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 weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
The best players in the world return to the Eastern time zone this week, heading to the familiar watery graves of the PGA National Champions Course for the Honda Classic.
Flat ground, Bermuda greens and steady winds under abundant sunshine await the 144-man field on the par-70, 7,125-yard layout, which features the infamous Bear Trap, a treacherous stretch spanning holes 15, 16 and 17 — and littered with opportunities to encounter disaster.
Only six of the top 20 players in the world opted to spend the week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. and battle a Champions course that’s routinely one of the most difficult on the PGA Tour. Last year, in benign conditions, the course played to a 71.06 stroke average and there were only 53 sub-par rounds on the weekend.
The competitors can expect a more severe challenge this week.
Those unfamiliar with the layout will have a stiff task because after playing practice rounds with the typical south wind and temperatures in the 80s, cooler air arrives in South Florida prior to the opening round, producing lows in the upper 40s and highs in the upper 60s and lower 70s. More important, as it pertains to scoring, the wind is forecast to blow 10-15 mph from the north and northwest, meaning it will push balls toward the aforementioned water hazards that guard the right side of the fairways and greens on the final four holes. (No. 18 is a par 5).
No different than you and I, water makes a golf pro nervous. Unlike you and I, the game’s elite players are confident they can salvage par from most anywhere around the green if their ball rests on grass or lies in sand.
Balls submerged under water lead to dropped shots for us all. Bogey avoidance is a stat at the forefront of the decision-making this week.
Because there are only two par 5s on the layout, par-3 and par-4 scoring also factored into the equation this week. Power is important and with the rough in the two-inch range, the longer hitters should be able to maneuver around the course, assuming their foul balls remain on dry land. Players proficient with their iron game from 150-200 yards out also received special consideration this week.
Try and juggle your lineup, if possible, to favor the morning wave on Thursday and Friday, although the cooler temperatures early might detract from their typical advantage.
Golfer power rankings
25. Russell Knox – Has scuffled at the Honda since back-to-back top 3s during his outstanding worldwide run in 2014 and 2015, but he remains an elite iron player, ranking 16th in greens in regulation and 17th in SG: approach the green this season. Also leads this year’s field in the latter category over his last 20 rounds at PGA National.
24. Stewart Cink – Feels like a safe bet to play the weekend with 11 made cuts in 12 Honda starts. Alabama native knows his way around the southern grasses and his iron game has been on point in 2019-20, ranking 18th in SG: approach the green.
23. Wyndham Clark – Held the 54-hole lead a year ago, shot 72 in the final round and finished T-7. Stats aren’t impressive – 172nd in par-4 scoring, 209th in SG: approach the green — but game is taking flight with top 20s at Pebble Beach and Riviera in his last two starts.
22. Kyoung-Hoon Lee – After top 15s in L.A. and Puerto Rico, he returns to Honda, where he broke par in the first three rounds last year and tied for seventh. Finished T5 at the RSM Classic on Bermuda greens to open the 2019-20 season.
21. Jhonnattan Vegas – Rolls into Honda fresh off a sizzling final-round 62 in Puerto Rico to earn his first top 10 of the season. Has performed well at PGA National in the recent past, finishing T-4 in 2017 and T-16 last year. Bombs the driver (307.7) and ranks top 40 on Tour in greens hit.
20. Luke List – Still seeking his first top 10 in 2019-20 but three consecutive top-35 finishes gives hope he’s trending upward. Had a great chance to win the Honda in 2018, finishing solo second, and also tied for 10th in 2016. South Florida resident has scrambled well at Honda, ranking second among the field in SG: around the green.
19. Bud Cauley – If he can figure out the PGA National greens (82nd in SG:putting at Honda in this year’s field), Cauley is a darkhorse with upside this week after finishing T-12 a year ago. He’s 20th in par-3 scoring and his ballstriking stats are solid on the season, enabling him to climb to 66th in the FedEx Cup standings.
18. Keith Mitchell – Been a quiet year for the defending champion and his faithful caddie, Crunchy Pete, but they departed California on a high note, breaking par in six of the last eight rounds. Hopefully the good vibes will improve a dreadful par-3 scoring average (3.11).
17. Byeong Hun An – After closing with a 65 in Mexico, comes to a PGA National layout he’s enjoyed the last two years, shooting par or better in six of eight rounds and posting T-5 in 2018. Ranks 22nd on Tour in par-4 scoring average (3.95).
16. Lee Westwood – Won in Abu Dhabi earlier this year and has climbed to No. 30 in the world. Hasn’t played Honda since 2015, still his game matches a demanding, windy layout like PGA National Champions where it’s not necessary to go nuts with the putter. Had three top 10s from 2010-2013 in the event.
