Honda Classic: Rejuvenated Kirk fits the bill

Golfer Chis Kirk
Chis Kirk - fancied to go well at PGA National

The PGA Tour moves on to Palm Beach Gardens this week for the fourth and final event in the Florida Swing - the Honda Classic - so read Steve's comprehensive preview here...

"Form at last week’s event is a definite plus. Following Thomas’ win at Sawgrass on Sunday, four of the last nine winners of this event, and the 2016 runner-up, Sergio Garcia, have all won the Players Championship."

Tournament History


Originally known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, Honda have sponsored the tournament since 1982 and it switched to its current venue 14 years ago when Mark Wilson won a four-man playoff after the event had ran into a Monday finish.

The Honda Classic usually attracts a strong field but it usually kicks off the Florida Swing and this is the fourth week in-a-row that the PGA Tour has been based in Florida so many of the big names have chosen to skip this week ahead of next week's WGC - Match Play event in Texas.

Venue

PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

Course Details

Par 70, 7,125 yards
Stroke index in 2020 - 71.9

This is the 15th 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 and in the 14 years that the event's been staged here the winner has only got to double-digits under-par three times. Sungjae Im won last year's renewal with -6 total and the course averaged almost two strokes over-par.

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.

PGA NATIONAL 2021 3.jpg

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 3.12 12 months ago.

It's still a tough finish though and it's a tough course all round. PGA National averaged 71.9 last year and it's been the most difficult non-major par 70 in each of the last three seasons and in five of the last six.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days with live Featured Group coverage starting from 11:30 on Thursday and full live coverage starting 18:00.

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

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 [?]

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. And in really tough, windy conditions, the winner, Sungjae Im, only ranked 40th for DD last year but the big hitters have been prospering here of late.

The 2019 winner, Keith Mitchell, ranked eighth for Driving Distance 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 nine winners have ranked inside the top-12 for length off the tee.

Im ranked 10th for Driving Accuracy and three of the top-seven ranked inside the top ten but that was quite unusual. Mitchell had ranked only 54th for DA when winning in 2019 and Thomas and List, the first and second in 2018, only ranked 60th and 65th for Driving Accuracy. Prior to last year, Michael Thompson, in 2013, who ranked ninth, had been the only winner here to rank inside the top-16 for DA so I'd favour the longer hitters over the more accurate drivers.

Mitchel only rankled 22nd for Greens In Regulation two years ago and that was quite a low ranking given five of the top-six ranked seventh or better and that Im ranked second 12 months ago when winning. The 2016 winner, Adam Scott, ranked number one for GIR and eight of the 14 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 winner, Im, ranked fifth for Scrambling, the first and fourth ranked second and first for that stat in 2019 and the first and second in 2018 ranked first and second for Scrambling.

The ability to get up-and-down with regularly is clearly important and in eight of the last ten years the top scrambler for the week has been placed. Richy Werenski, who finished tied for 17th last year, and Graeme McDowell, who finished tied for ninth in 2013, are the two odd men out and in the last eight renewals, 40 of the 50 players to finish inside the top-five and ties have ranked inside the top-25 for scrambling.

This is one of the few events in which a great week with the putter isn't essential. The last three winners have had a Putting Average ranking of 29th, 18th and 34th and only two of the last ten winners have ranked inside the 10 for Putting Average.

And finally, excellent wind exponents usually come to the fore here and that will be the case again this week if the forecast is anything to go by.

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, Rickie Fowler has a great links pedigree and a decent bank of Open Championship form and Open form came to the fore five 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 a great angle-in.

Mark Wilson, Ernie Els, Russell Henley and Justin Thomas, have all won this event and the Sony Open, one of the 2014 playoff protagonists, Ryan Palmer, has also won a Sony in Hawaii, the 2016 winner, Scott, has finished second Waialae, and Rory Sabbatini, the 2011 Honda Classic winner, has twice finished runner-up at the Sony Open.

Brendan Steele, who has traded at odds-on in each of the last two editions of the Sony, before getting caught close home, has a solid bank of form here and he finished tied for fourth 12 months ago, having led the event at halfway.

Waialae Country Club, home of the Sony, is also a wind-affected Bermuda track 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. 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.

The Players Championship is often referred to as the fifth major and form at last week's event is a definite plus too. Following Thomas' win at Sawgrass on Sunday, four of the last nine winners of this event, and the 2016 runner-up, Sergio 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 three years ago.

Is there an Identikit Winner?

Between 2016 and 2018, all three winners were fairly well-fancied and last year's wasn't impossible to spot either but this is a decent event for outsiders.

