Honda Classic: Outsiders worth chancing in Florida Swing opener
The PGA Tour moves west to east via Mexico and it's all change on the greens as we switch from Poa Annua to Bermuda at the Honda Classic. Our man has the lowdown with his extensive preview here...
"I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see an outsider win again given seven of the 12 winners at this venue have been unfancied."
With the West Coast Swing over for another year and the first of the four World Golf Championships done and dusted, the PGA Tour returns to the east coast this week for the 47th edition of the Honda Classic.
Originally known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, Honda have sponsored the tournament since 1982 and it switched to its current venue 12 years ago when Mark Wilson won a four-man playoff after the event had ran into a Monday finish.
PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Par 70, 7,140 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 72.3
The players will be tested to the max for the first event of the year in Florida. This is the 13th year in-a-row that the Tom and George Fazio-designed PGA National will be used and it's a really tough test.
It was extensively reworked by Jack Nicklaus in 1990 and it was again tweaked in 2014. In the 12 years that the event's been staged here the winner has only got to double-digits under-par three times.
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 last season, averaging more than half a stroke over par at 3.533, but it might play fractionally easier this time around with a new tee-box, positioned 15 yards nearer to the putting surface.
Live on Sky Sports all four days with live Featured Group coverage starting from 13:00 on Thursday and full live coverage starting 19:00.
Last Five Winners
2018 -Justin Thomas -8 (Playoff)
2017 - Rickie Fowler -12
2016 - Adam Scott -9
2015 - Padraig Harrington -6 (Playoff)
2014 - Russell Henley -8 (Playoff)
What Will it Take to Win the Honda Classic?
Neither length nor accuracy appeared crucial in the early years here and five of the first six winners ranked 42nd or worse for Driving Distance but it's been all change since. The first two home 12 months ago, Justin Thomas and Luke List, ranked first and second for DD and six of the last seven winners have ranked inside the top-12 for DD.
Thomas and List only ranked 60th and 65th for Driving Accuracy and Michael Thompson, in 2013, is the only winner here to rank inside the top-16 for DA so I'd definitely favour the longer hitters.
Thomas and List both ranked tied 14th for Greens In Regulation and that was quite a low ranking given the 2016 winner, Adam Scott, ranked number one for GIR and that seven of the 12 winners here to date have ranked inside the top-ten for that stat. The 2016 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.
As they did in 2012, the first and second last year ranked first and second for Scrambling and in seven of the last eight years, the top scrambler for the week has been placed. The odd man out was Graeme McDowell in 2013 who finished tied for ninth and in the last six renewals, 32 of 38 players to finish inside the top-five and ties have ranked in the top-25 for scrambling, 20 of whom made the top-ten. Alex Noren, who finished third was the only player in the top-six last year not to rank inside the top-ten for scrambling.
Justin Thomas only ranked 34th for Putting Average last year but that's not unusual. Only two of the last eight winners have ranked inside the 10 for Putting Average and one or two have gone close to winning with very cold putters. Geoff Ogilvy finished second in 2013 with a PA ranking of 54th and in 2014, only one player inside the top-20, Andrew Loupe in tied 14th, ranked inside the top-10 for PA.
Wind exponents often come to the fore but the forecast suggests a fairly benign week.
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.
Although he's never won a major, Fowler has a great links pedigree and a decent bank of Open Championship form and Open form came to the fore three years too. 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 a great angle-in.
Mark Wilson, Ernie Els, Russell Henley and last year's winner, Justin Thomas, have all won this event and the Sony Open and one of the 2014 playoff protagonists, Ryan Palmer, has also won a Sony in Hawaii. And Rory Sabbatini, the 2011 Honda Classic winner, has twice finished runner-up at the Sony Open. Waialae Country Club, home of the Sony, is also a wind-affected Bermuda course and the two courses clearly correlate very nicely.
This is a really stern test so it's perhaps not all that surprising that major champions fare well. Fowler is the best player yet to win one and Thomas became the sixth major champion to win at the venue in 11 years, joining Ernie Els, Y.E Yang, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott.
The Players Championship is often referred to as the Fifth major and form there is a definite plus. In four visits to Sawgrass, third (in 2016) is the best finish Thomas has mustered but two of the last three winners of this event, and the 2016 runner-up, Sergio Garcia, have all won the Players Championship and last year's Players champ, Webb Simpson, perhaps should have also won this. He led after the opening round and he was still sitting second with a round to go, alongside the winner, Thomas, before fading to finish fifth last year.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The last three winners have been well-fancied but I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see an outsider win again given seven of the 12 winners at this venue have been unfancied and that the three before Scott in 2016 were very hard to find...
