Inside the Ropes
The Honda Classic
PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Par 70 (35-35)
Rough: 3 inches
6,400 square foot (on average) greens
Stimpmeter rolling 10.6 feet
26(!) water hazards
Course Architect: Tom Fazio (1981); Redesign Jack Nicklaus (1990)
Notes: Tifeagle Bermudagrass greens with Bermudagrass/perennial ryegrass rough and fairways.
FedExCup Points: 500 (winner’s share)
Winner’s Share: $1,026,000
Defending Champion: Rory Sabbatini held off former champion Y.E. Yang to win by one shot for his sixth-career victory on Tour. Sabbatini fired nine-under-par 271 over the four days.
Notes: Gamers, remember that this tournament has been held at PGA National Champion Course ONLY since 2007. All other results and winners from 2006 and before are from different courses.
Date: Mar 1-4, 2012
PGA National’s Champion Course ranked the hardest of the 51 courses used on Tour in 2011(not including majors). Its history includes the 1983 Ryder Cup (U.S. Win), 1987 PGA Championship (Larry Nelson) and the Senior PGA Championship from 1982.
The Champion Course, since its inception as host of The Honda Classic in 2007, has been one of the most difficult courses year-in and year-out on Tour. The average winning score in five years here has been just over eight-under-par.
Jack Nicklaus’ redesign in 1990 saw the addition of “The Bear Trap”. Comprised of holes 15, 16, and 17, “The Bear Trap” ranks the second-hardest three-hole stretch on Tour behind Quail Hollow’s “Green Mile”. The sign with Jack Nicklaus’ quote says it all: “It should be won or lost right here”.
With 26 water hazards and unpredictable Florida winds, The Honda Classic kicks off the Florida swing on Tour in the exact opposite fashion that the Humana Challenge does on the West Coast swing. Bermudagrass greens take over from poa-annua and bentgrass; Water hazards are plentiful; Weather will be more unpredictable. A quick-look at the forecast shows the wind blowing from three different directions Thursday through Sunday. This course will have to be played three different ways to win this week. Did I mention it was the hardest course on Tour in 2011 that was not a major?
In the five years that the Champion Course has hosted this event, there have been no repeat winners. Y.E. Yang came closest when he finished second to Rory Sabbatini last year. Speaking of winners, here’s the list:
2007: Mark Wilson (-5) First career win; 12 players broke par
2008: Ernie Els (-6); 14 players broke par
2009: Y.E. Yang (-9) First career win; 26 players broke par
2010: Camilo Villegas (-13) Five-shot margin; 16 players broke par
2011: Rory Sabbatini (-9); 16 players broke par
The only winner from the five who has ran away with this tournament was Villegas in 2010 when he won by five shots.
The other four winners were all by one shot and Mark Wilson’s victory was in a playoff.
So What? So Let’s Dance!
Mark Wilson and Y.E. Yang have shown that first-time winners can happen at The Honda Classic. Remember, Wilson was 32 when he won and Yang was 37. John Huh showed us last week that 21-year old kids can win on Tour as well and Camilo Villegas proved that here when he won at 28 in 2010.
Most of these guys aren’t used to making pars; they’re used to making birdies. We’ll see which players know when to take advantage and when to simply take their medicine. It will be interesting to see if the young remain fearless and the veterans remain fearful in dealing with “The Bear Trap” this week.
With 26 water hazards and 78 bunkers, players are going to have to be able to keep their ball in play off the tee and be able to get up and down if they can’t find greens. Remember, if eight-under is the winning score, on average, that’s only two birdies a day. Avoiding big numbers will always help as any score under par each day will be like gold if the wind is blowing.
After as disastrous WGC-Match Play swing-and-miss, I’m hoping to kick some knowledge this week. My advice on the whole last week was good: Take some chalk, take some upsets. My chalk and upsets were upsetting after just two rounds. Yikes, that was awful!
In honor of the home of the PGA of America, we’ll dedicate our categories to some of their past champions this week.
Walter Hagen’s Heroes:
The man to first win five PGA Championships has the honor
Rory McIlroy: With that swing and that game, there is no question that he will add more victories to his four titles in 2012. Last year, he struggled firing 77-75 on the weekend but this will be his fourth start at PGA National. The world’s No. 2 golfer has shown his ability in the States, winning at a tough track at Quail Hollow and last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional.
Mark Wilson: As well as he’s played the last 14 months, it seems like Wilson doesn’t get any credit or accolades for his stellar play. It can’t be a fluke. He’s won on tight courses, desert courses and was excellent last week in match play. He has struggled in his last three starts here with 72nd, CUT and CUT after his win in 2007, the first year at the Champion Course. I can’t overlook his current form anymore. He’s played himself into this echelon with his third-place finish last week plus his victory at WMPO.
