Following last week's jaunt down Mexico way, the PGA Tour moves east to Florida 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 here...
"Ted Potter Jr has been playing ok of late and he's a great scrambler. His sixth-placed finish in Puerto Rico last week was a decent enough performance (ranked fourth for Scrambling) and he’s already won a couple of PGA Tour events.
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 48th 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 13 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, 7,125 yards
Stroke index in 2019 - 71.02
The players will be tested to the max for the first event of the year in Florida. This is the 14th 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 13 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 in 2018, averaging more than half a stroke over par at 3.533, but it played much easier last year (3.09) with a new tee-box, positioned 15 yards nearer to the putting surface.
It's still a tough finish though and it's a tough course all round. PGA National averaged 71.02 last year and the was the hardest non-major par 70 all season. It's been the most difficult non-major par 70 in four of the last five seasons and five of the last seven.
Live on Sky Sports all four days with live Featured Group coverage starting from 12:00 on Thursday and full live coverage starting 19:00.
Last Five Winners
2019 - Keith Mitchell -9
2018 - Justin Thomas -8 (Playoff)
2017 - Rickie Fowler -12
2016 - Adam Scott -9
2015 - Padraig Harrington -6 (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. Keith Mitchell ranked eighth for Driving Distance when winning 12 months ago and Brooks Koepka, who finished tied for second, ranked second for DD. The first two home in 2018, Justin Thomas and Luke List, ranked first and second for DD and seven of the last eight winners have ranked inside the top-12 for DD.
Mitchell ranked only 54th for driving Accuracy and Thomas and List, the first and second 12 months earlier, only ranked 60th and 65th for Driving Accuracy. 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.
Mitchell only rankled 22nd for Greens In Regulation and that was quite a low ranking given five of the top-six ranked seventh or better. The 2016 winner, Adam Scott, ranked number one for GIR and seven of the 13 winners here to date have ranked inside the top-ten for that stat. The 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.
Last year's first and fourth ranked second and first for Scrambling and as they did in 2012, the first and second in 2018 ranked first and second for Scrambling. In eight of the last nine 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 seven renewals, 35 of 43 players to finish inside the top-five and ties have ranked in the top-25 for scrambling.
Mitchell ranked 18th for Putting Average last year and Justin Thomas only ranked 34th in 2018 but that's not unusual. Only two of the last nine 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.
And finally, excellent wind exponents often shine here.
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 four years ago 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 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 when he took the title in 2018, joining 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 too. Following McIlroy's win at Sawgrass last year, three of the last eight winners of this event, and the 2016 runner-up, Garcia, have all won the Players Championship and the 2018 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 two years ago.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Between 2016 and 2018, all three winners were fairly well-fancied but it was business as usual last year with Mitchell going off at around [300.0], having been matched at a high of [400.0]. That's now eight out of 13 unfancied winners at this venue and 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 five of the last seven editions but since Nick Price broke the initial US run in 1994, an overseas player has won 13 of the last 26 editions and seven of the 13 winners at this venue have been from overseas.
Mitchell sat tied for 20th after round one last year but he was only four off the lead and in he was tied for the lead after round two. He trailed 54-hole leader, Wyndham Clark, by just a stroke in solo second and that was fairly typical of winners here as 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, 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.
McIlroy led wire-to-wire six 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...
Ryan Palmer charged through the field last year and for a while, he looked like being the first off-the-pace winner at PGA National. Having been matched at [1000.0], he hit a low of [2.3]. Fowler was matched at just [3.05] after an unlikely birdie at 17 and Brooks Koepka hit [1.75].
In 2018, three players traded at odds-on before losing. Third round leader, Luke List, who had begun the week as an 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), Alex 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!
Given his sole success in more than two years was his off-the-pace win at the Nedbank in November and that he could only finish 18th in Mexico last week, at a venue that suits, Tommy Fleetwood looks a very unappealing price at around 14/1. His fourth placed finish two years ago is his only previous appearance.
Brooks Koepka took his time to get to grips with the venue and up until his second placed finish 12 months ago, his course form figures read a very uninspiring 33-51-26-MC. He hasn't got going again since he took time out for an injured left knee last year and he's now slipped from first to fourth in the Official World Rankings. He's still won more majors than non-majors (4-3) and whilst he could very easily find inspiration from his slipping position in the rankings and he could well benefit from a week off last week, he too is easy to dismiss at the prices.
Rickie Fowler loves it here but he just doesn't win often enough and his current form is largely regressive. Since finishing fifth in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and tenth at the American Express, he's missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open and he was a disappointing tied 37th when defending his Phoenix Open title last time out. And that's the only title he's won since he claimed this one three years ago.
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 three players.
Harris English's 12th here was ey-catching given how poorly he was playing at the time and while he has gone a little quiet of late, he was in great form at the end of the year and his 16th at the Phoenix Open last time was encouraging enough. He's a great scrambler and he plays very well on Bermuda so I thought [80.0] was fair.
Kurt Kitayama is long off the tee, he's a very fair scrambler and an excellent wind exponent. He's making his debut here this week but he's an interesting participant givne he's chosen this event over the Oman Open (previewed here) which he won last year.
My only other pre-event pick is Ted Potter Jr at a huge price. He's been playing Ok of late and he too is a great scrambler. His sixth-placed finish in Puerto Rico last week was a decent enough performance (ranked fourth for Scrambling) and he's already won a couple of PGA Tour events.
Harris English @ [80.0]
Kurt Kitayama @ [130.0]
Ted Potter Jr @ [460.0]
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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