Cognizant Classic: Henley chanced to win again at 31/1

Golfer Russell Henley
Russell Henley - The Punter's pick in Florida

The PGA Tour moves on to Florida for the first of four events in the Sunshine State as Rory McIlroy attempts to win the Cognizant Classic again, 12 years after he first lifted the trophy...

  • GIR the key stat

  • Sony Open winners shine

  • Read my SDC Championship preview here


  • Tournament History

    First staged in 1972 and originally known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, the Cognizant Classic or the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches to give it its full name, was sponsored by Honda and known as the Honda Classic between 1982 and 2023.

    The tournament switched to its current venue 17 years ago when Mark Wilson won a four-man playoff after the event had run into a Monday finish.

    The tournament used to attract a strong field and it's great to see Rory McIlroy lining up here for the first time since 2018 after a couple of fairly weak renewals.

    The world number two, who won the event 12 years agi, is one of eight players inside the world's top-30 in the field this week to kick off the four-week long Florida Swing.

    Venue

    PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

    Course Details

    Par 70, 7,125 yards
    Stroke index in 2023 - 70.36

    This is the 18th year in-a-row that the Tom and George Fazio-designed PGA National will be used and it's a really tough test.

    The course was extensively reworked by Jack Nicklaus in 1990 and it was again tweaked in 2014.

    The last three winners have all reached double-digits under-par but in the 17 years that the event's been staged here the winner has only reached 10-under-par or better six times and on four of those six occasions, the winner was the only player to reach double-digits under-par.

    In largely benign conditions, the course played as easily as it's done for some time last year and for just the third time since the course began hosting the event in 2007, the field averaged below par in an individual round (69.29 in round three).

    PGA NATIONAL 2023.jpg

    It's a heavily bunkered course and water is in-play on 13 holes. As most courses are in Florida, PGA National is laid to Bermuda and the greens usually run at around 12 on the stimpmeter.

    The PGA National is famous for its intimidating finish which includes the three-hole stretch at 15, 16 and 17, known as the Bear Trap.

    The par three 17th was the hardest par three on the PGA Tour in 2018, averaging more than half a stroke over par at 3.533, but it played much easier in 2019 (3.09) after the addition of a new tee-box, positioned 15 yards nearer to the putting surface, and it averaged 3.13 last year.

    It's still a tough finish though and it's a tough course all round.


    Weather Forecast


    TV Coverage

    Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 11:45 on Thursday

    Last Eight Winners with Pre-event Prices

    • 2023 - Chris Kirk -14 44.043/1 (playoff)
    • 2022 - Sepp Straka -10 200.0199/1
    • 2021 - Matt Jones -12 110.0109/1
    • 2020 - Sungjae Im -6 34.033/1
    • 2019 - Keith Mitchell -9 300.0299/1
    • 2018 - Justin Thomas -8 13.012/1 (playoff)
    • 2017 - Rickie Fowler -12 20.019/1
    • 2016 - Adam Scott -9 26.025/1

    What Will it Take to Win the Cognizant Classic?

    Last year's playoff protagonists, Chris Kirk and Eric Cole, ranked 54th and 29th for Driving Distance and 41st and 35th for Driving Accuracy and they were unusually poor traditional rankings off the tee.

    In the six years between 2014 and 2019, 12th (Adam Scott in 2017) was the worst any winner ranked for DD, so length is clearly an advantage, but I'd favour accuracy given recent results...

    Tyler Duncan, who finished third, ranked second for DA last year and Justin Suh, in tied fifth, hit more fairways than anyone else. The defending champ, Sepp Straka, who finished alongside Suh, ranked fourth, a year after topping the DA stats when winning. And the runner-up two years ago Shane Lowry, ranked fourth for DA.

    The last two winners have only ranked fifth and fourth for Strokes Gained: Tee to Green but the four previous winners all ranked first so that's a key stat and so too is Greens in Regulation.

    The aforementioned Straka and Suh, in tied fifth last year, ranked first and second for GIR and the winner ranked seventh so 11 of the 17 winners here to date have ranked inside the top-ten for GIR.

    Chris Kirk wins the Honda.jpgThe 2014 winner, Russell Henley, ranked tied for 26th for GIR and that's the worst any winner has ranked but two of the three men he beat in the playoff, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox, ranked tied first for GIR.

