The Punter

Honda Classic: Links lovers set to excel

PGA National Golf Course
PGA National Golf Course

The PGA Tour switches from the West Coast to the East for the first leg of the Florida Swing and our man's here with the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start...


Tournament History

First staged in 1972 and originally known as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, Honda have sponsored the tournament since 1982.

The tournament switched to its current venue 16 years ago when Mark Wilson won a four-man playoff after the event had run into a Monday finish.

The Honda Classic used attract a strong field but after last week's stellar line-up at Riviera, for the second year in-a-row, the field is somewhat underwhelming.

Venue

PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

Course Details

Par 70, 7,125 yards
Stroke index in 2022 - 71.34

This is the 17th 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.

In the 16 years that the event's been staged here, the winner has only got to double-digits under-par five times. And on four of those five occasions, including last year, the winner was the only player to reach double-digits under-par.

Sepp Staka beat Shane Lowry by a stroke 12 months ago, having posted a 10-under-par 270 total.

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.

PGA NATIONAL 2022 1.jpg

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.

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 3.2 12 months ago.

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

Despite the rough being allowed to grow to up to three inches last year, both the Renaissance Club (Scottish Open) and TPC Potomac (Wells Fargo) played slightly tougher than the Champion Course last season.

It's still been the most difficult par 70 among all non-majors in four of the last five seasons, and in seven of the last eight.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days starting at 13:30 on Thursday

Last Seven Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2020 - 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 Honda Classic?

Michael Thompson only ranked 53rd for Driving Distance when he won here in 2013 and Sungjae Im ranked only 40th in 2020.

In the six years in between, 12th (Adam Scott in 2017) was the worst any winner ranked for DD and the last two winners have ranked 15th and 13th so length is clearly an advantage, but I'd still favour accuracy.

Matt Jones also ranked 15th for Driving Accuracy two years ago and Im ranked 10th in 2020 but with the rough up 12 months ago, last year's winner, Sepp Straka, found more fairways than anyone else.

The runner-up, Shane Lowry, ranked fourth for DA.

Although Straka ranked only fourth for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, the top six all ranked inside the top ten for that stat and the four previous winners all ranked first.

Sepp Straka in the rain at the Honda.jpg

In addition to topping the DA rankings, Straka also ranked number one for Greens In Regulation and ten of the 16 winners here to date have ranked inside the top-ten for GIR.

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.

The ability to get up-and-down with regularly is clearly important. The first and second ranked third and second for Scrambling respectively.

Although the number one scrambler last year (Christiaan Bezuidenhout), finished only T25th, in eight of the last 12 years the top scrambler for the week has been placed.

In the last ten renewals, 49 of the 63 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 five winners have ranked 4th, 28th, 38th, 38th and 35th for Strokes Gained Putting and only four of the last 12 winners have ranked inside the 10 for Putting Average. Straka ranked 27th.

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.

It was very nearly four 12 months 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 seven 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 whilst the 2016 winner, Scott, has finished second at Waialae. Rory Sabbatini, the 2011 Honda Classic winner, has twice finished runner-up at the Sony Open.

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

Chris Kirk kept the link alive this year when finishing third in the Sony in January. He sat second after rounds one, two and three here last year before eventually finishing seventh.

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.

Matt Jones wins the Honda.jpg

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 that's another angle in to consider.

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.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Between 2016 and 2018, all three winners were fairly well-fancied but this is a decent event for outsiders.

Last year's victor, Staka, was matched at 220.0219/1 before the off, Matt Jones hit a high of 140.0139/1 before the get-go in 2021 and the 2019 winner, Keith Mitchell, went off at around 300.0299/1, having been matched at a high of 400.0399/1.

Ten out of the 16 winners at PGA National have gone off at a triple-figure price.

Americans won the first 21 editions of this event and they've won five of the last ten editions but since Nick Price broke the initial US run in 1994, an overseas player has won 16 of the last 29 editions and ten of the 16 winners at this venue have been from overseas.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

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 to be outside the top top-seven places at halfway. He sat ninth.

Ernie Els, in 2008, and Straka last year, both sat sixth and five off the lead at halfway but every other Honda winner here has been with three strokes after 36 holes.

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 three winners - Im and Strake - were outside the top-60 after the opening day's play. Im trailed six and Straka seven.

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, and can be brutal when there's a title on the line.

As a result, we've witnessed plenty of in-play carnage here.

I'll be back later today with a look at the market leaders and with details of any selections.

Market Leaders

Sungjae Im missed the cut here 12 months ago and he finished only 56th last week in the Genesis Invitational but both look like anomalies.

The 2020 winner finished eighth when defending so he clearly loves the venue and prior to last week's lacklustre effort, he'd finished fourth at the Farmers Insurance Open and sixth at the Phoenix Open and it would be no surprise to see him bounce back here.

Having traded at odds-on last year, Shane Lowry is the warm second favourite after a decent performance at Riviera last week, where he finished 14th, but he looks short enough to me.

Prior to his second placed finish 12 months ago, Lowry had course form figures reading 53-49-21-36 and he'd missed his last two cuts before last week's improved effort.

Selections

I've spent a lot of time looking closely at the players priced at below 40.039/1 and none of them make any appeal at the prices.

It's a weak field and the more I look at it the more I think Sungjae Im is a fair price and if he plays like he did in Phoenix or at the Farmers he's going to take a lot of beating so I'm happy to get him onside modestly at 9.89/1.

I've backed an outsider who I'll detail in the Find Me a 100 Winner column and my only other pick is Harris English.

Harris English in Memphis.jpg

English bookended two mediocre rounds with an opening 66 and a closing 65 at Riviera last week to finish 12th and that was an extremely eye-catching effort after three missed cuts.

With form at the Golf Club of Houston (fourth in 2019) and a ninth, fourth and a third in the Sony Open, it's no surprise to see he's been getting to grips with this venue of late, finishing 33rd, 12th and 17th on his last three visits and given the lack of depth in the field, I thought 40.039/1 was fair.

Selections:

Sungjae Im @ 9.89/1

Harris English @ 40.039/1

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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