The Honda Classic
Last week was wasn’t what we were hoping for in the end as we drew a blank in Puerto Rico while getting the majority of our stake back in Mexico courtesy of Hideki Matsuyama.
To be fair though things could have been worse as the Japanese star snuck in to the frame courtesy of birdies on two of his final three holes including making a bomb from 50ft on the 17th so we should be grateful for small mercy’s, particular as come the end of the season it’s these bits and pieces on place returns that make such a difference on the P&L.
So we dust ourselves down and move on to Florida where, after its brief sojourn in Mexico the PGA tour now hops to for the beginning of the Florida Swing.
Over recent years the Florida Swing had somewhat diminished with three events in the Sunshine State being interspersed with the WGC in Mexico and TPC then being played in May.
Last year though this all changed with four events being played in consecutive weeks in Florida, including TPC, which returned to its traditional March slot, and it’s the same again this year.
The first event of this years Florida swing is, as has been the case for several years now, The Honda Classic.
The event was first played in 1972 and was hosted at several different locations until moving to Palm Beach Gardens in 2006.
After one year in 2006 at the Country Club at Mirasol it then moved to PGA National in 2007 and has remained there ever since.
In the same year the tournament's main beneficiary became the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation, chaired by Barbara Nicklaus, wife of Jack Nicklaus, and this continues to be the case.
With the change in schedule this event is the one that has been hit hardest this this year and last and top players who we have historically seen here including McIlroy, Thomas, Woods and Adam Scott are not in this years line up.
As a result only one member of the world’s current top ten, Brooks Koepka, is on display and it is the four time major champion who is vying for favouritism here alongside Tommy Fleetwood and former Honda champion Rickie Fowler.
PGA National was originally a Tom & George Fazio design, which has subsequently undergone redesigns from Jack Nicklaus both in 1990 & 2013.
Other Nicklaus designs currently used on tour include Muirfield village home of the Memorial.
The event has been played at PGA National since 2007.
The course is a par 70 playing to just over 7100 yards.
The greens are TiffEagle Bermuda.
The ‘signature section’ of the course is The Bear Trap, which is holes 15-17. These holes combined create the toughest part of the course and indeed arguable the toughest 3 hole stretch on regular PGA Tour events year in year out.
These holes are made up of 2 par 3’s, the 15th & 17th and the par 4 16th. If you can get through these three holes in level par you are certainly picking up shots on the field.
Is noted earlier PGA National is a tough nut to crack with solid ball striking being the order of the day. In addition and without stating the obvious, keeping your ball out of the numerous water hazards which populate the course is a key ingredient to success here!
PGA National is undoubtedly a tough test. Only once in the last 6yrs has the winning score been double digits under par. This was in 2017 when Rickie Fowler came home in -12 for a 4 shot victory.
The other winning scores over the past 6yrs have been -8, -9, -6, -8 & -9.
Just how difficult the course plays is dictated by how hard the wind blows and of course if the track has been ‘softened up’ by any rain.
So lets take a look at the past 10 winners of the event;
2019 Keith Mitchell
2018 Justin Thomas
2017 Rickie Fowler
2016 Adam Scott
2015 Padraig Harrington
2014 Russell Henley
2013 Michael Thompson
2012 Rory McIlroy
2011 Rory Sabbatini
2010 Camillo Villegas
As we can see the role of honour over the past 10yrs has been a bit of a mixed bag. 2015 through to 2017 saw wins for three of the games big names in the shape Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott and there have also been wins in the past 10yrs for Rory McIlroy, and a comeback win for Padraig Harrington.
In amongst this though there were maiden PGA tour successes for Michael Thompson and of course Keith Mitchell last year, alongside wins for Camillo Villegas, Rory Sabbatini & Russell Henley.
One should remember off course that while there star has waned of late, at the time of there wins Villegas & Sabbatini were all in the upper echelons of the game, so the only two of these winners you could really call leftfield were Thompson and Mitchell.
When looking at the list of past winners and players who have performed well at this event there is an obvious cross reference to the British Open.
Rory and Harrington are past Open Champions as of course is Ernie Els who won here in 2008. Scott came as close you can do without winning it and Rickie has taken like a duck to water to links golf and is an Open Champion in waiting.
This reference also goes back beyond the event being played at PGA National with Todd Hamilton winning the Honda Classic before shocking the golfing world to lift the Claret Jug.
One other point of note on this roll of honour is that only five of the past ten winners hailed from the US.
From the point of view of form coming in to the week and historical course form Thomas, Fowler and Scott were as telegraphed as a winner could be having finished top ten in their previous start and all having a previous top 12 finish in the event.
This was also the case with 2012 winner Rory McIlroy and 2010 winner Camillo Villegas.
One other of the past ten winners, Rory Sabbatini, had finished 5th in his previous start and another, the 2014 winner, Russell Henley, had finished 13th here the year before.
Beyond that though the picture gets very murky as Harrington, Thompson and Mitchell had no form coming in to speak of, and no positive history on the course, although of course Harrington had the obvious British Open link.
