2014 Honda Classic: Preview and Predictions for PGA Tour Event
There's nothing like plenty of Florida sunshine, some of those gentle ocean breezes and a great field to make a perfect setting for a golf tournament.
And that's exactly how it's setting up at the Honda Classic, where seven of the top eight players in the Official World Golf Rankings will tee it up on PGA National Golf Club's famed Champion Course.
Big names, a tough golf course and the start of the Florida swing make for the kind of buzz that hasn't surrounded this event for a long time.
The golf spotlight is squarely on Palm Beach Gardens this week.
Here's what you need to know.
Michael Thompson spent a week as the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in 2008, not long before he turned professional. He had been an average professional, winless but having amassed over $3 million before last year's Honda Classic.
That changed when he outdueled the winds of Florida and Geoff Ogilvy to snag his first professional victory.
He and Ogilvy both shot 69 in the final round, but Thompson made the big shots, especially a 50-foot eagle putt on the third hole, when he had to.
The week will also be remembered for Rory McIlroy walking off the course in the middle of a bad round with a toothache that was, pardon the pun, more mental than dental.
Stories to Follow
1. The Honda Classic for years has suffered as the weakling of the Florida swing, being outshone by Doral and Bay Hill annually. But the weakling has beefed up and is elbowing its way into golf fans' consciousness. Seven of the top eight players in the Official World Golf Rankings will be teeing it up in Palm Beach Gardens Thursday. It will be the best field of the year on the PGA Tour.
2. Even better than having seven of the top eight players in the world is the fact they'll all be rested. Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson sat out the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play, and Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson lasted just one day.
3. The Champion Course at PGA National has hosted the event since 2007, and those who have played it or watched it know that the 15th, 16th and 17th holes are known as the "Bear Trap," named to honor course designer Jack Nicklaus.
The Bear Trap has yielded some interesting numbers: 18 percent of all bogeys made in the tournament are made there, 32 percent of all double bogeys happen there and 42 percent of all triple bogeys or worse have ruined rounds there.
Just because the field is the deepest of the year doesn't necessarily mean the superstars at the top will produce a winner.
Phil Mickelson hasn't played in the Honda Classic since 2002, when it was at its former site, the TPC Heron Bay.
Adam Scott hasn't played since early January in Hawaii, and when he tees it up this week, it will be just his second start in the Honda Classic since 2003; the other came in 2011, and he missed the cut.
Tiger Woods has only played here three times, the best finish a runner-up to Rory McIlroy in 2012.
Keep an eye on a pair of younger players—Brooks Koepka and Peter Uihlein—who are Americans who live in Florida but play on the European Tour. They've excelled and will look to take advantage of the sponsor exemptions that got them into this field.
The Champion Course is the premier course of the four at PGA National Golf Club.
When it was designed in 1981 by brothers George and Tom Fazio, the intention was for it to host major events, and it has certainly done that: the 1983 Ryder Cup, the 1987 PGA Championship and 19 Senior PGA Championships.
Jack Nicklaus did a redesign on the course in 2002 and made it a much tougher test.
It can be a monster when the wind howls, and when doesn't the wind blow in Florida?
The Champion is definitely a Florida course: lots of sand, palm trees and water.
Records of Note
If you're looking for a tournament that's going to feature a lot of low scores, this probably isn't the one.
When it was held at Mirasol Golf Club in 2003, Justin Leonard won with a score of 264.
Camilo Villegas set the record at the Champion Course in 2010. He finished at 267.
Because these professionals are as good as they are, somebody is always going to find a way to shoot a low score, and the best one at PGA National was a 61 by Brian Harman in 2012.
On the Air
The Honda Classic promises to provide some great theater, and you can catch it Thursday and Friday from 3-6 p.m. ET on the Golf Channel. Saturday and Sunday, the Golf Channel will provide early coverage from 1-3 p.m. ET, and NBC will broadcast it from 3-6 p.m. ET.
You can also hear coverage all four days from noon-6 p.m. ET on PGA Tour Radio on SiriusXM and PGATour.com.
This and That
The beginning of the Florida swing has always been the unofficial beginning of the run-up to the Masters, and for many years, when the PGA Tour came to Florida, that was when the European players would start playing on this side of the Atlantic.
That's not the case anymore—most of the European stars have homes in the U.S.
There's definitely an international flavor to the Honda Classic, however. Only Michael Thompson and Mark Wilson (who won a four-man playoff in 2007) have won in the past nine years.
How's this for a stat? Of the players ranked in the top 35 this week, seven of them live within a half-hour of PGA National.
You may remember Tiger Woods. The guy won a lot of tournaments and dominated the game like nobody ever did.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Woods has actually started his 2013-14 PGA Tour season, finishing tied for 80th in the Farmers Insurance Open at one of his favorite playgrounds, Torrey Pines. Woods also went to the Middle East and finished tied for 41st to record the worst start to a season in his professional career.
He returns to action this week, only the third time he's played at PGA National. If he doesn't win, the Champion Course will join Riviera Country Club, Winchester Country Club, Dove Mountain and TPC at Scottsdale as layouts where Woods is winless in at least three starts.
And the Winner Is
There's really no good evidence to support Billy Horschel as the choice to win this week's Honda Classic.
But he's my pick.
He made it to the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, losing to eventual champion Jason Day.
Horschel has posted five top-25 finishes and a top-10.
There's just nothing on his resume, especially at PGA National, to indicate he can do well there.
It's just a feeling, and it's as strong as the one I have that says none of the top players in the world will win, either.