Y.E. Yang: In the last three appearances here he’s finished second, CUT and WIN. The former PGA Champion should be the poster boy for this event! He’s off to a slow start in 2012 with two cuts made in four events but he should enjoy one of his favorite courses this week at PGA National.
Keegan Bradley: Another player that just keeps hitting the of the leader board week inside the top 25 week after week, Bradley, in four full-field events this season has not finished worse than T22. His putt on 18 at NTO to join the playoff with Bill Haas and Phil Mickelson showed me that he’s not intimidated by anyone. His playoff victory to win the PGA Championship last summer showed me he’s not intimidated by any course. He was P2 at NTO before falling to Miguel Angel Jimenez in the round of 16 last week.
Lee Westwood: I enjoy that he doesn’t like Rory McIlroy and vice-versa. I believe rivalries are excellent for the game and even better for television. I hoped they’re paired together Thursday and Friday. Heck, Saturday and Sunday would be fine as well. Westwood, the world No. 3, has gotten himself into excellent shape and that paid off last week as he advanced past the second round in the WGC-Match Play for the first time in 11 tries. His game looks to be rounding into shape after finishing fourth last week.
Jack Nicklaus Five-some
Jack has five PGA Championships of his own so he gets his own grouping as well.
Ben Crane: The last time the leader of “The Golf Boys” entered a stroke-play tournament, he was second alone at WMPO. He didn’t play the last two years at Honda but he was third alone in 2009 and T12 in 2008. Crane has hit the top 10 three times in 2012 and leads the Tour in strokes gained-putting.
Tiger Woods: Yes, he hasn’t won a full-field event since 1835 or whatever, I get it. I couldn’t possibly sleep tonight, or any night, if I didn’t put him in here and he won. It’s a “can’t lose” or “can’t win” pick, depending on which side of the Woods fence you sit. His game is coming back in stages but the questioning won’t quit until he wins 12 events in a row. It’s the nature of the beast. That’s what comes with greatness. Woods keeps adding tournaments (AT&T and Honda) this season to play his game back into shape. I’m not going leave him out. More is not less in his case.
John Huh: The 21-year old took just five starts on Tour to gather his first victory. Five CAREER starts. That’s quite amazing. He’s been on the radar since his T6 at FIO and T12 the following week at WMPO. After posting T35 at AT&T, Huh took a week off to regroup. I guess that worked. He outlasted Robert Allenby over eight holes to win Mayakoba last week after firing a closing-round eight-under 63 to make the playoff. 63 on Sunday is always impressive, right Johnny Miller? 63 on Sunday and then making par on eight consecutive holes to win a playoff in your fifth career start (and first career playoff) is more impressive. Allenby was 11-2 career in world-wide playoffs. I’m sold.
Freddy Jacobson: “The Junk Man” was just that, junk, in the Match Play last week, getting destroyed by fellow countryman Robert Karlsson, 6 and 5. No worries for me; one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Jacobson, after his defeat in round one, will be excited to get back to PGA National where his record has been excellent in his three visits. Three cuts made in three starts and has finished T29, T6 and T5 in those outings.
Mark Leishman: He’s played three events this year and has made the cut in all of them including T19 and T17 in his last two. He made the cut in all three Florida Swing events last year including a T17 at the Honda and was T17 in 2010 as well. He likes Florida and I like his game. If it gets windy, this is the last guy you will worry about in those conditions.
Larry Nelson Final Five:
In honor of the 1987 PGA Champion at PGA National.
Kyle Stanley: He’s played five events in stroke play. He’s finished T23, CUT, P2, WIN and T24. I’m sold. I’m excited to see if he can keep playing at such a high-level on the Florida Swing.
Rory Sabbatini: He gives hope for all of those who are playing the Champion Course for the first time. In his maiden voyage last year, he tried to give away his five-shot lead, but he hung on and held off Y.E. Yang for victory. He shares the course record 64 which he shot in the first round last year. But, his last three rounds have been 80, 76, and 75. Buyer beware.
Justin Rose: He’s only played stroke-play twice this year so I believe he’s primed and ready to go. His history at Honda includes third alone in 2010 (DNS 2011), CUT, and T15 in 2008. He’s a Florida resident so he’ll feel at home on a course he’s done well playing over the last four years.
Charl Schwartzel: He finished in the top 16 of every major last year, including his victory at Augusta so he is on the radar. He was T14 in his first and only appearance here last year. WGC-Match Play was his fourth event of 2012 but his first in North America.
