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Bubba Watson winning at 50/1 for the 3rd time at Riviera is one of those results you regret missing out on. Now as short as 25/1 for The Masters, Watson managed to juggle the Genesis Open and the NBA All-Star game with real aplomb. The links with Riviera Country Club and Augusta National are undeniable and Watson, who’s now finding fairways and putting surfaces with regularity, has to be a real danger to capture his 3rd Green Jacket. Another rejuvenated Green Jacket holder Phil Mickelson delivered a small each-way return for this column as we set sail for Florida this week.
The Honda Classic marks the start of the PGA Tour Florida swing and the 2018 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. The Florida Swing these days only sees trips to PGA National, Innisbrook and Bay Hill, with the first WGC event of the year residing in Mexico rather than Miami.
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 non-Major Par 70 course on the PGA Tour across 3 of the past 5 seasons. It was the second toughest in 2014, whilst soft and tranquil conditions in 2017 saw the course play the easiest it ever could – ranking 6th toughest of 13 non-Major Par 70s. Rickie Fowler won at -12/268.
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. 2016: 71.77 (+1.77), Rank 5 of 50 courses. 2017: 70.56 (+0.56), Rank 16 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for PGA National and how they compare to recent courses on Tour:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Jack Nicklaus designs include:
Course Overview: 2014 saw the Champions Course for the very first time 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 that 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 -12/268 (Fowler), -9/271 (Scott), -6/274 (Harrington) and -8/272 (Henley) highlight a course and playing conditions which stretches the world’s best players. Softer turf conditions and calmer wind strength across both 2016 and 2017 saw winning totals lower slightly, but make no bones about it, with firmer and windier conditions expected in 2018, this is by no means an easy golf course.
Course experience is important, but debutants can also contend (take local rookie Daniel Berger in 2015, for instance) and even win just like Rory Sabbatini did in 2011. Ultimately maximising birdie opportunities, especially on only 8 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. A golf course which has seen little rain, in tandem with blustery winds off the Atlantic, should make scoring harder in 2018. Don’t expect a birdie-fest as this course always plays tough, but we could see around -8/272 being the target score required for victory this week. Look for those with a decent long approach game in the wind, allied to razor-sharp Bermudagrass scrambling and putting skills to levitate to the top of the leaderboard. However the ability to grind it out will naturally be paramount on this difficult golf course.
Winners: 2017: Rickie Fowler (-12); 2016: Adam Scott (-9); 2015: Padraig Harrington (-6); 2014: Russell Henley (-8); 2013: Michael Thompson (-9); 2012: Rory McIlroy (-12); 2011: Rory Sabbatini (-9); 2010: Camilo Villegas (-13).
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Scott Stallings, Adam Scott, Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker, Billy Horschel, Sergio Garcia and Jimmy Walker.
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 PGA Tour and European Tour events, plus the Hero World Challenge. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2017: Fowler 16/1; 2016: Scott 20/1; 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: 85/1. Past 4 Renewals Average: 144/1.
2017: Thursday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 79. Wind NNW 8-15 mph. Friday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 80. Wind NNE 7-14 mph. Saturday: Mostly sunny, with a high of 85. Wind SSE 7-14 mph. Sunday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 81. Wind NNE 15-20 mph.
2016: Thursday: Sunny and windy, with sustained winds of 20 mph and gusts to 30 mph. High of 70 degrees. Friday: Sunny, with a high of 70 degrees. Wind NW 12-22 mph. Saturday: Sunny, with a high of 70 degrees. Wind N 10-15 mph, with gusts to 20 mph. Sunday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 74 degrees. Wind E 10-18 mph.
