After two months of beautiful scenery, classic courses, beer showers and torrid scoring, the PGA Tour migrates east this week as the Honda Classic returns to its rightful place in the opening slot of the Florida swing.
Outside the majors, over par 36-hole cuts are a relic in pro golf, mementos from the past like persimmon drivers and balata balls, perched on the shelf alongside Sansabelt slacks and those funny looking wing-tipped metal spikes with the floppy flap thing on top.
Not this week, though.
The Champion course at PGA National never relents. Every year since 2007, 1 over has been good enough to qualify for the weekend. Just four years ago, a 6-over total after two rounds was enough to earn points and pay.
That’s what sand, water and wind can do to a man. Even the highly skilled 144-man field gathered in Palm Beach Gardens to compete for $8 million with $1.44 million to the champion.
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The winning score has landed somewhere between 9 and 12 under over the last six years on this challenging 7,125-yard, par-70 course designed by Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus and practically anyone else with a sketch pad who lives in a 200-mile radius.
In all seriousness, their efforts created a beast, raging with 67 bunkers and water hazards in play on 15 of 18 holes. Keeping the ball dry is always a point of emphasis for any player / caddie duo. Nobody can get up-and-down from the bottom of a pond. Escaping disaster takes on an enhanced role in the playbook this week. Sometimes, a bogey isn’t so bad.
To thrive at PGA National, pros must have the control to keep their ball out of the penalty areas and the touch to save par when the situation forces them to steer away from trouble. Patience and skill, power and touch.
We’ve turned the page from poa annua, kikuyu and ryegrass to good ol’ Bermuda. Certain players thrive on the surface which is prevalent in the southern USA most of the year. Those players received extra consideration along with the typical SG: Tee-to-Green experts. Extra emphasis was given to avoiding bogeys (and worse) along with a deft touch out of those aforementioned bunkers and the sometimes troublesome rough around the greens.
With such trouble lurking, a man better be in control of his swing and ball when he arrives on the property this week so we targeted players arriving in good current form while also paying a little attention to past results at the Honda, although a variety of styles have thrived here.
Solving the wind is critical at PGA National. Here’s what Aaron Wise, the 36-hole leader last year, said about handling the crosswinds that can force a player to aim his ball out over the trouble and have faith it comes back to land.
“On a golf course like this, I think (the wind) is just something you have to embrace. If you don’t, I think you’re in for a long day,” he said. “You’ve got to sort of embrace that and pick your targets and know par is a good score on a lot of these holes.”
Matt Jones won last year with exquisite iron play and short game touch, gaining more than five shots on approach and around the greens. He entered last year’s Honda ranked 112th on the PGA Tour in SG: Tee-to-Green. Then, he led the field in the category on his way to victory. Nobody said predicting golf results was easy.
Pay attention to the weather reports. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in the current forecast but these things can change, and quickly. Otherwise expect reasonable scoring conditions with temperatures around 80 degrees and 10-15 mph winds. Early morning tee times could have a slight edge and sometimes the wind dies out late in the day.
As always, good luck.
Luke Donald, Nick Hardy, Kramer Hickok, Harry Higgs (needs money to pay fine), Lee Hodges, Mark Hubbard, Matthew NeSmith, Davis Riley, Adam Svensson, Dylan Wu.
Golfer power rankings
25. Tommy Fleetwood – Hasn’t really been the same since he peeled a fairway metal shot into the pond right of the 18th green on the 72nd hole of the 2020 Honda, spoiling a chance to win. Still, he’s finished in the top 5 in his last two appearances in this event. Last five starts occurred in the Middle East as colleague John Rathouz pointed out Monday on Twitter. Recorded three top 15s in those events.
24. Taylor Pendrith – Approach numbers aren’t great, but his power (fourth in SG: OTT. 10th in driving distance) should allow him to hit less than the driver at times and position his ball in the fairway. That’s been a path to success here for others in the past. Finished fifth in Bermuda in the fall. So he likes the putting surfaces and grasses here.
