandon ship once it became evident that Honda Classic officials seemed progressively more interested in moving the event north to Palm Beach County, where the money was.
Some small fixes were made along the way but nothing that could transform Heron Bay into something it wasn’t.
The struggles devastated McCumber and Coral Springs. The fan support was strong and there were plenty of storylines to go around during the last two years of the tournament, including the high point for 16-year-old Ty Tryon, John Daly reappearing from the wilderness and Kuchar winning his first tour event. But everything already had been settled by that point.
Northwest Broward County had been built out. Those empty fields disappeared quickly.
So did TPC Heron Bay.
Those reading this story probably will be familiar with the Honda Classic’s history after Heron Bay.
The 25-year contract with Heron Bay had an escape clause, of course, and the tour pressured Honda to find a new venue. At one point, the tour even suggested that Honda should take over sponsorship of the Tucson Open. Instead, the tournament left for the Country Club of Mirasol in 2003, eventually crossing PGA Boulevard to find shelter at PGA National in 2007.
Jack Nicklaus became the face of the event, and the Champion Course gave the tournament an identity. Fan support had become arguably the second-best on tour behind the Phoenix Open. More than 200,000 spectators show up every year now. Attendance was about 83,000 in 2007 when the tournament moved.
The Honda Classic went on a tremendous run until the past few years, when the evolving pro golf calendar put the event in a bind. The Players Championship returned to March, and the WGC-Match Play and Tiger-led Genesis Invitational received more attention. The Honda was squeezed.
This season includes a series of “designated” events that will attract the top players, and the Honda Classic is not one of them. In a span of five weeks that includes the Phoenix Open, Genesis Invitational, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship, the Honda Classic is the only non-designated event. That makes it easy for the best players to skip it.
Presumably, the tournament could land occasional designated status in the future – but it also needs a title sponsor to keep going. There is speculation that the event could move to a date earlier in the year, away from PGA National.
Heron Bay’s post-Honda history is a lot less exciting.
In the few years after the tournament left, the course conditioning was strong and the tour operated the club at a high level: thriving junior program, full tee sheet and a packed range, which was an accomplishment considering the large size of the practice facility. The course received a substantial amount of first-time play from those snowbirds on winter golf trips.
Drainage remained a problem, however, an issue that traces to the slashed funding. The course seemingly was always in cart-path-only mode, asking players to slog through mud after heavy rains. With virtually no run-off areas or undulation, Heron Bay didn’t handle rain well. The tour would have needed to invest a considerable amount to fundamentally alter the course.
By the time the economy turned south, the lowered maintenance budget couldn’t keep a respectable course. Heron Bay was set up to charge north of $100 per adult in season. It’s what helped maintain the practice facility, clubhouse and a course that needed decent conditions to overcome a bare-bones design.
WCI Communities set a record for revenue in 2001, coinciding with the Honda Classic being at Heron Bay. In 2005, Hoffman resigned to be President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Portugal. The next year, profit dived from $185 million to $9 million. By 2008, WCI had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, from which the company would later emerge.
When ClubLink purchased the course from the tour in 2010, it made some attempts to salvage it, although Heron Bay members with whom I spoke claim it was badly mismanaged. At one point, ClubLink installed new Champion Bermudagrass greens that cost $200,000. The nines were flipped so that the first tee would be next to the clubhouse instead of a long cart ride to the edge of the property. It didn’t matter.
“If you land in the rough, your ball is gone,” someone wrote. “The red ants are everywhere. Wouldn’t let my ex-mother-in-law play there.”
Even the kitchen was dysfunctional, racking up 155 health-code violations from 2013 through its closing.
The conditions got significantly worse. Green fees went down. Better options came along, such as nearby Osprey Point and the successfully renovated Country Club of Coral Springs. Less fortunate golf courses were getting picked off by developers.
Course reviews on various rating sites grew increasingly humorous or sad, depending on the reader’s perspective.
“If you land in the rough, your ball is gone,” someone wrote. “The red ants are everywhere. Wouldn’t let my ex-mother-in-law play there.”
ClubLink now runs the Dixie Amateur, which dates to 1924. The tournament actually stayed at Heron Bay throughout the club’s dying years, with Daniel Berger, Brandon Matthews and Curtis Thompson, all future tour players, winning. But other than that, there is not much history from the post-Honda Classic era. For a spell, Bernhard Langer used to post up on the back of the range and hit a million balls. Mike Donald, the 1990 U.S. Open runner-up, lived in an apartment across the street, so he would practice regularly. Sean O’Hair met his wife on the practice green.
Now there are expensive homes overlooking fields of nothing. A home that recently sold for $2.3 million used to have a view of the par-5 ninth hole. Dozens of homes with golf-course views are worth well north of $1 million.
There is an ongoing argument about whether an entertainment plaza should be developed in front of a gated community. How will it affect the traffic and property values? They’re typical questions that are debated when people fight over golf-course land.
“We bought our homes knowing that nothing could be built on the golf course for 30 years,” said Heron Bay homeowner Neil Bass, a leader of a local group that filed a lawsuit against commercial development on the land.
Naturally, it’s come to this.
Maybe it was through this research, but I feel a sense of closure about the place that was a second home to me as a child. And I won’t choose to remember Heron Bay for sold houses, a comically terrible design or a lost golf course that the tour couldn’t fix.
I’ll remember it for my formative years where some of my most cherished golf memories took place.
Now it’s time for something else to be put in its place. And, it turns out, there will be something beautiful.
A memorial area has been approved to honor the 17 victims of the tragic Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that took place less than two miles from the course in February of 2018. Something far more important than any golf course: a place of remembrance. It will be on the driving range, yards from where I and many others held a golf club for the first time.
I hope it’s a place for recalling happy, comforting memories.
Photos: No. 18, Heron Bay Golf Club (Chad Spencer, PGA Tour Archive via Getty Images); No. 17, TPC Sawgrass (Barbara Ivins-Georgoudiou, Global Golf Post); No. 18, Eagle Trace (TPC Scenics PGA Tour Archive via Getty Images); No. 9, TPC Heron Bay (Dick Durance II, PGA Tour via Getty Images); Phil Mickelson (Scott Halleran, Getty Images)