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The Honda Classic marks the start of the PGA Tour Florida swing and the 2016 Masters is now just over the horizon as we approach the end of February. The Honda Classic has always been known as a tough examination as it takes place at the Jack Nicklaus-inspired Champions Course at PGA National. Players hit Bermudagrass greens for the first of a run of 4 consecutive tournaments across the length of Florida and this week's international field can expect initially windy conditions - in keeping with the tournament's reputation - with scoring likely to be lower over the weekend. With Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Hideki Matsuyama heading up the market we should be in for a treat.
Meanwhile on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the ISPS Handa Perth International - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Before we move onto PGA National, for the 4th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 with an increased £250 free bet prize fund up for grabs. The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
The Honda Classic always presents a challenge for players and punters alike. The change from east coast to west coast has a real bearing on results which, in recent years, have been almost impossible to predict.
Course Guide: Make no bones about it, the Champions Course at PGA National is a brute. It's an archetypical Florida golf course with water hazards, testing bunkering and tough rough aplenty. Positioned within a mile of the Atlantic east coast, this part of Florida is synonymous with windy conditions. This test therefore suits those with a Major temperament: players who have patience, but also those who can take advantage of key holes where birdies have to be made. The famous Bear Trap, the stretch of 15-17, is one of the hardest sets of holes in non-Major golf. The Champions Course is best summarised by the fact that it has been the toughest, 2nd toughest and toughest non-Major Par 70 course on the PGA Tour across each of the past 3 seasons.
Champions Course, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida: Designer: Tom and George Fazio, 1981 with Nicklaus re-designs in 1990 and 2013 Course Type: Florida, Technical; Par: 70; Length: 7,140 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 13; Fairways: Bermuda with Perennial Rye; Rough: Bermuda with Perennial Rye 3"; Greens: 6,400 sq.ft average TifEagle Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 11.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 71.19 (+1.19), Difficulty Rank 11 of 49 courses. 2013: 71.32 (+1.32), Difficulty Rank 5 of 43 courses. 2014: 70.41 (+0.41), Rank 17 of 48 courses. 2015: 71.83 (+1.83), Rank of 4 of 52 courses.
PGA National Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for PGA National Champion Course and how they compare to recent courses that we have seen on the west coast swing:
Course Overview: 2014 saw the Champions Course play to an extended 7,140 yardage with the 4th and 12th holes stretched by 30 yards. From a hazard perspective, all bunkering was re-shaped adding to the difficulty of a Florida course which features 26 individual water hazards. PGA National is an exposed property allowing direct access to tee boxes, fairways and green complexes for any wind. Since the Nicklaus-inspired course changes, winning totals of -8/262 (Henley) and -6/264 have been the highest winning totals in tournament history. However that could change ever so slightly this year as calm conditions across both Saturday and Sunday, in tandem with a softer golf course, could see -7/63 and -6/64 scores a reality as we've seen in calmer conditions from Berger, Henley, Knox and McIlroy across the past 2 renewals.
Course experience is important, but course debutants can also contend (local rookie Daniel Berger 12 months ago) and even win just like Rory Sabbatini did in 2011. Ultimately maximising birdie opportunities, especially on the eight visits to the Par 5s, but minimising bogeys on the far tougher back 9 this week will be critical in a tournament that will undoubtedly feature wind-positive players. So, all in all, we should expect a stern test this week, but course conditions akin to 2014, allied to a relatively calm 36-hole tournament period across the weekend, should lead to slightly lower scoring. Technical grinders are still the call this week, but it's interesting to note that Proximity to Hole, Going for the Green Birdie or Better Percentage, Overall Birdie Average and Scrambling was far easier in 2014 when it was soft and relatively placid across the opening 36 holes, as opposed to last year when conditions were firm, fast and gnarly.
Winners: 2015: Padraig Harrington (-6); 2014: Russell Henley (-8); 2013: Michael Thompson (-9); 2012: Rory McIlroy (-12); 2011: Rory Sabbatini (-9); 2010: Camilo Villegas (-13).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Honda Classic predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Rickie Fowler (Predictor Number 1), Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner and Luke Donald.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the RSM Classic / DP Tour World Championship and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2015: Harrington 400/1; 2014: Henley 300/1; 2013: Thompson 300/1; 2012: McIlroy 9/1; 2011: Sabbatini 80/1; 2010: Villegas 30/1; Average: 187/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Palm Beach Gardens, Florida is here. We are looking at a slightly different weather mix for the 2016 Honda Classic. Yes, tricky 15-20 mph north-westerly winds are forecast for Thursday, but from there wind conditions will become breezy at worst which should make for a slightly easier golf course. Late/early starters may have a slight advantage. This part of Florida saw 437mm of rain across January and February (2014 where the course was soft was 375mm over the same two months), with an additional 15mm also falling last week, so expect slightly slower fairway conditions at the very least and potentially even juicier rough then standard.