23. Sam Ryder – The steady hand of veteran caddie Brent Everson has Ryder on an upward trend early in 2022. He made four of five cuts on the West Coast, including a T-26 at Riviera which puts him in the right frame of mind as he returns to a course where he finished T-8 a year ago.
22. Aaron Rai – Gained shots Tee-to-Green in six of the last seven events and recorded four top 20s in the 2021-22 season. Ranks top 30 in SG: OTT and SG: Approach. Keeps the big numbers off the scorecard and ranks 21st in SG: Total over the last 36 rounds. Steady veteran offers value.
21. Jhonattan Vegas – Light schedule on the West Coast included a strong Tee-to-Green finish (4.1 shots gained at Riviera) and two of three made cuts. Saving his strength for the Florida run, perhaps, considering he’s finished top 30 in the Honda each of the last three years. Ranks fifth in the field in SG: Approach and second in SG: OTT over the last 50 rounds.
20. Greyson Sigg – The 27-year-old Georgia Bulldog is off to a solid start in his rookie season (98th in FedEx Cup) on the strength of a solid iron game (52nd in approach, 54th in GIR). He’s also steady, ranking top 20 in avoiding bogeys and doubles while excelling on 400-450 yard par 4s. The sight of Bermuda grass can inspire a southern pro.
19. Christiaan Bezuidenhout – Elite putter on Bermuda surfaces missed only his second cut in eight starts in 2021-22 at the Genesis. This course should suit him better, assuming he can return to his fairway finding formula. Top 15 in the field in scoring on difficult courses, scrambling and sand saves.
18. Shane Lowry – The 2019 Open champion obviously doesn’t mind the wind and enjoys the challenge of PGA National, 4-for-4 in making the cut and gaining more than four shots Tee-to-Green a year ago. “This golf course is funny,” Lowry said last year. “You play great, you shoot a great score, but if your game’s off a little bit it can really jump up and bite you. So there’s quite a few disasters waiting to happen out there and you just need to hit your bad shots at the right time and manage your way around the golf course well.”
17. Brooks Koepka – He’s a hard one to peg. Hit the ball great in Scottsdale, finished third. Did everything poorly in LA, missed the cut. At least he enjoyed a couple extra days to rest and prepare for his home tournament. Tied for second here in 2019 but missed the cut in his two other most recent appearances. Top 10 in scoring on difficult courses, to the surprise of no one.
16. Mackenzie Hughes – Another player who thrives in difficult conditions, Hughes reignited his career here in 2020 with a runner-up finish. Now he’s ranked in the top 50 in the world. Terrific short game helps him save pars and we’re willing to overlook a spotty three-tournament start on the West Coast (MC-16-MC). Has proven he can contend without his best ballstriking and turn his long game around quickly.
15. Keith Mitchell – Elite driver of the golf ball claimed his only PGA Tour victory here in 2019, outlasting the field despite gaining a scant 0.9 shots on the greens. Results since are less impressive – 53rd and MC. Still, lands in South Florida in excellent form, finishing 10th and 12th in his two most recent starts at Pebble Beach and Scottsdale. Steering clear of the double bogeys (116th in field) is the likely key to his week.
14. Aaron Wise – Shot 13 under and stormed to a six-shot lead after 36 holes at last year’s Honda. Ultimately finished 13th and has played the weekend in all three starts here. After miserable ballstriking efforts in San Diego and Scottsdale, showed better form Tee-to-Green at Riviera. Ranks sixth in the field in scoring on difficult courses and top-20 in SG: Approach over the last 50 rounds.
13. Brendon Todd – After struggling with ballstriking in the latter half of 2021, gained shots Tee-to-Green in three of four starts out west with a T-26 and T-16 to show for it. He ranks second in the field in hitting fairways, top 10 in scrambling and sand saves and top 15 in scoring on 400-450 and 450-500 yard par 4s. There are eight holes that length at PGA National.
12. Matt Jones – Kind of square to ride the defending champion, however, it’s difficult to forget the ballstriking exhibition he gave in the final round of last year’s Honda or the opening 61. Couple those memories with 9.6 shots gained Tee-to-Green last week generating a T-15 despite losing four shots putting and he should figure in the mix here again.
