The week after a big event usually produces a laidback atmosphere and the follow-up events are often played on easier courses to allow golfers to cool down and relax a little. That won't be the case this week as the TOUR heads to PGA National for one of the toughest tests on TOUR.
The Honda Classic started the Florida Swing last year but it's now at the backend, playing the cleanup role. There are pros and cons to both spots on the schedule but with the WGC-Match Play lurking next week, many of the superstars are taking a pass on the Honda.
Still, there are a handful of big names at the top of the board this week. A total of 144 golfers will peg it with the top 65 and ties advancing on to play the weekend.
The Champion Course at PGA National is the host this week. It will be the 15th straight season playing that role.
I already touched on it a bit at the top, but this course is tough. The Tom Fazio design will chew you up and spit you out if you are not striking it pure or scrambling your tail off.
Pulling up the scorecard, we see a par 70 that stretches to 7,125 yards. Not long by today's standards but it also forces you to club down on many of the par 4s which puts a few extra mid-to-long irons in your hands. That turns it into a second-shot golf course, as many like to say.
The main reason for choosing less-than-driver on so many holes this week is all of the water scoured across the course, coming into play on 15 holes at PGA National.
Course management is crucial this week because there aren't many true "birdie holes" at PGA National. That becomes even more apparent when the wind becomesan issue, as it often does in this area. A conservative approach is preferred but if you start to press and get too aggressive then the errors can compound themselves very quickly. The course has one of the highest double bogey or worse rates, of any course on TOUR.
If you can avoid double bogeys entirely this week then you'll probably find yourself in contention on Sunday afternoon.
For turf, golfers that grew up or currently reside in the Southeast will be happy to see the bermudagrass greens. They are slightly larger than TOUR average, with an average square footage of 7,000. The greens were redone ahead of the 2019 edition so they've had a few years to grow in and mature now.
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Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Cameron Tringale: "The wind out here is always the biggest defense. This golf course with all the run-offs, it’s a second-shot golf course"
Harris English: "You’ve got to really strike the ball well to have such good distance control out there. I knew that coming into today that I was going to have to lean on my short game, you’re going to miss some greens out there."
Tommy Fleetwood: "The wind is a massive factor all the way around the golf course. I feel like there’s so many cross-winds which bring misses off the tee, into the greens, cross-winds affect the putts, and it’s just an all-around very, very difficult test, and it tests everyone. It tests every part of your game."
Brooks Koepka: "Obviously if you’re nervous it’ll show up. This golf course, there’s about five to seven holes where you can really take advantage of it if you hit the fairway and you’ve got a good number to the flag, and you’ve got to take advantage of those if you want to move up, and the rest of the holes you’re just kind of hanging on and trying to make par, maybe sneaking in one or two birdies. "
Ben Crane: "It’s really not a bomber’s golf course because the rough is so thick, so you’ve really got to put the ball in play and give yourself chances"
Jhonattan Vegas: "I mean, to be honest, it's very hard to be aggressive around here, even with some of these pins. There's always trouble around the corner that you -- even if you're hitting it great, it's really hard to start hitting at some of those pins. Sometimes hitting it to 25 feet, 30 feet, it's a good shot, and you have to use your best judgment and go from there."
Golfers talk a lot about the comforts of playing on bermudagrass here at PGA National. Wind is also a big factor so we'll need to keep an eye on the forecast this week to see if it's going to show up again.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
If you just want to look at the eye test then courses like Harbour Town, Sedgefield, Bay Hill, Sea Island Resort, and Innisbrook would all pass the test in some shape or form (bermuda, scoring environment, etc.). However, the four courses above are what show the most overlap in terms of golfers overperforming or underperforming at PGA National.
Thursday: Mostly Cloudy with a high of 82 degrees. Winds at 12 to 17 MPH.
Friday: Partly Cloudy with a high of 81 degrees. Winds at 9 to 13 MPH.
This course can get brutal when the wind picks up so make sure you keep an eye on the wind forecast as Thursday draws nearer.
Golfers to Watch
He's the defending champ and opens the week as a 12/1 outright option, second on the odds board. He arrives with top-35 finishes in eight of his last nine starts, five of them doubling as top 20s.
I just mentioned Im being second on the odds board and it's Berger as the only man above him (10/1 odds). The Florida State product was a runner-up finisher here in his 2015 debut and he also posted a T4 last year. Even when he showed up in 2015 for his debut he took a guess that he'd played the Champion Course around 25 times while growing up. He arrives off a top 10 at THE PLAYERS and a win not too long ago, just last month at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
While this is a home game for Berger, it's also a home game for Fowler (among many others) who has been a Jupiter resident for a while now. He had this to say back in 2017, "It’s almost kind of nice to be back here, since I’ve lived here for almost seven years now. Being back on surfaces that I’m used to now. I feel like I’ve struggled on the West Coast the past few years, for sure. I don’t really count Phoenix as the West Coast just because it’s similar to what we are playing down here green-wise." Recent form is the only thing holding him back right now since he's still trying to snap out of his slump. Fowler arrives with nothing better than a T20 in his last 15 events played.
This used to be a home game for Westwood but this time around he's bringing stellar recent form to the table, instead of local comfort. The Englishman arrives off back-to-back runner-up finishes, can he make it three in a row? He's posted top 10s in four of his previous eight Honda visits and he likes the setup at PGA National, "I’ve played this golf course a lot of times, so you know, I’ve played a lot of Hondas, and it’s a golf course I feel comfortable on. Whenever you get on a golf course you’re familiar with and you’re comfortable with, it always helps. Obviously I’ve had some good results down here. I like playing tough golf courses in tough conditions."
When I look at recent history at the Honda, I noticed some overlap from year to year. Fowler was the 36-hole leader in 2016 and then returned to win the 2017 edition. Sungjae Im did the same thing, co-leading at the midpoint of the 2019 edition then winning the following year. That brings us to Steele who led here by himself through 36 holes last year. In the past he's taken a close call and turned it into a positive by winning the next year (Safeway Open). He might be someone to watch closely this week.
The Georgia Bulldog missed the cut in his 2019 Honda Classic debut but returned to land a T27 last year. The result doesn't leap off the page but he did lead the field in GIR for the week. That could be a decent pointer to suggest the course fits his eye. The problem? He arrives off back-to-back missed cuts and has nothing better than a T32 on his resume since returning from the holiday break.
Okay, this one is really a stretch but he's the tournament's all-time money leader at the Honda. He finished T11 here last year and has five finishes of T10 or better in 12 visits. That includes a 2006 victory. The Englishman enters the week with six straight missed cuts on his resume so gamers should certainly not consider this a home-run play. Just someone to look into if you need a deep value option in weekly formats.
Ranking the Field
1. Daniel Berger
2. Joaquin Niemann
3. Russell Henley
4. Sungjae Im
5. Adam Scott
6. Cameron Tringale
7. Talor Gooch
8. Chris Kirk
9. Rickie Fowler
10. Kevin Streelman
11. Doug Ghim
12. Zach Johnson
13. Billy Horschel
14. Brandon Wu
15. Brendan Steele
16. Cameron Davis
17. John Huh
18. Lee Westwood
20. Sepp Straka