The 2019 winner, Mitchell, went off at around 300.0299/1, having been matched at a high of 400.0399/1, and eight out of the 14 winners at PGA National have gone off at huge prices. And the three winners before Adam Scott in 2016 were very hard to find...

Padraig Harrington was matched at 600.0599/1 before the off in 2015, Russell Henley traded at a high 400.0399/1 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 eight editions but since Nick Price broke the initial US run in 1994, an overseas player has won 14 of the last 27 editions and eight of the 14 winners at this venue have been from overseas.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

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 so Sungjae Im confounded the usual in-running trends. He sat tied for 63rd after round one, following a two-over-par 72, trailing by six, but a four-under-par 66 in round two saw him shoot up into a tie for ninth at halfway and he sat tied for fifth with a round to go.

The inaugural course winner, Mark Wilson, trailed by seven strokes after round one and Scott trailed by five in 2016 but they're the only other two course winners to be more than four adrift after the opening round and every course winner bar Im 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 strokes adrift 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.

In 2018, when last week's winner, Justin Thomas, took the title, three players traded at odds-on before losing. Third round leader, Luke List, who had begun the week as an unconsidered 240.0239/1 chance, nearly caused another shock when he was matched at just 1.222/9 before he lost in extra time (the third playoff in five years), Alex Noren, who finished third, was matched at 1.834/5 and Tommy Fleetwood, who eventually finished fourth, was matched at just 1.9310/11. And it was a similar tale in 2015...

Ian Poulter hit at a low of 1.538/15 before he found water twice on the par four 14th to blow his chance. Patrick Reed was then matched at 1.664/6 before his chance went at the par three 15th when he went for a swim off the tee, and Harrington was matched at just 1.282/7 in regulation play before he found the aqua on the par three 17th. He eventually beat Daniel Berger in a playoff.

McIlroy, who was beaten by Henley in a playoff in 2014, was matched at 1.282/7 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!

Market Leaders

With current form reading 1-35-9 and course form figures that read 2-MC-MC-29-36-4, it's no surprise to see the recent AT&T winner, Daniel Berger at the head of the market but he's struggling with a rib injury and that's a worry.

"Was surprised actually that I was able to play all four days. I'm kind of just happy to have played golf all four rounds.

"Hopefully if everything is OK then I can do my best to play. Just a lot of golf, it's a lot of wear and tear on the body. Hopefully it gets better."

The defending champ, Sungjae Im, is next up and he makes little appeal given his current form. He got himself into contention last week with a brilliant run in round two but a third round 77 saw him drop back again before he eventually finished tied for 17th.

Im's been a bit in-and-out since finishing second to Dustin Johnson in the US Masters and defending a title is never easy.

Joaquin Niemann looks a great fit for the venue but in two starts here he's failed to break par - missing the cut last year having finished 59th on debut in 2019.

Bang-in-form English veteran, Lee Westwood, loves it here but how long can he keep going? He must be shattered, and it would be an almighty effort for him to contend for a third week-in-a-row on a really demanding track.

Lee Westwood at Sawgrass.jpg

There's been plenty of money for the Open champ, Shane Lowry, and I can see why after his eye-catching eighth at the Players last week, where he ranked 11th for Greens In Regulation and fourth for Scrambling. He has course form figures reading an uninspiring 53-49-21 but a windy week should be ideal and a repeat of last week's performance would see him go very close.

Selections

I was a little surprised to get matched at 60.059/1 on the Sony Open runner-up, Chris Kirk, who was well-supported last week at not too much bigger after his top-ten finish in the Arnold Palmer. He's back in form after troubles away form golf and he contended until Sunday at Sawgrass.

Kirk has missed four of his last five cuts here so it's a speculative punt to a degree, but he's been out of form for years. The venue should definitely suit him, he was 12th here in 2014, and he won in Florida on the Korn Ferry Tour last year.

I'll have one or two more here in the Find Me a 100 Winner column later today or tomorrow but my only other pre-event pick for now is Wyndham Clark, who's course form is just too strong to ignore, despite him suffering with back issues again.

Clark has missed his last two cuts after finishing eighth at the Genesis Open so he's a risky play but he led here with a round top go on debut two years ago before finishing seventh and he returned to finish 11th last year. I thought he was worth chancing at 80.079/1.

Wyndham clark.jpg

Admittedly, both have shortened up a bit since yesterday but they could very easily drift back out before the off.

Selections:
Chris Kirk @ 60.059/1
Wyndham Clark @ 80.079/1

I'll be back later with my Kenya Open preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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