It’s farewell to Mexico as the PGA Tour moves to Florida for the Honda Classic
After DJ bolted up in Mexico City, the pros return to mainland America this week as the PGA Tour’s revamped schedule begins its Florida Swing with the Honda Classic. Although a home game for a large portion of the field, the par 70 Champion Course at PGA National is a perennial killer and was the toughest non-major venue relative to par last season. A combination of water, wind and sand works to challenge every facet of a player’s game and the only relief for the majority of the field will be that with the West Coast out the way, Bermudagrass is back on the agenda instead of Poa Annua.
Who Doesn’t Love The Bear Trap!
The real kicker at the track is the ‘Bear Trap’ (the stretch of holes from 15-17), introduced after a 1990 redesign by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus stated that he wanted to design a run of holes “where the tournament would be won or lost” and where “it’s about guts. It’s about what do you have in your chest that you can finish these holes”.
Well, it seems that a lot of Tour pros are lacking in the intestinal fortitude department as, per PGATour.com, in the 12 years as host of the event, that stretch has played a combined 3571 shots over par. Indeed, the par 3 17th ranked as the hardest non-major hole in golf last season at almost a half stroke over par. This is an event where there can be some in-running carnage so if you like trading, it’s worth keeping close tabs.
At a course where there are so many hazards in play, the formula for success is pretty straight forward. Drive the ball well, control your approaches in the wind (if there is any, as the forecast is for an abnormally still week), and scramble effectively when you miss greens.
The past four champs all ranked inside the top 10 of proximity of approach and all were also in the top 10 for scrambling. Having the ability to avoid the inevitable mistakes that will happen is critical also, as birdie opportunity are relatively scarce so there are few opportunities to get dropped shots back. As such, my core stats for the week are strokes gained: approach, scrambling and bogey avoidance.
How The Outright Market Is Shaping Up
Taking a look at the market, it’s unsurprising to see last year’s champ Justin Thomas at the head of affairs, especially given he posted a scintillating 62 (-9) to close out his week at Chapultepec. He has a strange record here reading MC-T3-MC-1 and whilst he’s rightly favourite given his current form and pedigree, he’s short enough to leave alone for me.
2017 champion Rickie Fowler is next and though he fell over the line in Phoenix (shooting the worst SG: tee-to-green final round by any winner in the ShotLink era), the odds look on the skinny side even accounting for two other top 7 finishes here. He’s seemed to find ways of getting himself in a pickle of late – see last week’s shoulder high drop, and the drop into the water a couple of weeks ago – and that lack of concentration would prove costly here.
After those two it’s Brooks Koepka who is lightly raced, making his first US start since the Christmas decorations came down, though he shook the rust off with a T27 last week in Mexico. However, his results here are uninspiring thus far, with no top 25 finishes in his four attempts. Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, who finished 1-2 here in 2016, complete the top 5, and both surely come into the event with question marks given Scott’s Sunday implosion at Riviera and Sergio’s latent anger issues in Saudi Arabia. All in all, it looks a bunch of favourites to be taken on, so let’s find some value further down the list.
Piercy Trending Upwards
I’m going to start my staking plan with four-time Tour winner Scott Piercy. The Las Vegas native has been trending positively in the past few weeks, finishing T20 in Phoenix and T10 at Pebble Beach, following on from a positive fall series where he recorded a trio of top 10 finishes to highlight a strong return to form. Piercy ranks well in all of our key identified stats, sitting 22nd for Scrambling this season, 20th for Bogey Avoidance and 48th for SG: Approach and has put in some solid performances at PGA National previously, having finished T17 last year and tied for 5th back in 2009.
As mentioned above, PGA National plays extremely tough and Piercy has proven experience on tough tracks as evidenced by his runner up finish at the 2016 US Open at Oakmont so he won’t be phased by the challenge. I generally prefer grizzled veterans when the events are challenging and I think Piercy could well outrun his odds.
PGA National Sits Well With G-Mac
My next best is another grizzled veteran, who is also armed with a little additional motivation this year, Graeme McDowell. The Northern Irishman now makes up home in Florida so this is a home game for him, but he’s spoken at length about his desire to play this summer’s Open Championship at his home course at Portrush, an event he is as-yet-unqualified for. McDowell knows that a win would seal that deal and the venues where he can realistically make that happen as becoming more infrequent given his playing style, but PGA National is certainly one that gives him a chance.
Over the years G-Mac has carded four top 10 finishes here and is one who tends to bring his best game when the conditions are most difficult – as evidenced by his win at the 2010 US Open at Pebble and runner up two years later at the Olympic Club.
He started his 2019 with a promising top 20 finish at Pebble Beach a couple of weeks back, and though he was only tied for 42nd in Peurto Rico last time out, he shot his best round of the week over his closing 18. He currently ranks 39th in SG: Approach for the season, 25th in bogey avoidance and 89th in scrambling so the signs are pointing in the right direction, and at a course he loves he could well run a big race at a long price.
Watch Out For Wallace
My final selection is a little more of a flier but is purely priced based, and that is Matt Wallace. The 28-year-old Englishman has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the golf world rankings over the past couple of years, winning at every level and against all competition. He was controversially overlooked for a Ryder Cup captains pick despite a three-win season on the European Tour last season but went right back to work securing top 5 finishes in big Rolex Series events at the Nedbank Challenge, the DP World Tour Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic. This is his first experience of a regular PGA Tour event but there are really no reasons why he can’t immediately contend as he appears to have the type of game that will translate to any course.
Compatriots Tyrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood have both gone close here in the past two seasons (both finished T4), and he has an advantage on them given his local connections having attended Jacksonville State University. He improved with every round in Mexico, going 74-71-70-67, and feels like he a guy who could well be going off half the price in the not too distance future if he displays some early stateside success.
Sometimes we just have to trust our eyes and the price and this is one of those occasions for me.
- Scott Piercy – 2 points @ 71.0 (lay 5 points @ 11.0)
- Graeme McDowell – 1.5 points @ 101.0 (lay 5 points @ 11.0)
- Matt Wallace – 1.5 points @ 81.0 (lay 5 points @ 11.0)