Q&Gray: Rickie Fowler's back at Honda, and what's taking Tommy Fleetwood so long?

Will Gray
Golf Channel

The PGA Tour scene has shifted east, and some of the game’s biggest stars are set to tackle a difficult test at the Honda Classic. Here are four burning questions to consider before the action begins at PGA National, ranging from a recent Ryder Cup star to the fates of three of the reigning major champions:

Is it time for Tommy Fleetwood to end his PGA Tour drought?

Ample time is spent around bars and water coolers alike debating who might be the best player without a major. But there’s no debate about who is the best player in the world without a PGA Tour win.

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That distinction belongs to Tommy Fleetwood, who enters the Honda ranked No. 12 in the world. He’s the only player in the top 20 missing one, as Bernd Wiesberger (No. 23) is the next highest-ranked player without a Tour title to his name.

Fleetwood has won five times on the European Tour, most recently in November, and his four runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour include the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Open. But he has yet to get into the winner’s circle in the U.S. despite making 63 career starts. 

There’s reason to suspect that start No. 64 might be when he ends his drought, as Fleetwood is listed as a betting co-favorite this week alongside Brooks Koepka. Fleetwood finished fourth in 2018 in his lone prior appearance at PGA National, a track that rewards solid iron play which remains one of the Englishman’s strengths. Fleetwood closed 2019 with a fury and hasn’t lost a step since, following a runner-up in Abu Dhabi with top-20s in Dubai and Mexico.

Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood share favorite honors at Honda

Will the Honda crown another first-time winner?

Last year Keith Mitchell drew some motivation out of a local headline touting “relative unknowns” leading the tournament at the halfway point en route to a breakthrough victory. But there’s no denying that PGA National has a tendency to crown first-time winners. 

In the 13 years since the event shifted to PGA National, four players have made this their first career win – including Y.E. Yang, who won here in 2009 months before toppling Tiger Woods at Hazeltine. Perhaps it’s the penal rough, or perhaps it’s the treacherous nature of the Bear Trap, but there’s an element in play that allows for first-timers to contend and even overtake more accomplished peers.

Honda Classic: Full-field tee times | Full coverage

While the aforementioned Fleetwood doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a Mitchell or 2013 champ Michael Thompson, there are still several players in the field who could surprise and potentially leave with the trophy. Among them are South Africa’s Erik Van Rooyen, who tied for third last week in Mexico City and is making just his 11th career PGA Tour start this week, and Wyndham Clark. Clark held the 54-hole lead here last year before fading to a T-7 finish, but he returns to PGA National on the heels of two top-20 finishes earlier this month in California.

Mitchell's Honda victory proved that he could 'handle the stage'

Can any of the major champions build momentum?

While Woods is notably absent from an event held just a few miles from his Florida home, the Honda does feature each of the other three major champions from 2019: Koepka, Gary Woodland and Shane Lowry. And they’re each hoping to use this week’s stop as a springboard with the first major of 2020 just a few weeks away.

Koepka is deserving of favorite status, the lone top-10 player in the field and a runner-up last year after a sizzling 66 in the final round. But after middling finishes to start the year and an injury layoff before that, he’s now down to No. 3 in the world – rarified air, but still his worst standing since March.

Woodland was a runner-up here back in 2017 and already has three top-10 finishes to his credit this season, but he hasn’t factored down the stretch since holding off Koepka at Pebble Beach. Perhaps the champion most in search of a spark is Lowry, whose lone top-10 finish since Portrush came at the Hong Kong Open in January.

Top-10 finish for Rickie at Honda? Tripp thinks so

Will an unconventional schedule pay off for Rickie Fowler?

Fowler wasn’t a part of the star-studded field two weeks ago at Riviera, and he opted to skip the first WGC event of the year last week in Mexico. It was an unconventional choice from a veteran who made four starts in January but didn’t get closer than four shots of the leader in any of them.

But this is Fowler’s time to shine, as the 2017 Honda champ returns to a course where he was also a runner-up a year ago and T-6 in 2016. This also kicks off a key three-week stretch for Fowler, who is a staple in the Bay Hill field and then will turn his attention to TPC Sawgrass, the site of the biggest win of his career back in 2015.

While each star has the liberty to craft his own itinerary leading into the first major of the year, Fowler has certainly trod a unique path. An attempt to shake things up by playing in Palm Springs didn’t exactly pay immediate dividends, but now he’ll have a chance to shine with plenty of rest and on a course where he’s historically had great success. Down to 25th in the latest world rankings, a high finish could go a long way toward getting him back into the upper echelon of the game where he has spent much of the past few years.

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