The Honda Classic
It was a solid if unspectacular week for us at Riviera as our 66/1 pick Sahith Theegala bagged us a full place return to bring us a small profit in the event. It was another tremendous performance from the youngster made all the more impressive considering he clearly didn’t have his best stuff for large chunks of the week and it can surely only be a matter of time until he hits the winners circle.
The event itself was won by Jon Rahm who produced another superb week to return to the world number one spot. Rahm outduelled California specialist Max Homa who produced another great effort in his home state and it would be no surprise to see the pair right in the thick of it again when they return to LA for the US Open in June.
So with the Genesis Invitational wrapped up that concludes this years West Coast swing and the tour now heads cross country to start a four week run in Florida at the Honda Classic.
With the exception of 2021 when the schedule was re jigged the Honda Classic has traditionally heralded the beginning of the Florida Swing and this is the case again this year.
The event was first played in 1972 and was hosted at several different locations until moving to Palm Beach Gardens in 2006.
After one year in 2006 at the Country Club at Mirasol it then moved to PGA National in 2007 and has remained there ever since.
In the same year the tournament's main beneficiary became the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation, chaired by Barbara Nicklaus, wife of Jack Nicklaus, and this continues to be the case.
With the advent of ‘Designated Events’ on the PGA Tour the event has been hit hard this year from a field point of view as it falls right in the middle of the Phoenix, Genesis, API, TPC run. Add this to the fact that sponsors Honda, one of the PGA Tour’s longest serving partners are not renewing their current sponsorship deal when it ends after this years event and the event is potentially in jeopardy. The bigger picture here of course though is that the PGA Tour have to find a way to attract new sponsors for events which are not going to bring in the marquee names due to their slot in the scheduling.
Fortunately though the noises coming from PGA National are positive with regards to the commitment the PGA Tour have for keeping the event/course on the schedule and we can only hope the right partner is found with perhaps the promise of being a ‘Designated Event’ in two or three years time and/or a change in the schedule as this is one of the best tests of golf the players face all year.
The market is headed up past champion here Sungjae Im at single figure odds. Im is then followed by the man who narrowly missed out here last year Shane Lowry. Beyond this duo there are then bunch of players grouped at the 22-25/1 mark including Matt Kuchar, chris Kirk and Min Woo Lee.
PGA National was originally a Tom & George Fazio design, which has subsequently undergone redesigns from Jack Nicklaus both in 1990 & 2013.
The other Nicklaus designs played regularly on tour are Muirfield village home of the Memorial and also last years ‘one off’ Workday event and the Nicklaus Tournament Course used as part of the course rotation for the Amex. In addition the Concession Club home of the 2021 WGC is a Nicklaus design.
The event has been played at PGA National since 2007.
The course is a par 70 playing to just over 7100 yards.
The greens are TiffEagle Bermuda.
The ‘signature section’ of the course is The Bear Trap, which is holes 15-17. These holes combined create the toughest part of the course and indeed arguable the toughest 3 hole stretch on regular PGA Tour events year in year out.
These holes are made up of 2 par 3’s, the 15th & 17th and the par 4 16th. If you can get through these three holes in level par you are certainly picking up shots on the field.
As noted earlier PGA National is a tough nut to crack with solid ball striking being the order of the day. In addition and without stating the obvious, keeping your ball out of the numerous water hazards which populate the course is a key ingredient to success here!
PGA National is undoubtedly a tough test. Only three in the last eight years has the winning score been double digits under par. Firstly in 2017 when Rickie Fowler came home in -12 for a 4 shot victory, in 2021 when Matt Jones triumphed by five on a -12 total and then last year when Sepp Straka edged out Shane Lowry with a 10- under total.
The other winning scores over the past 6yrs have been -8, -9, -6, -8, -9 and -5 from Sungjae Im in 2020.
Just how difficult the course plays is dictated by how hard the wind blows and of course if the track has been ‘softened up’ by any rain.
So let’s take a look at the past 10 winners of the event;
2022 Sepp Straka
2021 Matt Jones
2020 Sungjae Im
2019 Keith Mitchell
2018 Justin Thomas
2017 Rickie Fowler
2016 Adam Scott
2015 Padraig Harrington
2014 Russell Henley
2013 Michael Thompson
As we can see the role of honour over the past 10yrs has been a bit of a mixed bag. 2015 through to 2017 saw wins for three of the games big names in the shape Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott and there also a comeback win for Padraig Harrington. In addition just over ten years ago Rory McIlroy took home the trophy in 2012.
In amongst this though there were maiden PGA tour successes for Straka last year, Sungjae Im, Michael Thompson and Keith Mitchell, alongside wins for Matt Jones & Russell Henley.
Im is now of course established as one of the top performers in the game, so of these winners you could only really class Jones, Thompson, Henley and Mitchell as more leftfield.
When looking at the list of past winners and players who have performed well at this event there is an obvious cross reference to the British Open.
Rory and Harrington are past Open Champions as of course is Ernie Els who won here in 2008. Scott came as close you can do without winning it and Rickie has taken like a duck to water to links golf and is an Open Champion in waiting.
This reference also goes back beyond the event being played at PGA National with Todd Hamilton winning the Honda Classic before shocking the golfing world to lift the Claret Jug.
One other point of note on this roll of honour is that only five of the past ten winners hailed from the US with the last three champions all hailing from outside of the US.