15. Viktor Hovland – To no one’s surprise last week he joined fellow rookie classmates Wolff and Morikawa as PGA Tour champions. The victory didn’t come with a Masters invite, although his improved world ranking brings the goal within reach. The Norwegian sensation is 14th in SG: approach the green and 22nd in par-4 scoring. He’s also top 3 in approach shot proximity from 150-175 and 175-200 yards.
14. Talor Gooch – Has played the par 4s well this season (3.97), finished T-20 in last year’s Honda and has made 10 consecutive cuts, finishing T-10 at Riviera the last time out.
13. Brooks Koepka – Hard to figure out just where Koepka stands as it pertains to form and more importantly, the health of his surgically repaired knee. At least the PGA Champions is Florida flat. Tied for second at Honda last year, his fourth made cut in five tries.
12. Justin Rose – Hasn’t been as sharp (driven? focused? hungry?) since winning the FedEx Cup in 2018, splitting with longtime caddie Mark Fulcher and switching from TaylorMade to Honma clubs. Returns to Honda for the first time since 2015 but there’s a positive past, featuring a trio of top 5s from 2010-to-2013. Despite recent sluggishness, he’s a world-class player one swing removed from finding his groove.
11. Matthew NeSmith – Making Honda debut, however, North Augusta native and University of South Carolina grad should feel comfortable on the Bermuda putting surfaces. Confidence is soaring with three top 20s in the last four starts, including a career-best T-6 last week in Puerto Rico.
10. Ryan Palmer – Among the players in this year’s Honda field, Palmer is fourth in total strokes gained, compiled over his last 30 rounds. During that stretch, he’s posted a pair of top 5s and missed the cut only once. Don’t let the 72nd hole gaffe in Hawaii and the bunker incident at Riviera overshadow a solid season – five top 25s in eight starts.
9. Daniel Berger – South Florida native is rediscovering the touch after top 10s at Scottsdale and Pebble Beach in his last two starts. Finished second at Honda in 2015 and top 40 each of the last two years. He’s top 25 in third round and fourth round scoring average this season.
8. Erik van Rooyen – Well, he’s on our radar now after an impressive T-3 in Mexico fueled by hitting 72 percent of the greens in regulation. The confidence drawn from the impressive performance should outweigh any unfamiliarity he has with the course in his Honda debut.
7. Harris English – PGA National demands solid ballstriking and English hits 77 percent of the greens which should create an advantage on a course where the field averaged only 10.5 GIRs per round last year. Leads the Tour in bogey avoidance. He’s crushed the par 4s all season (3.91, 3rd) and finished T-12 in the Honda a year ago. First start since T-16 in Scottsdale.
6. Harry Higgs – Love this rookie’s attitude and his game isn’t too shabby, either. He’s third on the PGA Tour in par-4 scoring average (3.91) and after climbing to 37th in the FedEx Cup should be presented ample playing opportunities ahead. Recorded top 25s in his last three starts, on the West Coast.
5. Louis Oosthuizen – Has flourished on difficult courses throughout his career, finishing top 25 in his last two Honda starts in 2017 and 2018. Struggled with ballstriking last week (56 percent of greens hit) but still managed to make 17 birdies in 72 holes.
4. Billy Horschel – Hit 34 of 36 greens on the weekend in Mexico, so it’s safe to say he’s striking it pure. If he can handle the difficult par 3s on the Champions course (143rd on Tour in par-3 scoring average), the Florida Gator should be in the hunt for a sixth career victory, aided by a fine 68.43 final-round scoring average (20th).
3. Gary Woodland – Played solid last week (T-12) and had a chance at Honda in 2017, tying for second with an 8 under total. He’s fifth in SG: approach the green at PGA National among players in this year’s field. Glee from the U.S. Open victory should be fading and his power is a handy weapon to create shorter approach shots this week.
2. Tommy Fleetwood – Perhaps I was a week early in predicting a victory for the affable Englishman. It’s not as if he played poorly in Mexico, breaking par in all four rounds and hitting 65 percent of the greens. Enjoys the challenge of PGA National, finishing fourth in his first Honda appearance in 2019.
1. Rickie Fowler – He’s felt right at ‘home’ on PGA National of late, leading the field in strokes gained over the last 30 Honda rounds, winning in 2017 and finishing T-2 last year. Strong wind player with a pair of top 10s in four starts this year. Should be feeling fresh, making his fifth start of 2020 and first since T-37 at Scottsdale.