For many, the Florida swing means a return to home: spending more time with your family, sleeping in your own bed, and convenient trips to work. As an appetizer to the WGC-CA Championship, the Tampa Bay Championship, and the Bay Hill Invitational, the Honda Classic has plenty of competition for strong fields and attention.
Regardless, the switch to the Jack Nicklaus gem (originally by Tom Fazio) at PGA National’s Champion Course has been a great success. Formerly an event dominated by journeyman and garnering less than stellar fields, this year the Honda boasts defending champion Rory McIlroy, who held off a final round 62 from Tiger Woods in 2012. Both return. A few interesting story lines here: International players have won the last five Honda Classics (Mcilroy followed Rory Sabbatini in 2011, Camilo Villegas in 2010, Y.E. Yang in 2009, and Ernie Els in 2008). Another note: Before last year, Woods played this event only once as an amateur when he was seventeen years old (1993). He missed the cut along with Jack Nicklaus. Keeping with history, this course and event reward smart play and avoiding big numbers.
PGA National is a special place, having competed here in the mid-2000’s as a junior. As a par 70 at more than 7,200 yards, it’s actually much longer than you may believe because of the soft conditions. It’s a stern challenge from start to finish. The par-4's have consistently demanding approaches, often played over water and deep bunkers. With soft conditions expected, it will be vital to drive the ball in the fairway and hit greens on the long par-4's. I don’t think the greens are very difficult to putt but they are designed in a way that you have to be very creative if you miss. McIlroy displayed this ability last year with bunker shots coming down the stretch, landing his explosion shots dangerously close to the edges of the greens. This explains why Mark Wilson, the last American to win here, was able to scramble his way to victory despite his lack of length off the tee. He shot a -5 total and won in a playoff.
One reason this course might be seen as a major championship tune-up is the amount of patience you need to score. Normally the No. 6 and No. 10 holes are par-5's for normal play, but in this event they are monster par-4's. This means the only two par-5's are Nos. 3 and 18, which leaves a big gap in the middle of the round to manage difficult holes. Additionally, the “Bear Trap” is a daunting finish: No. 15 is a 200+ yard par-3 with water short, right and long. If you bail left, the difficult bunker shot that awaits doesn’t ensure H20 avoidance. Playing away from the slope, it’s hard to stop the ball close. No. 16 is a long iron up the hill and into the wind after a narrow tee shot. These two shots have water all down the right side as well.
No. 17 is a much like the No. 15, a difficult par-3 from an elevated tee (more wind exposure and guessing to judge distance). This hole is usually played with a left to right crosswind. Many players tend to miss short in the water and left in the back bunker. Just a great hole. Finally, the 18th is a reachable par-5 (also into wind normally) where birdies are made as often from laying up as going for it. As you can imagine, it’s an important week to play consistently tee to green and find short grass. The penalty strokes add up fast at PGA National.
Players to Watch (Besides Tiger and Rory)
- Rickie Fowler. has been competing here since he was a junior and is a good track for him: drives the ball well and hits plenty of greens. Homecoming now for the Jupiter resident. Finished at -6 and a respectable T7 in 2012.
- James Hahn. One of the hottest players in the game and ball striking has given him opportunities to shoot great scores in 2013. Two top-5's so far this season on the west coast. Should he carry his game over to the Florida swing, I believe he will continue a great season.
- Billy Horschel. Young Florida product with a nice resume as an amateur. This year, he’s started to shine with a T10 at the Humana Challenge and at T11 at Torrey Pines, where (alongside Casey Wittenburg) he watched Tiger win over three days filled with delays.
- Y.E. Yang. Mediocre at best so far in 2013, but his record here cannot be ignored if you like past performance. T30 and consistent here in 2012 (three rounds of 70 and a final round 71) after a runner-up in 2011 and a win in 2009. If you look at his total scoring, he’s all over the map. He always seems to post low scores at least a few rounds, however, and if he has a good week he will contend.
- Jeff Overton. Past performance suggests this is a course he may be able to break through and capture his maiden victory: T18 last year, T6 in 2011, and T9 in 2009. His putting is an issue and he has made dramatic changes in the past 12 months. However, these greens can be had. Typically softer bermuda, it will be a welcome change from the West coast.
Photo: USA Today Sports Images