Can Rory McIlroy successfully defend his title at the Honda Classic?
Rory McIlroy will look to defend his title at the Honda Classic, the site of his maiden ascent to No. 1 in the world. But the 23-year-old hasn't exactly had a blazing start to the 2013 season, and he is sure to face plenty of challengers in such a stacked field.
After an incredible final-round 62 last year, Tiger Woods is poised to bounce back from a shocking loss at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship along with McIlroy. The Nike power duo headlines the nine golfers ranked inside the top 20 in the world that will be competing this week.
Here is a breakdown of viewing information, groupings and some predictions for one of the most significant early-season tournaments on the PGA Tour.
Location and Tee Times
Where: PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
When: Thursday, Feb. 28 to Sunday, March 3
Tee Times: Click here for Thursday and Friday tee times, courtesy of PGATOUR.com.
Thursday: Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m. ET
Friday: Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m. ET
Saturday: Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m. ET; NBC, 3-6 p.m. ET
Sunday: Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m. ET; NBC, 3-6 p.m. ET
Groups to Watch
No. 6: John Merrick, Jason Dufner and Louis Oosthuizen
This is a very diverse pairing in terms of the players' respective careers.
Merrick finally notched his first Tour victory in 169 starts with a playoff triumph over Charlie Beljan at the Northern Trust Open.
Meanwhile, Oosthuizen is the highest-ranked player in the event not named Tiger or Rory, with a runaway British Open title to his credit and a near miss at The Masters in 2012.
Dufner also nearly captured a major at the 2011 PGA Championship. Although he blew a big lead down the stretch, it was the type of experience that keyed his breakout year and secured his place on the Ryder Cup team.
It will be interesting to see how Merrick handles the success that accompanies a maiden Tour win, and whether he can translate the momentum into a strong run in the FedEx Cup.
Few things are more aesthetically pleasing for golf enthusiasts than seeing Oosthuizen's stunningly rhythmic swing, and that Dufner waggle never gets old—especially when he backs it up with some of the best iron play on the planet.
No. 17: Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Martin Kaymer
So Woods is arguably the most dominant golfer ever, and Johnson is arguably the best athlete in PGA history. Kaymer is a Ryder Cup hero, but is still climbing back up the mountain after being the top-ranked player in the world for eight weeks in 2011.
That is the definition of a power trio.
After taking three weeks off, Kaymer showed signs of life at the match play last week before getting blown out 5 and 4 by eventual runner-up Hunter Mahan.
Johnson started off the year with a win but hasn't fared better in the five events since, and he was especially off his game in getting pummeled by Alexander Noren in the opening round of the match play.
But just by having the immensely powerful game that Johnson has and the incredible buzz that Woods inevitably generates makes this one of the top groups to watch as the tournament gets underway.
This group will more than likely attract the biggest galleries, and a lot will be expected of Woods after his stirring comeback bid a year ago.
No. 32: Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler and Lee Westwood
Two of the most popular young American players are paired up in Bradley and Fowler, and of course Westwood continues to be a staple in the top-10 of the world rankings.
After opening with a tie for fourth at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Bradley has had a rough go at it early on.
As for Fowler, the mop-headed sensation has seen a steady drop-off from his career-high world ranking of No. 18, and he now sits at No. 37. What is encouraging is that he started 2013 strong and showed grit in his match play showdown with Carl Pettersson after missing the cut the previous time out.
Westwood is liable to have some miscues with the flatstick, but he should be regarded as a legitimate contender here. While being overshadowed by the Tiger-Rory theatrics at last year's Honda Classic, Westwood fired a scintillating, seven-under 63 on Sunday.
However, this will be the fifth consecutive week that Westwood is in competition, so his stamina is sure to be tested on such a demanding course. But in terms of finesse and shot-making, there are few that can match Westwood blow for blow.
Winner: Graeme McDowell
A golfer from Northern Ireland will win this event for the second year in a row, but it won't be McIlroy. It will be his mentor and close friend McDowell, whose game suits this course perfectly.
The 2010 U.S. Open champion drives the ball as accurately as anyone in the world, as he hit just over 70 percent of fairways in 2012 (h/t PGATOUR.com). That attribute will be of optimum importance at PGA National.
McDowell's steely nerves over medium-length par putts are a big reason why he's ascended into golf's elite over the past few years, and he will have several of those scenarios on this tough course.
The winning score figures to be in the single digits under-par, as that has been the case for four of the previous six champions at this venue. That is precisely the type of tournament that McDowell thrives in.
Also noteworthy is the fact that McDowell overcame an opening-round 73 at the 2012 Honda Classic to shoot 64 on Friday and post one-under rounds of 69 on the weekend to slide into a tie for ninth.
It's always hard to pick a single golfer out of such a quality crowd, but based on McDowell's solid form at the match play last week and his strengths as a golfer, his chances of winning here are as good as anyone's.