2015: Thursday: Mostly cloudy, with a high of 86. Wind WSW at 15-25 mph. Friday: Cloudy, with rain throughout the day. High of 73 with NNE wind at 10-20 mph. Saturday: Overcast, with severe wind and thunderstorms throughout the day. High of 73, with variable winds peaking at 60 mph. Sunday: Play resumed at 7 a.m. Partly cloudy and breezy, with a high of 79. Wind E at 15-25 mph. The third round concluded at 3:59 p.m. Sunday. The final round concluded at 12:01 p.m. Temperatures reached the lower-80s, with E wind at 8-15 mph.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is here. This part of Florida hasn’t seen significant rainfall since the 23rd January, so I’m expecting a course which plays firm and fast unlike the past 2 renewals. There maybe the odd shower, with Saturday morning most likely, but no serious rainfall is expected before or during the tournament. Wind-wise we should see 15-20 mph winds, gusting 25mph off of the Atlantic across Thursday to Saturday. Winds will abate for Sunday, although come-from-behind victories here are a rarity.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 8 winners of the Honda Classic since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let’s take a view from players as to how the Champions Course at PGA National sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Rickie Fowler: “I love it that it’s a ball-striker’s golf course. You’ve got to drive the ball well to give yourself an opportunity to get a ball close on the greens. Yeah, putting can save you, but you’ve got to be solid tee-to-green here. I feel like it brings out some of the guys that are hitting the ball the best that week. I don’t like all the water. I’ve got to try and stay away from that. No, it’s a good test of golf here. Like I said, you’ve got to be on point tee-to-green. You can’t fake it around here. It’s a good test, and especially when we get the kind of standard 10- to 20-mile-an-hour winds.“
Adam Scott: “Yeah, it just always seems to blow around here no matter what direction. And always plays tough, even with the amount of rain in the last couple days, it’s not easy to get the ball if good spots out there when it’s blowing this hard. I thought there were some pretty challenging pins out there, as well, in back corners of greens that made it tougher, because it made it quite long, a few of those holes. Yeah, I played really great today tee-to-green. It was exactly what you want to do around this kind of golf course, in a little bit of wind; and also in the afternoon when the greens are just not quite as smooth playing 7:45 in the morning. So much can happen, especially at a golf course like this. There’s trouble waiting on every misjudgement or poor swing. I’m just going to try and play that solid round of golf and give myself as many opportunities as I can.“
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 any way 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.“
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.“
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 Bermuda greens 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.“
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 8 Honda Classic winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since 2010.
For the record, here’s the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
The Honda Classic has been a case of feast or famine for short price backers here since 2010. 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 8 renewals. But conversely Camilo Villegas (30/1), Rory McIlroy (9/1), Adam Scott (20/1) and Rickie Fowler (18/1) have been elite winners over the same time span. It’s worth noting that McIlroy and Villegas won at a time when the World Match Play Championship was played the week before this tournament and both arrived in Florida in great nick after strong efforts in Arizona. Adam Scott, on the other hand, arrived in hot form directly from Los Angeles where he’d played very nicely in finishing runner-up to Bubba Watson. Rickie Fowler had last been seen at TPC Scottsdale where he had finished 4th, powered by a fast finishing -6/65.
With course and conditions at PGA National notoriously difficult, it’s no real surprise therefore to see that Rickie Fowler (10th, 2013 and 2nd, 2014), Adam Scott (4th, 2015 and 9th, 2014), 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 very specialised event.
My selections are as follows:
Justin Thomas 3pts EW 11/1 with Boylesports
At the very top of the market, I don’t like Rickie Fowler this week who’s extremely short and has up until this point had a horrid time when it comes to defending his all too infrequent victories. I’m sure Rory McIlroy will be popular on a course where he’s won and finished runner-up in the very near past. His win here in 2012 came off a Gulf campaign where he was 2nd in Abu Dhabi and 5th at Emirates GC. He also jetted into Florida from Arizona where he’d finished runner-up to Hunter Mahan at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. For me, Rory still isn’t clicking 100% and the fact that I see him outside of the top 20 in my 10-week rolling Greens in Regulation tracker tells the story that his approach game is inconsistent. Rory comes to life when he’s hitting greens for fun and up until this point it just hasn’t happened.
The one I’ve had in mind for this for a while is Justin Thomas who is winless since October and who, for him, has had a relatively fallow patch of late. That was almost assured after winning 5 PGA Tour titles in 2017 which included his first ever Major Championship. With 7 PGA Tour titles total in his first 4 seasons on the PGA Tour, Justin is undoubtedly a talented individual. To put Thomas’ achievements in some form of context, Sergio Garcia has 10 PGA Tour titles to his name across a 16-year span. Others we see week in, week out at the top of the betting market include Justin Rose who has 8 PGA Tour titles, Hideki Matsuyama has 5 and Rickie Fowler has 4. Justin is chasing close friend Jordan Spieth who had won 8 titles by the close of his 4th PGA Tour season – they just happened to include Masters, U.S. Open and Tour Championship titles! So we’re dealing with a phenomenon here who just happens to be returning to his Jupiter, Florida base this week. A 10 mile drive from his house can’t be a bad thing and let’s be clear here – Thomas thrives on Bermudagrass greens. Wins last year at Kapalua, Waialae and his PGA triumph at Quail Hollow were all on Bermudagrass greens. For the record, Kapalua on Maui features TifEagle Bermudagrass. Thomas’ Florida record isn’t too bad either. 10th (2015) on course debut at Copperhead, 3rd (2016) at TPC Sawgrass and 3rd (2016) here were all achieved in Justin’s first 7 tournaments in the Sunshine State and before he became the winning machine he is today.
