The PGA Tour waves goodbye to golf on the West Coast and takes up residence in Florida this week, starting with one of the most challenging layouts players will face all season – The Champions Course at PGA National. An absolute animal of a par 70, the 7140-yard track has consistently ranked as one of the hardest courses relative to par since its introduction to the regular slate as host of the Honda Classic back in 2007. Indeed, in two of the past three years, the course has ranked as the toughest par 70 on the schedule, as a mix of windy conditions, thick rough, water hazards and strategically placed bunkers serve to create an examination of a player’s all-round game which would not look out of place at a US Open.
Whilst most players will be pleased to leave behind the Poa Annua greens of the West Coast, in favour of the more predictable BermudaGrass short stuff here, they’ll be fearful of the three-hole stretch from 15-17 known as The Bear Trap. Designed by Jack Nicklaus back in 1990, the 3-4-3 run has been played in a combined 2973 over par by all players since the course entered the regular schedule and has put paid to many a player’s chances late on a Sunday. Bogeys will be made but limiting them is vital so I believe a consideration of bogey avoidance is important in assessing the candidates this week.
Given the excess of water hazards (26) and bunkers (78) on the course, ball striking is at a real premium this week. Former PGA Tour pro Steven Bowditch mentioned that being in the rough on certain holes all but guarantees a bogey, so it stands to reason that players who excel tee-to-green are likely to prosper. Indeed, last year’s winner Rickie Fowler ranked in the top 15 of that particular stat, whilst Adam Scott ranked third in that category on route to his win in 2016. Both made reference to ball striking in their winner’s speech so we’ll take that as another pointer this week too.
Another consideration that is worth accounting for is a player’s ability in windy conditions. Wind always serves as a key defence for PGA National, given that it’s situated just a mile off the Atlantic coast, and with a forecast showing expected 15mph gusts all week, this year will be no different.
It’s worth noting players who have played well on links, seaside tracks have done well here over the years – winners include Harrington (2x Open Championships), Henley (Sony Open win), McIlroy (Open Championship), Els (2x Open Championships), Wilson (Sony Open win) – so strong wind players are worth their weight in gold.
The always excellent futureoffantasy.com handily maintains strokes gained: wind ranking so we’ll be given that some attention also in attempting to find our winner.
The field is headed this week by defending champion Fowler, and he makes little appeal at around the 10.0 mark. Although the four-stroke margin last season may give the impression of a facile win, in reality, the popular Californian was just one shot ahead teeing off on 13 before a couple of birdies combined with bogeys from his nearest challengers saw him prevail. Undoubtedly a huge talent, we’ve been burnt by his struggles when in contention previously and I’m happy to pass on him at this mark.
Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, and Sergio Garcia are next up and all three have things going for them. Thomas finished 3rd here in 2016 and trended nicely last week but never really threatened to go on and win, and I worry we might see the same again this week.
At 12.5 you’d have made profit backing him blind in every tournament last year but there may be better opportunities to get on board with him in coming months. Garcia makes his seasonal reappearance here this week, and has a good record at the course, with a pair of top 10 finishes amongst his perfect 7/7 cut record. The Spaniard won a low-grade event in Singapore in January but hasn’t played competitively for a month and may be treating this as more of a tune-up for his Masters defense.
McIlroy makes most appeal of the three at 14.0 and I’ll be backing him to score his first win in over a year at a venue where he’s previously been victorious (as well as lost a playoff). The Northern Irishman made no excuses for his struggles on Poa Annua greens at Pebble Beach so it was encouraging to see him make big strides forward on the surface last week, posting a positive strokes gained-putting number in finishing tied for 20th.
This week he returns to his most favoured putting surface – BermudaGrass – and he should be much more comfortable, given he leads the Tour in strokes gained on that surface since 2014. He also leads the Tour in strokes gained in the wind during that same timeframe and will enjoy home comforts given he now makes residence just down the road. He’s talking a good game right now and it is surely not long until he hoists another trophy. I believe this is a prime opportunity to get the monkey off his back and would be very surprised if he’s not in the mix on Sunday.
It’s 30.0 bar the four already mentioned and there are a couple further down the odds that interest. Brian Harman currently sits 21st in the world rankings and is bidding to make his first Ryder Cup after featuring in the amateur version, the Walker Cup, on three occasions. He’s returning after a three-week break, essentially skipping the Poa Annua section of the schedule after missing the cut at Torrey Pines, but before that break he was in excellent form, recording five consecutive top-eight finishes including at windy events in Hawaii, at Sea Island and in China.
After the Sony Open in Hawaii, he referenced the fact that he’s felt much more comfortable in the wind since changing the brand of golf ball he used in mid-2017, so it’s no surprise his results have improved dramatically.
That makes his previous quote that the Champions Course ‘sets up really well’ for him as a left-hander, and ‘really suits his eye’ more interesting, as does the fact he’s had some success here previously with a pair of top 15 finishes amongst his past efforts.
He ranks 12th in bogey avoidance and 36th in strokes gained tee-to-green and it would definitely not be a surprise to see him become the third consecutive southpaw winner on Tour.
My final selection has become somewhat the forgotten man of golf, which he’ll be desperate to change in a Ryder Cup year – Patrick Reed. Dubbed Captain America due to his Ryder Cup exploits, the 27-year-old world number 25 is a five-time Tour winner but is 18 months removed from his last victory during the 2016 FedEx Cup playoffs.
Of those victories, four have been on BermudaGrass greens, which is second in the field only to Tiger Woods. He ranks 15th in strokes gained in the wind, is 19th in total strokes gained at venues in Florida and has a 7th placed finish to his name here back in 2015. He’s traded top 25 finishes with missed cuts thus far this year but coming back to his favoured type of track I strongly fancy him to outrun his odds and think he represents a good trading opportunity.
- Rory McIlroy – 2.5 points win @ 14.0 (lay 2.5 points at 3.0)
- Brian Harman – 1 point win @ 41.0 (lay 3 points @ 7.0)
- Patrick Reed – 1 point win @ 71.0 (lay 5 points @ 9.0)