11. K.H. Lee – Attractive pairing of current form and course history. Has made 13 of the last 14 cuts, including four in a row on the West Coast and finished T-7 and T-38 at the Honda in 2019 and ‘20 before missing the cut last year in the extreme windy conditions. Ranks 10th in the field in SG: OTT and 15th in bogey avoidance.
10. Joaquin Niemann – Cheers to the young Chilean and caddie Gary Matthews for dissecting Riviera last week, gaining 14.1 shots Tee-to-Green and 7.1 shots on approach. See no reason for Niemann, who lives 10 minutes away from PGA National, to struggle this week. Finished T-25 here a year ago. Also a strong candidate to withdraw before the tournament begins.
9. Daniel Berger – How’s his back? An obvious favorite if healthy. But pulled out of Pebble Beach as defending champion and missed the cut in Scottsdale the last two times we saw him. Near the top of any model for obvious reasons and the best in the field in recent SG: Tee-to-Green and SG: Approach. The native of South Florida lost a playoff here in 2015 and finished fourth in 2020.
8. Sungjae Im – Won here in 2020 and shoutout to the man who carried his clubs that week, Albin Choi, who finished T-6 swinging the clubs in last week’s Korn Ferry Tour event. Im loves Florida, landing in the top 30 in nine of 11 tournaments, although his Bermuda putting has been erratic of late (77th in field over last 50 rounds). Ranks second in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green over the last 50 rounds and top five in avoiding bogeys and doubles.
7. Denny McCarthy – “I got through final stage of Q-School here to get my WEB.COM card. And then I’ve kind of struggled here the last three years. But it’s a place that I’ve always thought has suited my game, playing on the Bermuda grass down here. I like playing in the wind. I think it forces you to be more creative, which is kind of more my style of play.” McCarthy is 16th in the field in scoring on difficult courses (last 50 rounds) and top 10 in bogey avoidance. Finished third last year, gaining 5.4 shots Tee-to-Green.
6. Alex Noren – Contended at the WM Phoenix Open, maintained his long game in a T-48 at Riviera, shooting 69 on a difficult Sunday and has played well at PGA National before, finishing T-3 in 2018. Top 20 in field in avoiding bogeys and double bogeys and scrambling.
5. Brian Harman – Skipped the Genesis due to the unexpected passing of his instructor, legendary Sea Island pro Jack Lumpkin. Harman flourished on the West Coast, gaining 8.4 shots Tee-to-Green at Scottsdale (14th) and finishing third at the AMEX. The best scrambler in the field, he also loves the grind, ranking 10th in scoring on difficult layouts.
4. Chris Kirk – His stats were better than his results in four tournaments on the West Coast, gaining shots Tee-to-Green each week and posting solid numbers off the tee and around the greens. Makes him a strong candidate to put the entire package together at PGA National where he finished 25th a year ago as he continued a strong early stretch in a comeback season. Top 30 in field in avoiding bogeys and doubles.
3. Mito Pereira – Returned to his usual premium ballstriking last week at Riviera, gaining 3.6 shots Tee-to-Green and 2.7 on approach, producing the eighth top-40 finish of his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Perhaps more important, he’s gained shots on the green in six consecutive tournaments, answering questions about a perceived weakness.
2. Billy Horschel – Produced flashes of brilliance on the West Coast and finished T-11 in San Diego and T-6 in Scottsdale. The former Florida Gator loves his home turf and has a pair of top 20s at the Honda in the last five years. Ranks 12th in the field in SG: Total over the last 36 rounds.
1. Louis Oosthuizen – If Tom Hoge and Scottie Scheffler can win on the PGA Tour – no offense to either and their tremendous ability – then, why not the sweet swinging South African. The metrics certainly point in his direction. He thrives on difficult courses – see last year’s majors – avoids bogeys and doubles better than anyone in the field because of elite scrambling and ranks second in the field in SG: Approach over the last 50 rounds. Was sharp throughout the bag in his 2022 debut two weeks ago in Scottsdale, tying for 14th. The time has come for Louis to win on American soil.