Charlie Wi: After a tough final round at AT&T where he finished second, Wi backed that up with a T34 at NTO. In the five events at Honda he’s played at this course, he’s been CUT, 8th, T9, T69 and T13. Stretching a bit here, but I like the history plus the recent form.
Players that just missed the list: Justin Leonard, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, CH III, and Jimmy Walker.
John Daly Band:
No, not the golfers who enjoy loud outfits, louder music and maybe a cold one or two, but guys who aren't expect to contend this week who might make some noise.
Kevin Stadler: He hit the top 25 the last three times on Tour, including T16 last week in Mayakoba. His history here is nothing to brag about, CUT in 2008 and T53 in 2007.
Chris Stroud: He had a chance last week to join the Huh-Allenby playoff with a birdie on 18, but he made double instead. The good news was he still finished T5. In six starts this season he has finished in the top 13 three times and has been cut the other six. He’s made the cut in three of four events at Honda with his best finish being T31 in 2009.
Ricky Barnes: He’s made five of six cuts in 2012 but has only finish worth noting, third alone at AT&T. He backed that up with a T62 at NTO. With a week off and a course he played well last year last year, here’s anticipating a nice bounce.
Jerry Kelly: Shook the rust off last week at Mayakoba after taking two weeks off. He’s finished third, T12, CUT and T20 in his last four appearances at Honda. That’s worth a shot.
J.J. Henry: Henry has made four cuts in four appearances at Honda and is coming three rounds in the 60’s last week to close at Mayakoba. That’s his first cut made in six events in 2012. Looks like I’ll need some Yoga for this pick.
Hal Jacobs Two-Ball:
Hal has the distinction of firing 91 to open the 2006 Honda Classic. I’m not saying these guys will match that number, but I’m looking elsewhere this week.
Anthony Kim: Please take a look at his record in 2012 before you choose him based on his name this week. He has three CUT and one DQ.
Ernie Els: The former champion here iced Luke Donald last week but then turned around and was knocked out in the same fashion by Peter Hanson. Els has played two stroke-play tournaments and has not finished better than T52. Els had only one top 10 last year and was 182nd in scrambling. Not so easy.
Golf Channel Fantasy Challenge: The Honda Classic
Team Name: Mike Glasscott
Group 1: Rory McIlroy
Group 2: Mark Wilson
Group 3: Marc Leishman
Group 4: J.J. Henry
Ned Said, “…
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Keegan Bradley: He has been near the top of the leader board in all of his stroke play events this season. His only start at the Honda came last year and that finish is a non-factor in projecting him this week.
Kyle Stanley: I really wanted to take Y.E. Yang in this spot due his history at the Honda but he just isn't playing well enough to give him the nod. Instead, I'll go with Kyle Stanley, who is playing well, with a playoff loss at the Farmers and victory at the WMPO.
Y.E. Yang, Jim Furyk, Charles Howell III, Camillo Villegas
Rory McIlroy: McIlroy has put up 10 top-five finishes in his last 11 worldwide starts. Only T11 at the Dubai World Championship fell outside the top 10.
Lee Westwood: If McIlroy wasn't in this week's field, then Westwood would be the favorite. I'm a little concerned about how much the super-intense semifinal with McIlroy in the Match Play took out of him but I'm rolling with the assumption that it really won't matter this week.
Fredrick Jacobson: His first-round departure at the Match Play was disappointing but going into last week he had a nice T13 at the NTO. I love his recent record at the Honda, with T5 in '09 and T6 in '10.
Robert Allenby: I see it as a coin flip between Allenby and Justin Rose in this spot. I'm going to assume there isn't a hangover effect from Allenby's eight-hole playoff loss at the Mayakoba.
Justin Rose, Mark Wilson, Tiger Woods, Marc Leishman, John Rollins
Charl Schwartzel: He bowed out in the second round of the Match Play after he ran into a red-hot Sang-moon Bae, but going into the Match Play he had top-nine finishes in seven of his last 10 worldwide starts. His only start at the Honda was last year where he tied for 14th place.
Ben Crane: I've been wrestling with Crane or Graeme McDowell in this spot. Crane is the hotter player right now with top 10s in three of his four stroke play events this year, including a second place at the WMPO.
Graeme McDowell, Sang-moon Bae, Charlie Wi, Padraig Harrington, Ricky Barnes
“And Another Thing”
The analysis doesn't end here. Rotoworld's Rob Bolton will be co-hosting a one-hour live chat with GolfChannel.com's Ryan Ballengee on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. ET. They will be breaking down the field at The Honda Classic and answering your questions. Simply return to the golf home page to join in on the chatter.