One prominent national golf writer recently called Ken Kennerly “the luckiest guy on earth.” And that was before the considerable resources of sports conglomerate IMG aligned forces with Kennerly via its April purchase of the Honda Classic.
Kennerly won’t argue the point. Since he took over as executive director of Palm Beach County’s PGA Tour event in 2006 and gave it a permanent home at PGA National, it’s certainly been a bit of serendipity that dozens of the world’s best golfers — including No. 1 Tiger Woods and No. 2 Rory McIlroy — have decided to call the Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast home. And landing a favorable spot on the calendar at the start of the Florida swing hasn’t hurt, either.
But the success of the event, its popularity among Tour pros, and its ability to attract not only the cream of the American-based crop, but as strong a representation of European players as any event outside the majors and WGC events, hasn’t come by accident.
When IMG went looking for a tournament to align itself with in recent years, neither was it an accident it settled on the Honda.
“In the last seven or eight years, the Honda has improved on so many levels,” Guy Kinnings, senior vice-president of IMG Golf, said by phone recently from his London office. “We have a huge respect for the people that run that operation, and when we looked at it, we said, ‘That’s the one, it’s perfect for us.’
“We talked a long while about it, but in my conversations with Ken I just came to a point where there was a light-bulb moment that we wanted in. So maybe there was an element of good fortune to it, but really, what’s happened is not through anything other than hard work.”
Change of career plans led to golf
An economics major who graduated from Dartmouth in 1987, Kennerly, 48, was looking for options other than Wall Street during his undergraduate years when, as a member of the New York Yacht Club in 1985, he was watching America’s Cup coverage from Australia on ESPN at 3 o’clock in the morning.
“I’m looking at my TV and seeing Budweiser spinnakers, and Merrill Lynch signage, and the other companies, and saying ‘What is all this?’ ” he recalled. “As I did more research into that world, I saw the kind of commercial exposure that we’ve now seen in every sport over the last 40 years.”
Kennerly headed south after Dartmouth and wound up at Palm Beach Polo, working as an intern for Executive Sports — a company he would buy in 2001 — at Johnny Miller’s Chrysler Team Championship, then broke into the player agent business under Donald Dell at ProServ. In 1993 he joined up with Jack Nicklaus at Golden Bear International, where he began working with golfers, before forming his own company, International Golf Partners, in 1996, where he landed players such as Hale Irwin, Lee Janzen and Jim Colbert.
“It was exciting, because the guys we had were in the hunt every week,” he said. “But we didn’t have a Tiger (Woods) or a modern-day Rory McIlroy.”
Continuing to round out his résumé, Kennerly branched into corporate event and hospitality when he bought EventLinks in 1998, then branched out further when he purchased the aforementioned Executive Sports in 2001. All of which led to 2005, when he was approached by PGA Tour officials about taking over the Honda, then being staged at Mirasol, just across PGA Boulevard from PGA National.
“They picked my brain about what I would do differently, and nothing against the old Honda Classic, but it was important we think out of the box and do things differently. Our approach had to be that we’re in the entertainment business, not the golf business. (PGA Tour Commissioner) Tim Finchem says that every day now.”
The proof of the transformation that has occurred in the seven years since is best illustrated by one set of numbers: Attendance, which was 45,000 before Kennerly took over, hit a record 168,000 this year.
Turning around Honda’s fortunes
The key to that success was not dealing with the Palm Beaches as distant suburbs of Miami or part of the South Florida urban sprawl, but an area unique and special in its own right.
“It’s important that Palm Beach County is a blue-chip community; it’s one of the more desirable places on the planet to live,” he said. “The moniker is ‘The Best of Everything,’ which I love, because in four words it encapsulates everything that we are. Because it’s not about affluence, it’s about quality of life.
“So we had to fast-forward the event to where it was a blue-chip property for our community, up there with the Kravis Center and Palm Beach Polo. Because golf is an economic machine, it’s televised around the world, the tourism impact is substantial, so we had to raise the bar.”
Kennerly’s first big strike was to move the Honda to PGA National, where Nicklaus had redesigned the Champion course in the late ’80s and former owner Llwyd Ecclestone was looking for a way to get his property back in the spotlight. His second was hiring tournament director Ed McEnroe, whom he had known when McEnroe served in the same capacity at the Royal Caribbean Classic on Key Biscayne.
“We (had) stayed in touch,” McEnroe said. “We knew each others’ creativity levels. Ken has such a good reputation in the industry, I knew he was somebody I wanted to stay in touch with.”
Don’t mess with the Honda
After a couple of years of modest success, Kennerly had another brainstorm when he offered a sponsor’s exemption to Englishman Darren Clarke. That began an influx that has become so pronounced that Chubby Chandler, the agent for both Clarke and Lee Westwood, now refers to the Honda as the “American stop on the European Tour.”
“I remember three years ago I went out to the (driving) range and it was all Europeans,” Chandler said. “They have the World Championship events (Match Play and Doral) before and after, so it’s an obvious stop. But it’s become a very good tournament.”
Woods, who was in the process of purchasing his Jupiter Island property when Kennerly’s first Honda was staged in 2006, joined the field in 2012. Other Tour stars who reside in the area and now consider it their hometown event include McIlroy, Westwood, Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler and Charl Schwartzel.
IMG’s Kinnings promises little will change about the tournament going forward. Kennerly, whose new title is Senior Vice-President IMG North America, said he’s been told the same, that the message has been “Don’t mess with the Honda.”
“We’re not going to hurt the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said. “Then take that with my 26-27 years in this business, my reputation, my team’s reputation, it helps IMG as well.”
As far as McEnroe is concerned, the Honda couldn’t be in better hands going forward.
“He’s the kind of guy where every person on his staff wants to overperform for him. He doesn’t just have your best interests at heart, but he cares about your parrot, your dog, your kids, everything. That’s very unique these days. It’s a thrill just to come to work every day, to work for a guy like him.”