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PGA National A Tough Test Of Golf

Upon hearing that some Honda Classic players believe the winning score this week could be around even par, Jack Nicklaus was thrilled.

"It'll be a challenge," Nicklaus said.

That's exactly what he envisioned.

He redesigned the Honda's new home course _ PGA National _ in 1990, then tweaked it again to get the track ready for its first Tour event since the 1987 PGA Championship. The result is a 7,048-yard, par-70 test, dotted by water and bunkers, tight fairways and rough that seems unusually thick for a non-major.

In some ways, it's even more demanding than the course's old home at Mirasol, the facility across the street from PGA National which featured giant sloping greens that were often criticized by players.

"At Mirasol, the challenge was around the greens. Here, the challenge is off the tee," defending Honda champion Luke Donald said. "You have to drive it very well. The fairways are more narrow than Mirasol, but the greens are much flatter and I'm sure they will get firmer as the week goes on."

Jim Furyk, the world's No. 2 player behind Tiger Woods, headlines the field; he and Donald (No. 10) are the only top-10 players at PGA National, although other notables chasing the $990,000 winner's check in the first event on the four-stop Florida Swing include Padraig Harrington, Davis Love III, David Toms, Chrysler Classic winner Charley Hoffman and Chris DiMarco.

Only a handful of players in this week's field have any real familiarity with PGA National, other than perhaps seeing some of the course's greatest moments in highlight reels, like Seve Ballesteros getting a halve of his 1983 Ryder Cup match with Fuzzy Zoeller by hitting a 240-yard 3-wood from a bunker on the final hole and getting up-and-down to save par, or Lanny Wadkins' 60-yard pitching wedge to 1 foot on the same hole for another halve against Jose Maria Canizares that helped the United States prevail 14 1/2-13 1/2.

To think those shots came when the 18th hole was easier.

It's now a double-dogleg par-5 that measures 604 yards from the back tees, a finishing hole that provides little relief after the three-hole stretch known in a nod to Nicklaus as "The Bear Trap" _ the par-3 15th to a diagonal green, the par-4 16th with an elevated green protected by water, and then the par-3 17th that's over water and has a relatively small putting surface.

"The course is tough," said Furyk, who acknowledged he's had some trouble this week reaching the longer holes in regulation _ and not all of those were from the farthest tees, either. "It's a good, solid layout.

And then there's the wind.

It's a staple of South Florida weather, and when it changes direction, fortunes of players typically follow suit. Arnold Palmer shot 63 here in picture-perfect weather during the second round of the 1984 Senior PGA; with wind whipping the course the next day, Palmer only managed a 79, but went on to win anyway.

When Donald played the par-4 10th _ a mere 525 yards from the back tees, possibly the longest par-4 in PGA history _ earlier this week, he needed driver and 3-wood to reach the green because of wind speed and direction.

"This golf course is set up like a U.S. Open," said 50-year-old Fred Funk, who won Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico last week to become the Tour's oldest winner since 1975.

Funk last played here in the '87 PGA, and his return got off to an ominous start. He lost his tee ball in the rough on his first practice hole, and said he "barely" found his tee shot on the second hole.

"The rough is really high," said Funk, who briefly led the '87 PGA as a club professional. "I didn't really expect it to be quite as narrow. I mean, it's really set up tough out there, I think. We'll see how it plays. Hopefully we won't get any rain because it's still playing a little firm, thank goodness."

The Honda will stay at PGA National for at least five more years after this, nd Nicklaus doesn't sound like he's done with changes.

Only two bunkers _ one on No. 1, another on No. 7 _ have been added in the last year, although Nicklaus said he wanted to add as many as 10 more, but simply ran out of time.

Bottom line: It's hard now, and will likely be harder in the future.

"We'll probably make some more changes next year," Nicklaus said. "This is supposedly the PGA's home headquarters and their crown-jewel golf course, so we probably should have it as good as we can."