The League of Extraordinary Golfers will travel across the country to kick off the first Florida event of the year.
The wacky WGC scheduling puts a damper on the Florida Swing, but that should be corrected in the upcoming seasons. For now, we just a taste of Florida golf before returning in two weeks for the final two legs of the Florida Swing.
Similar to last week, we have a field of 144 golfers. We aren't completely out of the woods when it comes to potential darkness delays, but this event does typically finish their opening rounds, barring any weather setbacks.
The TOUR heads to PGA National Resort and Spa this week to battle with the Champion Course. It's a mid-length, par 70 track that plays just around 7,140 yards on most days.
The course is one of the toughest non-majors these pros face all year. In calm conditions, it will play around even par but calm conditions are rare around here. Over the last four editions, the average wind speed is 15 MPH, inside the top 5 in terms of windiest events. Right up there with The Open Championship, Puerto Rico Open, Valero, and Colonial.
Other than the wind, the main defense is the water hazards that are littered all over the property. Since 2007, when this course started hosting, golfers have found water on 16-of-18 holes. Big numbers are lurking everywhere.
Because of all the water in play, many golfers will take less-than-driver on lots of holes this week. In fact, the field has averaged less than 282 yards on 13 of the 14 driving holes here at PGA National.
Golfers that struggled on the greens during the West Coast Swing may be rejoicing as we return to bermudagrass greens. Some turf changes in the summer of 2014 allow the greens to play as pure Bermuda but given the time of year, the rough is generally overseeded with ryegrass to allow it to grow to the desired height of 3+ inches.
The buzzword this week will be The Bear Trap. This refers to the three-hole stretch beginning at the par-3 15th hole. Golfers are a combined 2973-over-par on the Bear Trap since 2007 when the course started hosting. Nearly just as hard, we shouldn't ignore holes no. 5 thru 7 which have played 2903-over-par over that same time period. With water and wind lurking everywhere, you better not count your Pokemon before their eggs hatch. This will be a 72-hole mental battle.
Sifting through some past quotes over at the Fantasy Golfanac, let's try to break down the courses to see how they will play.
Ben Crane: "It's really not a bomber's golf course because the rough is so thick, so you've really got to put the ball in play and give yourself chances"
Wesley Bryan: "It's so tricky and challenging around the greens. It's a big, long golf course, tight fairways, and most of the teeth come from really 30 or 40 yards and in."
Martin Kaymer: "You really have to think your way around the golf course. And the wind, usually when it's up, it's very difficult to play. And I enjoy that where you stand on the first tee and you don't feel like you're already four or five shots behind, because you need to make birdies. Even level par or 1-under par is a good score on this golf course."
William McGirt: "I'm just glad to be back in some warm weather and some humidity and on bermudagrass."
Jason Dufner: "I think the ball-striker have a little bit of an advantage being able to control your ball in that wind, work it against it or work it with it and keep it out of that wind. I grew up down here so I'm pleased to playing in this type of weather."
Sergio Garcia: "I've always enjoyed playing with wind. I'd rather play with wind than with rain. Yeah, I enjoy the challenge of windy days. Obviously windy days are playable, but I've always seemed to do fairly well when the wind is up."
Overview: The common themes are battling with the wind, ball-striking, bermuda preference, short-game skills, and smart play. Some golfers are really glad to be back on the East Coast, whether its the weather or the grass types. Being able to control your ball flight is huge around here, as it helps you battle with the wind but also helps you manage your misses and avoid the water hazards.
Looking at past performance, golfer quotes, and course setup, these five courses/events show up as potential pointers:
TPC Kuala Lumpur
Colonial Country Club
TPC Sawgrass stands out as the top pointer in my opinion. It's another Florida course with water lurking everywhere and not much need to use the big stick.
I went back five years and couldn't find a single Honda round that was played with average winds less than 10 MPH.
That trend should hold true, at least for rounds one and two where gusts could reach 20 MPH with winds expected in the 8-to-15 MPH range for most of the round.
Temperatures look brilliant with forecasts calling for upper-70s to low-80s for the week.
There are small chances for pop-up showers here and there, so gamers should keep their eye on the forecast as the tournament draws nearer.
Overall, we should expect great golfing weather (if the rain holds off) with plenty of wind to test these pros.
