The Honda Classic: Expert picks and best bets
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a gambling picks piece — as well as a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
For the most part, the Honda Classic has identified a superstar, major champion type in recent years. JT, Rory, Adam Scott, Padraig.
The PGA National Champions holds no quarter for golfers with shaky strokes and jangled nerves. Winning is always difficult, but the final hour of the Honda Classic can be painful as pros fight windswept swings and frazzled brains to survive with one of the highest winning scores on the PGA Tour each year.
It’s great, isn’t it?
All kinds of golf can be entertaining. There’s a place for shootouts, back-nine birdie charges and thrilling 72nd hole eagles to win a tournament by one shot.
The Honda presents the game from a different point of view. In general, experience and current form are paramount. Golfers arriving without their best game are unlikely to discover it while traipsing along the narrow strips of grass tucked between water and sand. Pars are great as the back nine unfolds and it takes strong strategy and execution to make them.
When looking at the field, take note of players from the South or any who prefer Bermuda grass. Most are ready to watch putts roll again after several bumpy weeks and the hole might seem bigger than it did just weeks ago. Ballstriking is imperative on this par-70 layout which plays every inch of its 7,150 yards.
As a bonus, I don’t think anyone gets to 10 under this week, so over the 270.5 total is a friendly play.
As always, good luck and have fun.
Odds on the favorites (via golfodds.com):
Over / Under – 270.5 (9.5 under par)
Brooks Koepka +1200
Tommy Fleetwood +1200
Rickie Fowler +1400
Justin Rose +2000
Louis Oosthuizen +2500
Gary Woodland +2500
Viktor Hovland +2500
Sungjae Im +3000
Billy Horschel +3000
Daniel Berger +3000
Beyong Hun An +4000
Shane Lowry +4000
Erik van Rooyen +5000
Joaquin Niemann +5000
Expert picks and best bets
Billy Horschel (+3000) — After four golfers won for the first time in the fall portion of the 2019-20 PGA Tour schedule, veterans have thrived in 2020. Patrick Reed was the latest to pad his career victory total, joining Marc Leishman, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Justin Thomas in the weeks prior. Horschel has five PGA Tour triumphs but his last individual title was the 2017 Byron Nelson Classic, followed by teaming with Scott Piercy to win the Zurich Classic in 2018. All signs point toward his drought ending soon. Horschel has shot in the 60s in seven of the last nine rounds and arrives at Honda after consecutive top-10 finishes. He was magnificent on the weekend in Mexico, hitting 34 of 36 greens in regulation and finished the week ranked first in fairways (71 percent) and second in GIR (76 percent). The improved ballstriking, specifically his iron play, is a promising sign because he ranks 171st on the season in SG: approach the green. Despite this poor performance, he’s 48th in the FedEx Cup, in part because the putter has cooperated (16th in strokes gained). Horschel has a pair of top 10s at PGA National in his last four starts, along with a T-16 last year and a missed cut. With a weaker than usual Honda field, expect the former Florida star to snap the victory drought and land his first Tour victory in the Sunshine State.
Last Week: Tommy Fleetwood (+2000) Tied for 18th.
Jhonnatan Vegas (+8000) — This should be the fun section of this column, because no sane person can expect anyone to have more than occasional success in this category. There are so many choices presented each week, though it often feels overwhelming instead. Want to get really crazy? Pick Davis Love III (+100000). Now, there’s a longshot for you. Seriously, the fields on the PGA Tour are deep in that almost anyone in the field can win, or contend to win, or make a huge check. To make a sharp pick, though, it’s important to ask one question: Do you think Pro X can handle the final-round pressure, handle their nerves and execute the shots to emerge as the champion? Some weeks, in docile conditions or the summer heat, that question is easier to answer than others. But the closing holes at PGA National Champions are perilous. There’s no break and even the par-5 18th demands power and precision to walk away with a birdie. This north / northwest wind direction has the potential to generate mass wreckage Sunday afternoon. So maybe it’s not a week for a newbie. Obviously it’s not a week for Love III either. We’re going with Vegas because he’s won before and like most rank-and-file PGA Tour pros, makes his money in bunches each year. He shot 62 last Sunday and finished in the top 20 at the Honda two of the last three years. It’s called a longshot for a reason, after all.
Last Week: Cameron Smith (+10000) Tied for 22nd.
Brooks Koepka (+1200) — It was strange to hear the ultra-confident Koepka discuss the uncertain status of his knee two weeks ago at Riviera. The four-time major champion’s mental toughness has been tested while his physical game has suffered since he slipped on a cart path last fall in Asia, forcing him to withdraw from the CJ Cup, undergo surgery and miss the Presidents Cup. Since returning, he’s played two events on the European Tour and the Genesis in L.A. and his best finish is a tie for 17th. Koepka has made it clear that he’s only interested in the majors so it’s easy to believe he’s using these events to work his body into shape for Augusta. Confidence is fragile even for someone who seems to possess a bountiful amount. He’ll enjoy the test this week and the leaderboard scoring will resemble a major championship on Sunday afternoon, but I’ll be surprised if his name appears there.
Last Week: Collin Morikawa (+4000) Tied for 42nd.
Matthew NeSmith (+105) vs. Wyndham Clark — Yes, I’m aware that Clark held the 54-hole lead at Honda last year and finished in the top 10. NeSmith, however, has the traits of a rising star. The former South Carolina star has made the cut in all six starts in 2020 and is buoyed by the confidence gained from his first career top 10. He won on the Korn Ferry Tour last August to secure his card for this year and has continued to ride the wave, earning 361 FedEx Cup points to vault high in the priority reshuffle and feel good about advancing to the playoffs and securing exempt status for 2020-21. When a pro plays that well for that long on unfamiliar courses, it’s not a streak, it’s a reflection of talent and belief. A southern man who survives the bumpy poa annua out west is thrilled to return to smooth, slick Bermuda greens. NeSmith is 62 under over his last seven PGA Tour tournaments. Don’t expect Clark to duplicate his performance from a year ago and NeSmith’s ability to survive the 36-hole cut keeps this play alive through the weekend.
Last Week: Webb Simpson (-120) vs. Adam Scott. Lost by nine shots. Ouch.