Asked in 2016 if he liked the task on the Champions Course here at PGA National, Thomas responded “Extremely. It’s fun – sometimes it’s not fun but when you play events like this, it is fun, because you really just have to be patient. You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to salvage pars. Making a couple birdies is exciting, as opposed to when it’s 25-under wins tournament. Feels like I haven’t played many U.S. Opens, but I feel like this feels like it.” Remember Thomas shot the lowest score in U.S. Open history last year when his -9/63 powered him into 2nd place after 54 holes at Erin Hills. He eventually finished 9th, proving how fast a learner he is by winning the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow with a technical-level winning score of -8/276. His last win in South Korea which featured windy conditions also came at -9/279. 5th for Greens in Regulation and 4th for Strokes Gained Approach last week in Los Angeles, I think a motivated Justin will take all the stopping this week. RESULT: Winner
Brandt Snedeker 1.5pts EW 55/1 with Betfair
Brandt Snedeker fits the bill pretty perfectly. Rory McIlroy’s new best mate sits on the outside looking in, with no invite to next week’s WGC Mexico Championship or The Masters. That’s clearly an issue for a player who ranked 32nd in the OWGR before his sternum injury in the summer of last year, which has been the main contributor to his rank slumping to 67th. So he could do with a result and the signs are there that he is close to contending on a tough test. You can see why he’s playing PGA National for the first time since 2012: 3rd for Bogey Avoidance, 1st for Sand Saves, 6th for Strokes Gained Putting and 22nd for Actual Scoring Average, Snedeker’s problems have been that he can’t make enough birdies to get to the top of leaderboards on easier tests. But there have been glimpses that Brandt is very close. 6th after 36 holes at Sea Island on his return was excellent. 23rd at TPC Scottsdale was powered by 23rd in Greens in Regulation and 8th for Scrambling. Even on his last appearance at Pebble Beach he shot a closing -3/69 in tough windy conditions on Sunday to finish 20th. That week in California saw him 4th for Total Driving and 2nd for Putts per GIR- and as I’ve said in the past, a player often jumps into life when they get confident with their core strength – just look at Bubba Watson last week! So I’m all over Sneds this week – a renowned wind player, he can handle firm courses with his excellent short game and a winner on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens to boot at Harbour Town (2011). 5 top 10 finishes at the U.S. Open including 9th last year at Erin Hills, with a supporting 3rd (Royal Lytham) and 11th at the Open Championship, Brandt needs to perform and soon. An elite player with a motive. RESULT: MC
Graeme McDowell 1pt EW 66/1 with Coral
So we’re looking for a U.S. Open-type who loves to grind in the wind. I was as shocked to see Graeme McDowell contending last week at Riviera as the Northern Irishman was: tied for 3rd after 54 holes, G-Mac was making hay with his approach play ranking 5th for Fairways Hit, 3rd for Greens in Regulation, 2nd for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 4th for Proximity to Pin at the close of play Saturday. At a course where bombers eventually triumph, Riviera has never been kind to the 2010 U.S. Open champion, but firm enough conditions and some breeze on Friday morning, which saw many falter, saw the Orlando, Florida resident shoot -5/66 to get himself into contention. Yes G-Mac played poorly on Sunday, but it was hardly a shock on the basis it was the first time for 27 months that the 38 year-old had been in the last 2 groups for the final round on the PGA Tour. The fact that he faltered is almost immaterial as it keeps his price attractive this week for PGA National where he’s always performed brilliantly. 6th in 2011, 9th in 2012, 9th in 2013, 5th in 2016 and 14th last year make him a definite horse for the course this week. That strong Sunshine State form spills over to other venues throughout the course of his career. The WGC at Doral has seen McDowell finish 6th (2010), 3rd (2013) and 9th (2014). Go back 13 years to 2005 and Graeme’s breakout PGA Tour performance came at Bay Hill where he finished 2nd to Kenny Perry. He also finished 2nd to Tiger Woods there in 2012 and 10th there in 2013. From a TifEagle Bermudagrass perspective, those results at Doral, plus 3rd at Kapalua (2011), 5th (2008) and 9th (2015) at Emirates Golf Club, plus 1st (2013) at Harbour Town, highlight a player who’s very comfortable on this week’s putting surfaces. His U.S. Open and Open Championship records also signify a man who should be relishing the windswept challenge this week and the last time Graeme played in Florida, he finished 2nd with Shane Lowry at the QBE Shoot-Out in December. RESULT: MC
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