Honda Classic 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Sungjae Im is back at the Honda Classic this week to defend the title he won a year ago. Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

After a thrilling weekend at headquarters, the circuit heads south to a harrowing, hazardous Jack Nicklaus course designed to inflict terror and tremors.

As if the competitors weren’t fragile and fried following TPC Sawgrass, the PGA National Champion Course is a supreme confidence crusher. The cut has been over par every year since 2007, soaring to 7-over in 2011 and 6-over just three years ago.

Navigate the 7,125-yard layout around par 70 each day and a large check awaits. Shoot 10-under or so and the big check – $1.2 million – should be in play. (Bring back the big checks. Miss those beauties. Or better yet, stack bags of cash by the 18th green. Roger Maltbie won a tournament and lost a check in a matter of hours one night. But that’s a story for another day).

MORE: 2020-21 PGA Tour winning player/caddie pairs | Caddie Line homepage

What is required to survive four rounds at PGA National?

Precision from 175-200 yards, short game acumen out of Bermuda rough, a silky sand game and the ability to keep one’s golf ball dry, for starters.

Disaster lurks.

In the last 15 years, there are six holes on the Champion Course where at least one-fourth of the scores have been bogey or worse. The 15th and 17th – two-thirds of the infamous Bear Trap! – produce a high rate of double bogeys and others. Water is in play on 15 of 18 holes.

The greens are difficult to hit (59.7 percent compared to 65.7 percent Tour average), the fairway accuracy rate is also slightly lower than the usual week and the scrambling isn’t necessarily easy either. It’s a good week to put a new lob wedge in the golf bag. Gonna need those fresh grooves.

You’re tired of hearing this, but like our previous stops in Florida, this is a ballstriker’s haven. A lack of trust or poor command of ball flight will likely produce a Friday exit.

After four consecutive weeks of loaded fields, the highest-ranked player here this week is South Florida native Daniel Berger (No. 15). Coming off a strong weekend and top 10 at the Players, he’s the Vegas favorite. It’s a good opportunity for a struggling grinder to turn his season around. Somebody could be four 68s from changing their life. Caddies of the Tour, make sure you have three, maybe four, fresh sleeves in the bag each morning. Hope you don’t need them.

As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

25. Brandon Wu – Getting a rare start on the PGA Tour. His seventh-place finish in Puerto Rico proved his game can handle the test. Had five top 10s on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020 and won the Tour Championship. The young guns just keep coming.

24. Jim Furyk – Leading off the veteran section of the rankings is a former U.S. Ryder Cup captain who finished T-9 in the 2019 Honda. The models adore him this week. Makes sense because he avoids bogeys and doubles, hits precise irons and rarely strays from the fairway. One of the ultimate grinders in modern golf history.

23. Steve Stricker – The current U.S. Ryder Cup captain hopped on an airplane in Naples, Florida, early last Thursday morning, flew to Jacksonville and fired an opening 70 at TPC Sawgrass. He ran out of steam the second day but his steady game fits this test even better. Putts great everywhere but especially on Bermuda greens.

22. Erik Van Rooyen – Has an interesting statistical profile. Extremely consistent. No clear strengths or glaring weaknesses. Basically your average Tour pro in every area. The formula might produce a good week against a weaker than average field. Missed the cut here last year but performs well when scoring is difficult.

21. Lucas Glover – Dependable at the Honda where he’s posted two top 10s and two other top 25s since 2013. Has made the last three cuts on Tour and is top 30 in the field in SG: Ballstriking in moderate wind over the last 24 rounds.

20. J.T. Poston – Everything is in position for Poston other than his iron game. He loves Bermuda greens and has a solid record at the Honda, finishing 36th or better in all three starts. Keeps the big numbers off the card.

19. Aaron Wise – Finished runner-up at Mayakoba and has done little since. Great opportunity this week on a course where he’s 2-for-2 making the cut. Putrid putting has been the issue of late but the rest of his game is ready – 14th in ballstriking in moderate wind over the last 24 rounds.

18. Chris Kirk – He’s better than the field average in the six areas emphasized in this week’s model. Fell from contention with a final-round 79 at the Players. Just an outlier in an otherwise outstanding season. Kirk would lead the race for Comeback Player of the Year if it still existed. The award vanished into the ether not long after Stricker won it in consecutive years.

17. Jhonnatan Vegas – The recent runner-up in Puerto Rico enjoys the Honda, making seven of eight cuts with a T-4 and three top 20s. Leads the field in SG: Off-the-Tee over the last 50 rounds.