Doral and Augusta OWGR Bubble: Sunday marks the final cut-off for Official World Golf Ranking Top 50 qualification for the first World Golf Championship tournament at Doral plus Augusta looms ever larger on the horizon.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Honda Classic since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this coastal test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
• Driving Distance: 20th, Driving Accuracy: 35th, Greens in Regulation: 17th, Proximity to Hole: 28th, Scrambling: 15th, Putting Average 14th.
So let's take a view from players as to what the adjustment is between the west coast and Florida swings, plus key attributes required on the Champions Course at PGA National:
Russell Henley: "I think it might have something to do with getting back to the bermudagrass. I feel like whenever I play Riviera, I'm uncomfortable. I've made the cut one time there of the three times. I love the course. I love the atmosphere. I want to play well there obviously. But I'm just not super comfortable on that course yet. But you know, those West Coast tournaments can be brutal. I feel like those greens are really hard to putt on, and they are not easy courses. Torrey Pines is not easy, and I'd say Pebble with the weather, usually predicts what the scores are going to be. When I played it last year, it was really tough. I think those courses are just ones I'm still trying to get comfortable on, and then when I come over here to some bermudagrass, I look down and feel like it's what I've been doing my whole life. Maybe I just get a little bit comfortable. That's the best explanation I have for you."
Padraig Harrington: "On a windy day, if things are going well for you, you do tend to be able to make a few birdies coming home. If you're a couple over par early on, you don't see anyway out, but thankfully as I said, got a decent start which is so important. There's a lot of tough shots, a lot of tough tee shots. A couple of tee shots that you're really under pressure to hit the fairway in a strong wind. You just have to man up and hit the shots, that's it. We are going to hit a few bad ones but you've just got to stand there and try to hit the right shot at the right time and accept your fate."
Ben Crane: "This is one of the toughest golf courses we play all year. It's in perfect shape but it's so nice to get to these bermudagreens because the ball just stays on line. But I played great today. Made a lot of birdies, and you're going to have to make a lot of birdies on this golf course in order to score because you're going to make some bogeys. You're going to drive the ball in the rough and if you don't get the ball up‑and‑down from a hundred yards you're going to make bogey. It's a great test of golf. I know a lot of guys really love this golf course."
Lee Westwood: "Yeah, I mean, I really enjoy playing this golf course. It's a demanding test. There's a lot of holes out there where there are no bail‑out. You've got to stand up there and hit your shot. It's a major‑style golf course in certain ways. Normally the wind blows a lot stronger than this and it makes it even tougher but hopefully over the weekend it will bring up a little bit and show its teeth, because it's one of the best tests on Tour I would stay statistically; maybe outside the major championships, it's the toughest test."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
This is a tournament where the eventual champion has had no immediate form whatsoever leading into the tournament for the past 3 renewals. Harrington had finished 56th at Riviera following on from 3 other west coast missed cuts. It is true though that he'd won the Indonesian Open in late 2014. Russell Henley had played in 6 west coast tournaments prior to arriving in Florida - 27th in Kapalua (in a field of 30), 51st and 52nd were his only weekend activities. You would think that was difficult to beat but Michael Thompson arrived at PGA National in 2013 with west coast form of MC-MC-78-MC. So this might not be the foregone conclusion you might be led to believe and, if you are going for an elite player, make sure they have razor-sharp form coming in and a real desire to win.
Other form since 2010 as below:
Now that trend for longer-priced winners is something we should certainly bear in mind this week on the basis that Padraig Harrington, Russell Henley, Michael Thompson and Rory Sabbatini have won the Honda Classic at 400/1, 300/1, 300/1 and 80/1 respectively in 4 of the past 5 renewals. Yes elite players in great form have won here in the past, namely Rory McIlroy (9/1) and Camilo Villegas (30/1), but this tournament is not necessarily a happy hunting round for the top of the market. It's also worth noting that McIlroy and Villegas won at a time when the World Matchplay Championship preceded this tournament and both arrived in Florida in great nick after strong campaigns in Arizona.