With reference to last years winner Mitchell it is worth noting that he had posted his best finish on tour prior to his win here at the 2018 Corales Puntacana another coastal event, where he finished second. In addition the Corales was won last year by Graeme McDowell who has also historically played well here, so it would appear, not unsurprisingly allowing for the coastal comparison, that this is an event that correlates well here.
The other main point to be aware of this week is that with the tour moving across to the East Coast we see a switch from the Poa Annua greens that the last few events have been on, to Bermuda Greens.
We should therefore be on the lookout for the East Coast/Bermuda specialists who historically don’t really perform on the West Coast but who have been ticking along under the radar these last few weeks, as this is the time these players can now spring to life.
To stretch this further, while his West Coast form of MC 73 MC MC last year could hardly be described as ‘ticking over’, Mitchell when discussing his sudden upturn in form made it abundantly clear that a large part of it was down to the change from the poa to the Bermuda, a surface he is far more familiar and comfortable with and this again rubber stamps the importance of noting the move this week to that surface.
The early part of the week shows for the possibility of some rain and a storm or two on Monday and Wednesday however fingers crossed we look set for a dry four days for the tournament itself with at this stage no signs of any storms interrupting play.
Temperatures do look to be on the cooler side [for Florida anyway!] though ranging from low to high 60s or perhaps 70 for the week.
Wind as is normally the case here will be a factor to a certain extent with gusts around 15mph mark forecast for all four days.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with 5 players this week as follows;
BILLY HORSCHEL – 28-1 – 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 42nd
I’m going to start this weeks team off with two fairly obvious selections, the first of, which is Billy Horschel.
The 33yr old started 2020 off fairly slowly with a missed cut at the American Express and a 68th place finish at the Farmers, however in his last two outings Billy has hit his stride posting back to back ninth place finishes at the Waste Management and the WGC Mexico.
What I find most interesting about those two performances is that across both starts at different times all parts of Horschel’s game have hugely excelled.
In Phoenix the Florida Gator rode a hot putter and an accurate tee ball game, finishing the week third in both strokes-gained-off-the-tee and strokes-gained-putting, however his iron play let him down as he ranked in the 40s for both strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green and GIR.
In Mexico however Horschel maintained his excellent tee ball game ranking first for the week in DA and third for strokes-gained-off-the-tee but in addition he improved his iron game significantly, most noticeably on Saturday when he hit all 18 greens in regulation. In fact Billy only missed two greens in total out of 36 over the weekend.
Furthermore on Sunday he hit all 14 fairways, however needless to say over the weekend his putter cooled down!
So we’ve established that Billy is arriving here in good form but what of this weeks venue? Well the first thing we should say is that as a Florida man through and through the return to bermuda putting surfaces should suit him down to the ground, something which can be seen from the fact that three of his four solo victories on tour to date have come on this surface.
Secondly Horschel has shown that over recent years that PGA National is an excellent fit for his ball striking prowess, finishing 16 4 8 in three of the past four years with only a missed cut in 2018 blemishing this record. In addition it should be noted that the missed cut in 2018 came on the back of two missed cuts in his previous two starts so Billy was clearly out of sorts at the time.
As we know Horschel is a man to follow when his game is ‘on’ and, although he did pop up out of the blue at the Byron Nelson in 2017, he tends to post his wins when he is on a hot streak, something which he is most certainly coming in to now.
Long overdue another solo tour victory and a master of success on par 70 tracks, which he faces this week, Horschel has an awful lot in his favour as the tour return to Florida and I am keen to have him onside.
DANIEL BERGER – 33-1 – 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 5th
The second man who I can’t get away from this week is another native of Florida Daniel Berger.
The last time Berger arrived in Palm Beach Gardens in as consistent a patch of form as he does this year was in his rookie PGA Tour season back in 2015.
On that occasion teeing off here on the back of two top ten finishes in his previous three starts Berger went on to finish second, losing out in a play-off to Padraig Harrington.
Berger struggled through most of 2019 to find any real level of consistency on the back of returning from a wrist injury which had cut short his 2018 Fedex Cup campaign. This season however he has definitely gained momentum missing only one cut in eight starts while really finding his straps in his last two starts posting two top ten finishes.
Like Horschel, Berger is known as a great tee to green player when on song however he really struggled in that department last year as he did in most areas of his game. This season however his long game is starting to show signs of returning to its old self, particularly last time out when he ranked tenth in strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green at Pebble Beach.
Berger has posted both of his two PGA Tour wins in his career to date, at the Fedex St Jude, which like this weeks venue is a par 70 offering bermuda greens.
With ties to Jack Nicklaus dating back to when the 18 time major champion first watched him play as a 15yr old he would love to land his third one here and I believe he has every chance of doing so this week.
HARRIS ENGLISH – 60-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 16th
Another player who has a victory to his name on the Bermuda at the par 70 Fedex St Jude layout is Harris English and like the first two members of our team this week I find the case for him pretty compelling.
Recent years have seen English struggle hugely to the extent that he has been battling at the end of the seasons to hang on to his card – not what was expected for the player who was viewed in the early part of the last decade as a ‘can’t miss kid’.
