Go east young men! The Florida Swing is here, although the marketing of that stretch is limited a bit by Doral no longer hosting the first World Golf Championships event of 2017 next week. From kikuyu and poa annua to a heavy dose of Bermuda grass, jet lag is not the only adjustment for players who make the cross-country jump. Hello, humidity! Goodbye, elevation. It is a cultural shift. It is also an acceleration of anticipation for the Masters, as players mix prep and rest in advance of the season’s first major. All of that, plus a world-class course and jam packed party scene make The Honda Classic a real gem on the schedule.
The Course – There are rumblings about the PGA Championship moving up on the schedule in advance of the next Olympic conflict in 2020. The PGA of America’s national offices greet you on the drive in to PGA National, which would be a perfect candidate for a Florida major should the PGA want to alter course. A brute of a course, the par 70 layout is 7,140 yards of water, intimidation and test. In a decade worth of Classics at its current location (the tournament moved to PGA National in 2007), only two players have ever reached double-digits under par for the week. In 2016, only 13 players broke par for 72 holes.
Of course, the attention will be on the “Bear Trap,” Jack Nicklaus’ torturous test of two par 3’s and a tricky par 4 from 15-17 that have broken golfers in contention before.
Last Year – Adam Scott won despite a quadruple-bogey on his weekend card. An even-par 70 was good enough to hold off Sergio Garcia by a shot. It was the first of back-to-back wins for Scott, who silenced any critics that thought he couldn’t return to top form without the long putter.
This Year – After years of this tournament being the premier early-season event on the PGA Tour, there has been a shift in attention by some players. Much of this may do with the fact that Mexico City is the next stop, not Miami. With Dustin Johnson getting to #1 in the world last week, and not playing this week, there is less chatter about the hot hands in golf. Instead, attention this week will be on who rises to the occasion to challenge the narrative. No player has ever won this tournament at PGA National in his first try, so a veteran figures to make a move in 2017.
The Field – Three years ago, every player in the top 10 of the world played this week. Fast forward to 2017, and the top six in the world are all resting, namely Rory McIlroy, who was scheduled to play, but will now wait until next week to test his fractured rib. Scott, Justin Thomas and Garcia are all in the field to provide some gravitas. This is also a big week for an influx of foreign talent, as the Honda marks a perfect opportunity for Europe’s best to settle in America for a month before Augusta. That list includes Danny Willett, Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Martin Kaymer and a few others. Nine of the past 12 winners of this tournament have been international players.
Weather – Trending in the right direction, it looks like Wednesday will be wet, with mild and dry conditions in place for all four rounds afterwards. No rain?! It doesn’t seem possible after the West Coast Swing, but don’t bet on this forecast. It’s Florida, and pop-up showers and storms could creep back into the discussion as the week moves along. Winds appear to be fresh, as is often the case, so scoring could be tough even with ample sunshine.
Holes to Watch – The Bear Trap will get all of the attention, where 163 birdies were offset by 286 bogeys or worse on the three holes that all feature dangerous carries over water. The trio, however, should be a quartet, because the par 4 14th hole is the real buster of the back nine. The 465-yard hole yielded just 25 birdies all week last year, with 13 triples or worse. It was nearly a half stroke over par. If the wind blows from the west, into the players’ faces, making par is like stealing one. The winds are forecast to be out of the north, so watch out for 14th’s evil twin, the par 4 6th hole, 479 yards of narrow fairway, water left and a perched green. Knee knocking.
In With the Old – Dustin Johnson became the first player older than 29 to win on the PGA Tour in 2017. It’s not really a trend considering Johnson swings like those in their 20’s. How do the wily veterans try to get back to head of the class? Does a tough golf course favor those who have been around the block a few extra times? It is grasping at straws, but the next month will go a long way towards determining how overwhelming the young gun revolution will be this year.
Trumped – The 45th President of the United States brought McIlroy out of hibernation early this week. He’s played with Tiger Woods recently too. His revamped course at Doral couldn’t keep the WGC next week. The most talked about man in the world is going to be a topic around the 19th hole this week. The big question, given his powerful social media presence, is if he says something, anything, that turns heads in the golf world.
Championship Pedigree – Control. Your. Golf. Ball. Scott hit more greens than any player in the tournament last year and won. The top five finishers in 2017 all ranked in the top 10 in fairways hit. Nobody who broke par for the week were top 10 in putting. Yes, you have to make putts, but they need to be for birdies and pars, not bogeys and doubles after finding water off the tee. Ballstrikers and confident players rule this week.
Top Five –
Justin Thomas – It has been an uninspiring return after being the best golfer at the beginning of the year. Why does a T39 at Riviera get him a bump to the top of this list? He was 15th in strokes gained: tee to green for the week and couldn’t make putts. The smooth surfaces in Florida will help cure that, and his ballstriking numbers are almost all top 10 on Tour this year. He made a run here last year, and is in position to retake the hottest player baton this week.
Sergio Garcia – His also-ran finish last week just didn’t make any sense given where his game was, but it’s the same logic here as Thomas. Garcia finished 70th in strokes gained: putting at Riviera and drove it great. Bermuda grass should really help Sergio. He has two top 10’s in this event the last three seasons. He has never missed the cut at PGA National.
Thomas Pieters – The 63 in the final round at Riviera showed he belonged, while there shouldn’t have been any debate there. To be a favorite this week may be a leap, but he is crazy long and fearless. It may be a top 10, or it could be a missed cut. Let’s bet on the former and go all-in on form here.
Adam Scott – Funny thing about the defending champion here is that his putter is miles ahead of his long game, statistically, at this young juncture of the season. That would counter all of the pedigree knowledge listed above, but the swing is too good. If the putter from California travels to eastern Florida, there is no reason he isn’t in contention down the stretch.
Luke Donald – Back-to-back top 25 performances for Donald the last two weeks shows a confidence in the swing. His numbers across the board are solid, ranking 25th in strokes gained: tee to green. He keeps the ball in play, and has never missed the cut at PGA National, including multiple top 10 finishes. How about Donald for a veteran storyline this week?
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – There are names above worth burning this week. This author really likes Garcia, but he could be a major championship threat later this year. Why not a guy like Brendan Steele? He has never missed the cut at PGA National, or all of the 2016-17 season. He is knocking on the door to be a top 50 ranked player and a big week could help with that leap. Burn him before he cools. Russell Knox is another good play here. Rested and with a great track record at this tournament.
Fantasy Tip – Time to get familiar with a lot of new names at this juncture of the season. Do your homework on guys who come to America playing really well (Cabrera Bello, Hatton or Matthew Fitzpatrick) or need to prove themselves (Willett). There are names above (Garcia, Donald, Steele, Knox) who are weekend guarantees at PGA National too. Don’t stretch to find diamonds in the rough. This course demands attention and precision. Those who have mastered that in the past are safe bets.