So why is there such an unnatural pattern of prices at the Honda? Well I think it's for a couple of reasons: 1) The WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral is firmly fixed in the mind of the world's elite players, especially now that the World Matchplay isn't a factor in the Honda build-up. If we take the Top 3 finishers from 2013, the 4 players who made the play-off in 2014 and the Top 3 finishers from 2015, we find that 9 of the 10 players concerned weren't in the field for Doral. 8 of those 10 were also non-Augusta qualifiers. 2) Conditions at PGA National are notoriously difficult. No real surprise therefore to see that Padraig Harrington (3 top-5 finishes across 2000,2006 & 2012), Russell Henley (16th 2010 as an amateur), Michael Thompson 2nd (2012), Rory McIlroy (1st 2011) and Camilo Villegas (9th 2008) all had a U.S. Open pedigree prior to capturing the title here. This is a specialised event.
So I'm consciously going for an approach where I'm covering an in-form elite player who I think has the best chance this week and backing him up with some players at much bigger prices, all of whom have a history of delivering results on tougher tests.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week:
My selections are as follows:
World Number 9 Patrick Reed is a born winner who, in my opinion, is at PGA National this week to win rather than warm up for the WGC Cadillac Championship next week. A virtual 14-month gap since his last win at Kapalua in 2015 is the longest barren spell that Reed has had since he became a full member of the PGA Tour in 2013. That alone will drive him this week, as will the fact that Patrick has been in the contending mix since his autumn foray to the European Tour where he finished 3rd in Hong Kong, 7th at Sheshan, 2nd at Lake Malaren (a Nicklaus design) and 10th on debut at the Earth Course. Throw in an excellent 2nd place behind the irrepressible Jordan Spieth at Kapalua in January and I'm thinking that Reed is really in the mood to get his 5th PGA Tour win in the Sunshine State where he has already had masses of success.
More motivation comes from the fact that all of his great play on the European Tour at the close of 2015 may well have boosted his OWGR, but the 2014 Ryder Cup star hasn't benefited from that when it comes to qualification for Hazeltine where he sits in the last automatic qualifying spot at present. A win this week on the Champions Course where he went out in the final group last term will help to cement a spot which should be far more secure already given his form of late.
As we know, Reed is at his most comfortable on Bermudagrass greens and, like true elite players, he can both grind out victories or shoot the lights out. Wins across Sedgefield (2013), PGA West (2014), Doral (2014) and Kapalua (2015) have covered all scoring bases and Reed's record across TifEagle Bermudagrass tracks such as Kapalua (1st - 2015, 2nd - 2016), here at PGA National (7th - 2015, 2nd after 54 holes), Doral (1st - 2013), Copperhead (2nd - 2015), Isleworth G&CC (3rd - 2014) and Albany (2nd -2015) is unrivalled in this field. When it comes to the quality of his wind play, check out his WGC victory in 2014 at Doral and naturally all of Reed's 4 PGA Tour titles have been on Bermudagrass greens. 14th at the Chambers Bay hosted US Open last year where he co-led at halfway is the final piece of the jigsaw for me to back him this week. RESULT: MC
The case for Jason Dufner is compelling for PGA National as he clearly has the capabilities (4th in this week's Predictor Model) to go well this week. Since his popular win at PGA West in January, Jason's form has understandably eased off with a Missed Cut at TPC Scottsdale being followed by 51st at Pebble Beach and 29th at Riviera. However it's clear that the World Number 67 has never got on with Poa Annua so let's not get hung up on those. Instead Dufner is a fantastic wind player whose current Bermudagrass green form reads 1(PGA West)-9(Waialae)- 9(Sea Island). Dig deeper and Jason has finished 13th (2007), 9th (2009) and was 17th here last year - a performance which came off of two west coast missed cuts. The TifEagle Bermudagrass green results keep coming with 5th at Kapalua (2014), 12th and 9th at Doral (2013/14) and 10th at Copperhead (TifEagle with Poa Trivialis - 2012). Count up the number of TifEagle Top 20s since 2009 and I found 10 when you include Harbour Town (TifEagle with Poa Trivialis).