The 2019/20 season however has seen English rediscover his old form and four top six finishes in five starts in the fall basically locked up his card for next year.
2020 started much more slowly for Harris with finishes of 48th and 71st at the American Express and Farmers respectively before a far more encouraging 16th place last time out in Phoenix.
What has been most encouraging about English’ return to form this season is that his long game, which was undoubtedly his strength in his early years before deserting him, has returned with a vengeance. This can be seen from the fact that he ranks 17th on tour in strokes-gained-off-the-tee, 27th in strokes-gained-approach and second in good old fashioned GIR. Furthermore last time out in Phoenix Harris finished the week first for GIR and third for DA.
While, unlike our first two picks this week, the man from Georgia has never really looked like winning at PGA National he did produce his best showing here this time last year to finish twelfth, a performance, which came on the back of three missed cuts, and this offers huge encouragement for this time around.
The 30yr old has threatened a return to the winners enclosure on a few occasions already this season and it would be no surprise to see him get the job done this week on a course, which should suit his tee to green game down to the ground.
EMILIANO GRILLO – 66-1 - 1pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
While the golfing world predominantly has its eyes on the WGC Mexico Championship the week before this event those who had looked closely last year at the final Puerto Rico leaderboard perhaps could have predicted a big week for Wyndham Clark, as the young man from Colorado finished tenth there before leading through three rounds here.
Moving on to this year and it strikes me that similar attention to the final leaderboard from the Caribbean Island, an event played on the coast in blustery conditions, could once again bear fruit and the first of my two picks who featured prominently there is Emiliano Grillo.
Since winning the 2015 Frys.com Open on his first start as a full tour member the Argentine has been largely frustrating to follow.
2020 had once more started in fairly similar vein as a 21st place at the Sony was followed by three missed cuts, however this all changed last week in Puerto Rico where he notched a third place finish.
Buoyed by that performance as he no doubt will be Grillo now returns this week to a venue he has a best place finish of eighth in four visits and in addition he had a great record at in junior play when as a youngster based in Florida. In other words a course he is surely hugely comfortable on.
Still only 27yrs old the Argentine has plenty of time ahead of him to make the impact on the game that many expected from him and I am hopeful he can build on last weeks performance and produce another strong showing this time out.
JHONATTAN VEGAS – 70-1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 27th
For my final pick this week I am going to roll the dice with Jonny Vegas.
The Venezuelan had endured a fairly slow start to the year with nothing better than a 30th place at the Farmers and was plodding towards a mid-table finish in Puerto Rico before springing to life on Sunday to shoot 62 and propel himself to a ninth place finish.
As the phrase goes ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ of course however the fact that he delivered that performance the week prior to visiting a venue, which has seen him post three top 16 finishes including a fourth place in his last five visits was enough to pique my interest.
Moving on from there and despite his lack of apparent form this season Vegas’ long game has actually been in reasonable shape as he ranks sixth on tour in strokes-gained-off-the-tee and has been hitting his share of fairways and greens. It is the putter, for which he is ranked 200th that is holding him back. Last week however he finished the week ranked 29th with the flatstick and clearly to shoot 62 on Sunday he must have holed his share!
One other point to lead me to Vegas this week is that in addition to some solid form at PGA National the 35yr old is a two time winner at the Jack Nicklaus designed Glenn Abbey, the former host venue of the Canadian Open and I am sure this is not something lost on him when he arrives here.
A three time winner all told on tour with his other victory coming at the Bob Hope Classic, which also includes Nicklaus tracks in its set ups, Jonny certainly knows how to get the job done and I am happy to finish our team this week by bringing him onside.
UPDATED 25th FEBRUARY
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - TYLER McCUMBER - DK VALUE $6600 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS TOTAL - 19.5
For my first sub $7000 play this week I'm going to side with Ponte Vedra beach resident Tyler McCumber.
Tyler who is the son of legendry PGA Tour player Mark McCumber has quietly been putting together a solid run of form in his debut PGA Tour campaign, making his last four cuts and posting finishes of 20 32 21 in his last three starts.
With his 21st place finish recently coming at Torrey Pines and with a 19th place at the Corales Puntacana on the CV from a couple of years back, as well as a strong perforrmance in the Bahamas on his Korn Ferry campaign last year, Tyler is clearly, and unsurprisingly, alllowing for where he is based, comfortable on the coast and I would expect this native of Florida to perform well as the tour returns to the East Coast.
PICK 2 - JASON DUFNER - DK VALUE - $6400 - FINISHED - 27th - DK POINTS TOTAL 57
The Duf has struggled over recent years and only posted two top ten finishes in his 18/19 season, one of which came at the Jack Nicklaus designed Muirfield Village, home of the Memorial Tournament where he is a former champion.
PGA National however has been a really solid hunting ground for Jason over the years regardless of his form coming in, with only one missed cut in eight visits over the past decade.
Arriving here this week on a run of four made cuts on the bounce, something which Jason had not managed for over two years prior to now, there are glimmers he is turning the corner and on a course he is usually very reliable on I would expect to see him making the weekend again.