Padraig Harrington was matched at [600.0] before the off in 2015, Henley traded at [400.0] in 2014 and in 2013, Michael Thompson was an unconsidered [1000.0] shot.
Americans won the first 21 editions of this event and they've won four of the last six editions but since Nick Price broke the initial US run in 1994, an overseas player has won 13 of the last 25 editions and seven of the 12 winners at this venue have been from overseas.
Thomas sat tied for fourth and just one off the pace after round one, he was just two off the lead at halfway, and he trailed by just one again before round four and history suggests you usually have to be right up with the pace at PGA National.
The inaugural course winner, Mark Wilson, trailed by seven strokes after round one and Scotty trailed by five in 2016 but they're the only two course winners to be more than four adrift after the opening round and every course winner has been inside the top-seven places at halfway. The 2008 winner, Ernie Els, who sat tied for sixth, is the only winner to be more than three adrift at halfway.
Harrington was matched at over [200.0] during the final round in 2015, when a poor run of holes looked to have cost him his chance, but he ended each round inside the top-three on the leaderboard and he was never more than three off the lead in between rounds. Everyone will drop shots here so being up with the pace looks crucial.
Rory McIlroy led wire-to-wire five years ago before losing in the playoff and the winner, Russell Henley, had sat in second after round one, third at halfway and then back into second with a round to go.
The five winners before Henley were all within a stroke of the lead at halfway too so it's probably not wise to go scanning too far down the leaderboard.
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 the 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 all sorts of in-play carnage...
Three players traded at odds-on before losing last year. Third round leader, Luke List, who had begun the week as unconsidered [240.0] chance nearly caused another shock when he was matched at just [1.22] before he lost in extra time (the third playoff in five years), Noren, who finished third, was matched at [1.83] and Tommy Fleetwood, who eventually finished fourth, was matched at just [1.93]. And it was a similar tale in 2015...
Ian Poulter hit at a low of [1.53] before he found water twice on the par four 14th to blow his chance. Patrick Reed was then matched at [1.66] before his chance went at the par three 15th, when he went for a swim off the tee, and Harrington was matched at just [1.28] in regulation play before he found the aqua on the par three 17th.
McIlroy, who was beaten by Henley in a playoff in 2014, was matched at [1.28] before he found water on the 16th so that's four different players in just two years trading at odds-on before finding the water on four different holes on the back nine in round four. PGA National is not for the faint-hearted!
After his remarkable 62 in Mexico on Sunday, defending champ, Justin Thomas, is a predictably short-priced favourite at less than 6/1. He defended his first ever title - the CIMB Classic - so that shouldn't be an issue but it might be worth waiting to see how he starts the event given how important a fast start appears to be here.
Thomas has been on the go, playing in three of the last four weeks, and he will feel he should have won two weeks ago at Riviera, when he traded at a low of [1.18] before losing out to J.B Holmes at the Genesis Open. His chance is very obvious but his price is skinny.
Rickie Fowler missed the cut when defending 12 months ago but I'm not sure that's worth worrying about. He was a bit disappointing in Mexico last week where he could only finish 36th but he won the Phoenix Open two starts ago and I'd be happy to dismiss that effort too. Every chance of contending but he's not straightforward in-contention and I'm more than happy to leave him out.
Brooks Koepka's gone off the boil a bit of late and his four previous visits have only produced form figures reading 33-51-26-MC so he's ignored from the get-go too.
Given how important a fast start is here, and how many outsiders have won the tournament at this venue, I'm happy to keep my powder dry for the in-play action but I have thrown a few pounds at seven big outsiders.
Russell Knox has course form (second and third in 2014 and 2015) and he's been hinting at a return to form of late so I've backed him at [85.0]. Patton Kizzire is a multiple winner and a Sony Open winner and the out of form, Martin Kaymer, ticks lots of boxes. He's won a major, a Players Championship and he was fourth two years ago.
After that, I've backed four players that contended at last week's Puerto Rico Open, at a venue not dissimilar to this one. They may well bounce this week and Johnson Wagner, who traded at odds-on before finishing second, has never played well here, but quite why he and the winner, Martin Trainer, were priced up at [400.0] plus is beyond me.
Russell Knox @ [85.0]
Patton Kizzire @ [230.0]
Martin Kaymer @ [270.0]
Martin Trainer @ [400.0]
Johnson Wagner @ [440.0]
Shawn Stefani @ [600.0]
Ben Crane @ [750.0]
I'll be back soon with my Oman Open preview.
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