US Open pedigree is a huge positive this week and that works for Dufner as he finished 4th at Olympic Club in 2012, 4th at Merion in 2013 and 18th at Chambers Bay last June. His PGA Championship win at Oak Hill in 2013 also stands up to scrutiny as he won with a -10/270 score and beat the likes of Scott, McIlroy, Piercy and McDowell - all of whom have positive PGA National history. But I go back to 2012 when Dufner captured his first ever PGA Tour title on the Bermudagrass greens at TPC Louisiana. After that win he could have dined out like a PGA Tour journeyman, but instead when he played Dufner-positive courses he played well finishing 1st at TPC Four Seasons, 2nd at Colonial, 4th at Olympic Club and 7th at Firestone to earn a Ryder Cup call up. PGA National is very much Dufner territory so I'm expecting a strong performance. RESULT: T61
2012 US Open Champion Webb Simpson is usually limbering up for the WGC get-together at Doral rather than playing PGA National, but as an outsider looking in at next week's tournament the World Number 74 must earn his way into all of the World Golf Championships in 2016 (he qualifies for all 2016 Majors via a 5-year US Open exemption). He was a late entry for this week and that interests me for a player that I nearly selected for TPC Scottsdale, but his relative lack of aggression rightly in the end put me off. However an eventual 14th there backed up 17th at PGA West and 13th at Waialae, so it's clear to see that Webb's game is progressing nicely. The issue with Simpson in recent years has been the ban on anchored putting; using a short putter is taking time to bed in for the likes of Bradley, Clark and Webb, but slowly green shoots are appearing. Simpson currently sits 65th in 2015/16 season Putting Average which is 83 spots better than 2015. It's not great, but at PGA National where Strokes Gained Tee to Green (Simpson is currently 15th) proved key in 2015, Simpson may well contend for the first time in 2016. His love for TifEagle Bermudagrass is clear to see with 3rd at Kapalua (2012 & 2014), 7th at Doral (2015), 2nd at Copperhead (2011) and 2nd at Harbour Town (2013) making excellent reading for this week's test and other Bermuda performances at TPC Louisiana, TPC Southwind and East Lake shine like a beacon from his CV. RESULT: WD pre-event
Sean O'Hair is always a favourite of mine on Bermudagrass and his progress from 474th in the OWGR to 120th in 2015 was a great story. 4-time PGA Tour winner O'Hair, who's now a Florida resident, rejuvenated his career with 2nd at Copperhead, 6th at Harbour Town (we were on board at 80/1), 12th at TPC Louisiana and 4th at TPC Boston helping to generate over $1.6 million and a run to the BMW Championship in the FedEx Cup PlayOffs. It could have been even better as O'Hair had the 54 hole lead at Old White TPC before falling back to an eventual 13th. A strong Bermudagrass putter is required here at PGA National and, believe it or not, there have been few better in recent times than O'Hair. So it will be interesting to see how Sean - who has Top 5 finishes by the coast at Kapalua and Waialae supported by a couple of Top 10s at Harbour Town - will go with a far more confident putting stroke at a tournament where he has 4-top 25 finishes to his name. 12th at the 2010 US Open and has an excellent record at other Florida swing stop-offs at Copperhead and Bay Hill. RESULT: T14
We've had success with the blindingly obvious in recent weeks, so step forward Camilo Villegas who clearly loves Bermudagrass greens and Florida golf courses (he's a Jupiter, Florida resident after all). He sparked my interest with an exceptional opening round 64 at Riviera last week (handy having a fast starter on board this week). Until last Thursday, the former World Number 7 had lined up four missed cuts on the west coast swing, but as golf punters we have long memories and I can remember Villegas scoring his 4th PGA Tour win at Sedgefield 19 months ago at 125/1 after withdrawing the week before in Canada. The fact is that Villegas has become a particularly hard to fathom and sparky performer and, with that built into his 150/1, I'm attracted to a player who has 3 Bermudagrass PGA Tour victories to his name including victory here in 2010. 8th at the US Open in 2008, Camilo as ever saves his best performances for Bermudagrass greens and par 70s these days, so I would rather have him on side this week on a course where he also finished 16th twelve months ago. RESULT: T14
I must back Geoff Ogilvy this week who, if we follow the pattern of recent winners here, fits the bill perfectly. The 2006 US Open Champion sits well outside the World Golf Championship and Major invite zone at the moment, but it's worth remembering that as recently as 2014 he won at Montreux and qualified for the Tour Championship which guaranteed spots last term at Doral, Augusta, Chambers Bay (where he finished 18th) and St Andrews. Form of late has been dire (that's seemingly a positive here!), but his ball-striking and greens in regulation numbers right now are excellent, with the problem naturally being the flat-stick. Ogilvy though excels on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens and wins at Doral (2008) and Kapalua (2009 & 2010) were on this surface. He also finished 2nd here in 2013 at a time when he arrived in dire form (MC-MC-MC-MC-27) and didn't have invites to either Doral or Augusta. With his US Open CV, he can clearly grind and he shot -1/139 (best was -3/137) across the closing 36 holes when the wind was at its worst here in 2013. RESULT: MC
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