    The ability to get up-and-down with regularity is clearly important. Kirk only ranked 20th for Scrambling last year but the man he beat in extra time, Cole, ranked third and Duncan, who finished third, ranked fourth.

    The first and second in 2022 ranked third and second for Scrambling and although the number one scrambler last year (Sungjae Im), finished only T42nd, in eight of the last 13 years the top scrambler for the week has been placed.

    This is one of the few events in which a great week with the putter isn't essential. The last six winners have ranked ninth, fourth, 28th, 38th, 38th and 35th for Strokes Gained Putting and only five of the last 13 winners have ranked inside the 10 for Putting Average.

    If there's anything other than flat calm conditions, excellent wind exponents usually come to the fore.

    Is There an Angle In?

    Although PGA National is not a links course, it's an exposed and wind-affected venue so the fact that we've seen three Open Champions win here is perhaps not surprising. And that was very nearly four two years ago. The 2019 Open champ, Lowry, was matched at a low of 1.444/9.

    Although he's never won a major, Rickie Fowler has a great links pedigree, and a decent bank of Open Championship form and Open form came to the fore eight years ago too. The winner, Adam Scott, and the runner-up, Sergio Garcia, haven't won an Open but they're both great links players and they've both traded at odds-on to win the world's greatest tournament. Scotty has a decent bank of form at the Sony Open too and that's the best angle-in.

    Mark Wilson, Ernie Els, Russell Henley, and Justin Thomas have all won this event and the Sony Open. And last year's winner, Kirk, has finished second and third at the Sony Open.

    Ryan Palmer, who was one of the playoff protagonists ten years ago, has also won a Sony in Hawaii, the 2016 winner, Adam Scott, has finished second at Waialae, and Rory Sabbatini, the 2011 winner, has twice finished runner-up at the Sony Open.

    Brendan Steele, who traded at odds-on in both the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Sony, has finished fourth and third here in two of the last four editions.

    Waialae Country Club, home of the Sony, is also a wind-affected Bermuda track and the two courses clearly correlate very nicely.

    Matt Jones' only previous PGA Tour victory was the Houston Open at the Golf Club of Houston, which staged the tournament between 2006 and 2019, and although the form's a bit old now, that's a course that correlates nicely with the PGA National too.

    Jones was the third player to win at both courses and had Ian Poulter converted a three-stroke lead here in 2015 (matched at a low of 1.538/15), he'd have joined Jones, Adam Scott and Russell Henley to make it four.

    Stuart Appleby finished second at both venues and the 2015 Houston Open winner, J.B Holmes, was tied for second with a round to go here in 2021 so although the form's a bit old now, that's another angle in to consider.

    This is a stern test so it's perhaps not all that surprising that major champions fare well. Justin Thomas became the sixth major champion to win at the venue in 11 years when he took the title in 2018, joining Ernie Els, Y.E Yang, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott.

    Is There an Identikit Winner?

    Kirk was a 44.043/1 chance last year and between 2016 and 2018, all three winners were fairly well-fancied but this is a decent event for outsiders.

    The 2022 victor, Straka, was matched at 220.0219/1 before the off, Matt Jones hit a high of 140.0139/1 before the get-go in 2021, the 2019 winner, Keith Mitchell, went off at around 300.0299/1, having been matched at a high of 400.0399/1, and ten out of the 17 winners at PGA National have gone off at huge at a triple-figure price.

    Americans won the first 21 editions of this event and they've won six of the last 11 editions but since Nick Price broke the initial US run in 1994, an overseas player has won 16 of the last 30 editions and ten of the 17 winners at this venue have been from overseas.

    Winner's Position and Price Pre-Round Four

    • 2023 - Chris Kirk - led by two strokes 2.01/1
    • 2022 - Sepp Straka T2nd - trailing by five 24.023/1
    • 2021 - Matt Jones - led by three strokes 2.245/4
    • 2020 - Sungjae Im T5th - trailing by three 15.014/1
    • 2019 - Keith Mitchell T2nd - trailing by one 9.89/1
    • 2018 - Justin Thomas T2nd - trailing by one 3.052/1
    • 2017 - Rickie Fowler led by four strokes 1.548/15
    • 2016 - Adam Scott solo 4th - trailing by three 7.413/2

    In-Play Tactics

    History suggests you have to be up with the pace at PGA National and the 2020 winner, Sungjae Im, is the only winner of the event here to be outside the top top-seven places at halfway. He sat ninth.