16. Cameron Percy – Another player who has been on our radar in recent weeks. Solid performance through the bag generated a T-29 at the Players. Earned a top 30 in three of his last four starts. Played the weekend twice in three tries at the Honda.

15. Lee Westwood – Can he do it three weeks in a row? His price has never been higher, so beware. Fatigue could be a factor. Then again, it’s hard to fade him at the Honda where he has four top 10s in eight starts. Helen Storey is keeping him loose and focused on the course and his game has never looked better.

14. Matt Wallace – A few years ago I thought the Englishman possessed enough talent to enter the world top 10. Maybe so, but after peaking at 23rd in 2019, he’s fallen to 55th entering this week. A top-20 two weeks ago at Bay Hill is promising. He’s a fiery one. Only his third U.S. start in 2021.

13. Adam Scott – Struggled massively with the driver at Concession and TPC Sawgrass, yet still made the cut, something he’s accomplished in 22 of the last 23 starts. Won the Honda in 2015 and has three other top 15s in the last seven years. Thrives on difficult courses (third in field in SG: Total).

12. Brendan Steele – Held the early Honda lead last year and has finished no worse than 43rd in his last seven Tour starts. Also second in the field in proximity from 175-200 yards and fifth in SG: Ballstriking over the last 24 rounds in moderate wind. It will blow at least 15 mph each day.

11. Cameron Tringale – Poor putting ended his Players experience early but he’s having a career season because of quality ballstriking (12th in SG over last 50 rounds) and excellent putting (13th in SG, last 50). Made the cut in seven of 10 Honda starts.

10. Wyndham Clark – Has relished the challenge of PGA National during his brief PGA Tour career, posting a T-7 and T-11. The occasional double bogey has been troublesome of late but his short game and iron play are sharp, ranking top 25 in the field in both over the last six tournaments.

9. Cameron Davis – Had to hop off the Davis train for a week or two but we’re rollin’ down the track with the young Aussie yet again. Might as well pick him up after two missed cuts. He’s ninth in SG: Tee-to-Green and 25th in SG: Putting over the last 50 rounds.

8. Russell Henley – Leads the field over the last 24 rounds in moderate wind in SG: Approach and ranks 25th in proximity from 175-200 yards. Lost strokes on approach last week for the first time since June. The 2013 Honda champion will rebound with his sixth top 25 in this event.

7. Talor Gooch – Tie for fifth at the Players was his third top 5 since last October. It’s no secret how he’s climbing leaderboards, above average performance from driver to putter. Difficult courses haven’t been an issue either. Looks comfortable on the weekend and has finished T-20 and T-38 at Honda the last two years.

6. Byeong Hun An – Has had ample time to recover from the uncomfortable 11 he made on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass last Thursday. It happens. Sometimes leaving TPC Sawgrass early isn’t the worst result. Has two top 5s in three Honda starts and – in spite of the island octuple – lands near the top of the field in avoiding bogeys and doubles.

5. Joaquin Niemann – Has made 13 consecutive cuts going back to last December. The key to success for Niemann at PGA National is simple. Avoid the big mistakes. The others have been costly in his previous appearances but his strong iron play should vault him back up the leaderboard.

4. Daniel Berger – Shot four rounds of par or better to tie for fourth in last year’s Honda and also lost a playoff to Padraig Harrington in 2015. Gained 9.2 shots Tee-to-Green at the Players and putted slightly worse than the field average.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Berger withdrew from the Honda Classic late Wednesday afternoon citing a rib injury.

3. Sungjae Im – The defending champion leads the field in proximity from 175-200 yards and ranks fourth in avoiding those dreaded double bogeys. Has finished 32nd or better in each of his last six tournaments.

2. Keegan Bradley – Keep this between us, but the 2011 PGA Championship victor has gained strokes on the greens each of the last two weeks. He leads the field in SG: Ballstriking over the last 50 rounds and has made four consecutive cuts. His recent Honda performance isn’t great, though he posted a trio of top 12s from 2012-14.

1. Shane Lowry – Admit it, you kind of forgot about the man who won The Open Championship in 2019. Granted it feels like that happened in another lifetime. Then, all of a sudden there he was hanging around the leaderboard at TPC Sawgrass, riding a new putting grip to an eighth-place finish. Gained 2.1 shots Tee-to-Green at Bay Hill and 7.5 last week. Ranks sixth in the field from 175-200 yards over the last 50 rounds. Will snicker at the Palm Beach breeze. Before he hands off the Claret Jug, shall get his hands on the keys to a Honda. If a car’s not a part of the prize, well, it should be.

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