Players to Watch
A home game for Rory but not the best course fit since the course typically takes the driver out of hand on too many holes. Still, he's proven he can contend here (WIN in 2012; RUNNER-UP in 2014). Unfortunately, his other six trips have resulted in finishes outside the top 10. Certainly, one to ponder, making him a boom-or-bust option this week for gamers.
Someone who doesn't mind putting the driver away is the defending champ, Rickie Fowler. He can poke it out there with the best of them when needed but he's taken a more conservative approach with the driver of the past year or two. That has given him confidence and it shows when you look at his fairways hit. He's peppered more fairways per round than the field in 6 of his last 8 starts. Playing his college golf at Oklahoma State and now calling Florida home, he doesn't mind these windy conditions.
Stateside gamers may not be keeping close tabs on the Spaniard, but he's won twice overseas since mid-October. He'll be making his first start in the States since last year's TOUR Championship but there is no reason why he shouldn't jump right into contention this week.
Missed the cut in his only start following the big win in Phoenix. That might leave him to fly under the radar this week, but I think it's a good week for him to bounce back. Finished runner-up here last year and also posted a T6 in 2011, never missing the cut in five tries.
The bermuda rough got in his head last year, "It frustrates me so much. It's so inconsistent. Hopefully I can hit 18 greens tomorrow." Looking at his Strokes Gained Around-the-Green numbers, he lost strokes to the field in five straight events on bermuda before gaining 2.4 strokes ARG at the PGA Championship. Elite golfers tend to figure these things out quickly, so that is a good sign. Even with his poor ARG performance last year, he still found a top 5 here.
Has a lot of confidence (always) but especially around here. Back in 2015 he said this, "I'm used to the greens. I'm used to the rough. So I'm used to it being windy. Hopefully it blows out here. That will play to my advantage." After a close call in his debut (2015 Runner-Up) he's missed the cut in two return visits. I'd expect him to rebound this week and himself in the mix.
The University of Texas standout has taken the European Tour by storm recently. Love his potential long-term but this will be his first event played on a PGA TOUR setup. His two previous PGA TOUR starts came at the PGA Championship (PGA of America) and The Open (R&A). The talent is there if you want to take a stab, but I will take the wait-and-see approach, personally.
A home game for the Indian star. Like so many golfers in the area, he doesn't peg it often here at PGA National, instead opting for exclusivity and pace of play at The Bear's Club. Still, it should be a comfortable week for him back in Florida. TPC Kuala Lumpur also showed up in the correlated events, which bodes well for Lahiri.
He's always had potential, but I love what I'm hearing about him new mindset. He's said that he's no longer focused on keeping his card, his new goal is to try and win every tournament he enters. He's also finished top 20 in both of his previous visits to PGA National.
Flashed some form out of nowhere last week. Just in time to take on a course where he's posted top 15s in five of his last seven visits. As an Orlando resident, putting on these bermuda greens has become second nature for him.
Still hitting GIRs at a high clip but he's not seeing the ball go in the hole. He should figure it out eventually, and this is a good course to do so (past winner) but I'm not ready to jump back in, yet.
Still in the "needs reps" stage, Woods is showing promise but still not piecing it all together. His first two starts came on courses that demand you pound driver after driver. This week, he should be able to holster the big stick a bit more which should allow him to focus on dialing in his irons and letting his short game shine. His putting has looked great since returning, other than his R2 last week. No need to dive in just yet, unless you are a Tiger diehard that can't stand to be without him.
Ranking the Field
1. Rickie Fowler
2. Sergio Garcia
3. Rory McIlroy
4. Gary Woodland
5. Justin Thomas
6. Daniel Berger
7. Martin Kaymer
8. Rafa Cabrera Bello
9. Louis Oosthuizen
10. Charles Howell III
11. Patrick Reed
12. Webb Simpson
13. Jason Dufner
14. Brandt Snedeker
15. Tyrrell Hatton
16. Tommy Fleetwood
17. Ryan Moore
18. Ollie Schniederjans
19. Kevin Kisner
20. Alex Noren
21. Ian Poulter
22. Russell Knox
23. Billy Horschel
24. Graeme McDowell
25. Russell Henley
Playing European Tour Fantasy Golf? Give Dave Tindall's Qatar Masters Preview a look. Check back on Tuesday for our Expert Picks and then on Wednesday, I will return for some last-minute DFS tips in the DFS Dish.