    Ernie Els, in 2008, and Straka in 2022, both sat sixth and five off the lead at halfway, but every other event winner here has been within three strokes of the lead after 36 holes.

    Sepp Straka in the rain at the Honda.jpg

    History may suggest that you need to be in the van at halfway but a mediocre first round has been overcome on several occasions.

    Mark Wilson sat tied for 53rd and seven adrift after round one and two of the last four winners - Im and Straka - were outside the top-60 after the opening day's play. Im trailed by six and Straka seven. Kirk sat tied for 27th and four adrift after round one last year but he was up to second and just one back at halfway.

    If you plan to bet in-running, especially on Sunday, bear in mind that the par five 18th ranked as the second easiest hole on the course again last year but the finish to PGA National is tough enough when you're not in contention but when there's a title on the line it's brutal. As a result, we've witnessed plenty of in-play carnage here.

    Market Leaders

    The world number two, Rory McIlroy, has a strange set of figures at PGA National.

    He was a fast-finishing 13th on debut back in 2009, before finishing 40th and 70th in 2010 and 2011. On his last three visits, in 2015, 2016 and 2018, he missed the cut twice before finishing 59th but in between those visits he won in 2012, controversially withdrew after round one when defending in 2013, and was beaten in a playoff in 2014, having led after every round.

    Rory McIlroy US Open 23.jpgOnly twice has he shot an opening round in the 60s here so how he fares on Thursday is going to be key to how the week goes.

    Looking at the forecast, we look set for a benign start to the tournament before the wind picks up throughout Thursday so an early start on day one appears beneficial.

    At almost twice the price to finish in front on Thursday than he is to win the tournament, Rory may be a fair bet in the First Round Leader market if he gets an early tee time as he ends round one in front more often than he wins.

    In his career to date, McIlroy has finished round one of a 72-hole stroke play event with the lead or co-lead as many as 35 times and he's won 33 72-hole stroke-play titles.

    With the wind predicted to rise on Friday, and to be troublesome over the weekend, I'm happy to swerve him in the outright market. Although he can handle windy conditions well, I prefer to play Rory in favourable conditions.

    Cameron Young, who finished 16th on his only previous visit, in 2022, arrives in very fair form but he's yet to win on the PGA Tour, or any Tour, and he continues to fail to impress in-contention.

    He wilted badly behind Rory in January's Dubai Desert Classic, having led by three at halfway and by two through 54 holes and he was beaten by eight at the Phoenix Open last month, having trailed by just two after three rounds.

    He's a great links exponent as he showed at the Open Championship last July when finishing eighth but that was yet another example of him disappointing on Sunday given he sat second after 54 holes.

    There's been money for Eric Cole, who traded at a low of 1.271/4 on the 72nd hole last year, but he was a 170.0169/1 poke 12 months ago and at 38, he's still in search of his first win. He looks skinny enough at 30.029/1 and so too does another man in search of his first PGA Tour title - Byeong Hun An.

    The Korean looked like getting off the mark at the Sony Open in January (traded at a low of 1.422/5) and he has course form figures reading 5-36-4-MC-21 but his form has been only ordinary after his near miss at Waialae.

    Selection

    Although fairly prolific, with four PGA Tour titles to his name, Russell Henley isn't always a safe conveyance in-contention but he's still a fair price here at 32.031/1.

    The winner 10 years ago has twice traded at odds-on recently (at the Sony Open in January and the Wyndham Championship back in August) so even if he doesn't win, there's a reasonable chance he'll contend.

    This is Henley's first visit since 2021 but he clearly loves the venue given his course form figures since winning read 44-MC-43-24-20-8-3 and I thought he was fairly priced compared to the likes of Cole and An.

    Back Russell Henley @ 32.031/1

    Bet here

    *You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


    Now read SDC Championship: The Punter's Preview


New customers can get £20 in free bets!

New customers can earn £20 in free bets when they place a £5 bet on the Sportsbook after signing up. T&Cs apply.

Prices quoted in copy are correct at time of publication but liable to change.

Discover the latest articles