Arnie's tournament gets the prime spot in Florida Swing

For 20 years, players could set their watches by the Florida Swing, the four-tournament PGA Tour run through the state that was as entrenched as snowbirds and early-bird specials.

Now, as players flock to Florida for a four-tournament schedule that was greatly revamped last year, more change is coming.

For the second time in three years, the order of the events will be altered in 2009, meaning two World Golf Championship events will be played within three weeks and the Arnold Palmer Invitational will get the much-desired last spot among the foursome.

The PGA Tour has yet to announce the schedule change, but the three tournament directors whose events are affected all said they have been told of their new dates for next year.

"We're, in essence, getting what we hoped we might get a couple of years ago,'' said Scott Wellington, tournament director of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. "For us, being a couple of weeks before the Masters is good. Deeper into March, weather-wise, is a little better potentially. Net-net, it's a good move for us.''

Florida has seen some dramatic change in recent years. From 1987 through 2006, the order of the four tournaments was exactly the same: The Doral event in Miami, followed by the Honda Classic in the Fort Lauderdale area, Bay Hill and then the Players Championship at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach.

For years, the Florida Swing was viewed by many as the unofficial start to the season. Many of the international players skipped the West Coast events and began their seasons at Doral, which gave them a month of warm-weather events to get ready for the Masters.

But the advent of the World Golf Championship events -- specifically the Match Play Championship -- a decade ago began a change in player habits. And when the tour revamped its entire schedule in 2007, moving the Players Championship from March to May, it created an opening in Florida and shuffling of tournaments.

The PODS Championship, formerly the Chrysler Championship, in Palm Harbor, Fla., moved from the fall to a spring date and fell behind Honda, which moved from second to first. The Arnold Palmer Invitational kept its spot in the third week, with Doral moving from first to last. Doral was also changed from a regular PGA Tour event to a WGC and renamed the CA Championship at Doral. That is the same order that will be used this year.

Next year's order: Honda, CA Championship, PODS and Arnold Palmer.

Ed Moorhouse, co-chief operating officer for the PGA Tour, said a scheduling conflict with a tennis tournament in Miami and other factors contributed.

"It's not uncommon for us to adjust our schedule, and as it relates to Florida, we thought a rotation would work better,'' Moorhouse said. "We decided to try this one. … We just think there is a good flow for next year. Nothing is set in stone, and we'll take a look and see how it goes.''

"We had made some strong overtures when we knew they were going to move the Players Championship, Mr. Palmer included,'' Wellington said. "We looked at their old date as one that was attractive to us. Knowing they moved a WGC event in there in the interim was disappointing. But going forward, it's a good move for us.''

It also appears to be a good move for Doral, according to executive director Eddie Carbone.

"With the dates in 2009 being in that time period, it gets us a little bit away from the Sony Ericsson tennis event,'' Carbone said. "Last year we shared a lot of fans. It seems like a positive thing within this market.

"And for many years, Honda followed the Doral stop. Now we'll follow them. So it does make some sense as we are just 86 miles apart.''

What is unclear is how the moves will affect the Honda and PODS events. Honda will now be sandwiched by two WGC events, nearly must-play tournaments for the top players in the world. And the PODS tournament has other issues. PODS is leaving as title sponsor after the March 6-9 event at the Innisbrook Golf Resort and a new title sponsor must be found for the tournament to be included next spring.

"We've been told by the PGA Tour on numerous occasions that we are a top priority to find title sponsorship,'' said PODS tournament director Gerald Goodman. "They do not want this tournament to go away. They want Tampa Bay to have professional golf.

"In my position, we've always said from the start we're not afraid to compete in the spring. Our golf course stands tall, our area stands tall.''

This week's Honda event has six of the top 20 ranked players in the world, including Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and major winners Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera.

And if last year is any indication, the players are in for some tough conditions over the next month. Taking out the major championships, the four Florida venues all ranked among the top 12 most difficult courses on the 2007 PGA Tour.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.