From the point of view of form coming in to the week and historical course form Thomas, Fowler and Scott were as telegraphed as a winner could be having finished top ten in their previous start and all having a previous top 12 finish in the event. Henley meanwhile had been in a poor run of form prior to his win here in 2014 having missed three of his five full field event cuts in the calendar year with nothing better than 51st. He had though finished 13th here the year before.
As for last years winner Straka he had been on a solid run of form making all of his previous cuts in 2022 and posting two top 16 finishes in his previous four starts. Furthermore he had finished 33rd and 27th here the previous two years so the signs were there.
Beyond that though the picture gets very murky as Harrington, Thompson and Mitchell had no form coming in to speak of, and no positive history on the course, although of course Harrington had the obvious British Open link, while 2020 winner Im arrived here on the back of nothing better than 29th place in his previous four starts and a 51st place finish on his debut in the event the previous year.
Finally 2021 winner Jones had posted a fourth here many years ago but had done nothing of note in the event over the past ten years and after a solid West Coast swing had played poorly in his first two starts in Florida. As a two time champion of his home Open though his pedigree in tough windy conditions was not in doubt and he certainly fitted the profile of international winners.
One thing that it has historically paid dividends to take note of here is players arriving at the event who would benefit from the tour moving across to the East Coast and therefore switching from the Poa Annua greens on to Bermuda Greens. This was particularly pertinent last year with Straka and in 2019 and 2020 with both Im and Mitchell as particularly in the case of the latter two they are all players who had clearly indicated before that they were far more comfortable on Bermuda.
We look set for a dry week with temperatures expected to be in the mid to high 80s throughout.
Wind as is normally the case here will be a factor with gusts around 20mph+ showing as a possibility through all four days.
As I always so though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
MATT KUCHAR – 22/1 – 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
There are plenty of players who make some appeal at the top end of the betting this week predominantly for the tried and tested obvious mix of course/current form, the one however that I can’t get away from at the top end of the betting, despite their lack of recent course history is Matt Kuchar.
One look at the history of this event over the years shows us that above all else it links with our Open Championship and more often than not experienced players as well. Harrington. Els and McIlroy of course triumphed here, Lowry, Fleetwood and Westwood have all come close here and a former Champion here Adam Scott really should have lifted the Claret Jug as we know. Go back further and unheralded Open Champion Todd Hamilton gained his first PGA Tour title in this event all be it on a different course. Basically the windy Florida Coast and windy Open Championship venues seem to go hand in glove.
In Kuchar then we have a player who certainly would have been Open Champion in 2017 at Birkdale before he was pipped through no fault of his own by some otherworldly feats from Jordan Spieth and who has proven over the years that he is master of patience on tough tests in the wind and of coastal golf.
One look at Kooch’s CV tells us all we need to know. Firstly Matt’s maiden tour title, while on a different track, came in this event way back in 2002 while subsequently he has triumphed again in Florida at Sawgrass, by the coast at the Heritage, The Sony and the Mayakoba and, as an aside at the Memorial, giving us the nice bonus of Nicklaus form.
Over the last couple of years of course Matt has fallen away somewhat, and at 44 it would be a fair assumption to think his winning days are over as he heads to the twilight of his career.
Matt though it would seem has other ideas as this season he has made six of eight cuts posting two top tens and a look at his stats tells us that everything is working nicely, with positive numbers in all the key areas. Furthermore last week on his way to seventh at Riviera he was second for the week from tee to green, lead the field in Driving Accuracy and was seventh in approach play. Basically only the putter, on his far less favoured surface of Poa Annua let him down and I am sure he will be delighted to be back on the Bermuda this week.
As mentioned at the outset the one downside to Matt this week is he has no recent history to call on at PGA National in this event, however he was solid enough here when teeing it up at the venue from 2007 through to 2011 and I just cant get away from the fact that I expect this test to suit him down to the ground.
With this year then being the 21st anniversary of Matt’s triumph in this event it would be fitting for him to come out in top once more as Honda bow out as sponsor and I expect him to make a bold bid to do so.
BYEONG HUN AN – 55/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 21st
Next up for me this week is a player who is something of a specialist on a Nicklaus layout Ben An.
An lost his way in 2020/21 to the extent that he found himself back on the Korn Ferry Tour last year having to claw his way back on to the PGA Tour.
Rather than wallow in self pity though he knuckled down and literally three weeks in to the season and interestingly almost exactly at this time of year he posted a long overdue maiden win on US soil as landed the Lecom Suncoast Classic, an event, which should be noted also played in the Sunshine State. Following on from this Ben posted one more runner up finish on the season and nursed his way home back in to the big league.
Following on from this the Korean has made a really solid return to the PGA Tour as having now tee’d it up 12 times playing the weekend on nine occasions with three top 20 finishes and a best effort of fourth at the Fortinet.
Refreshed now after a couple of weeks off and having made every cut this year on the West Coast Ben now gets to not only tee it up in his adopted home state of Florida but also to return to a track, which he has enjoyed great success on notching two top five finishes in four previous visits. Clearly then he is comfortable here. Furthermore a glance at Ben’s record at ‘Jack’s place’ Muirfield Village shows us that he has a strong resume their with a best of second in 2018, a result he matched when finishing runner up at another Nicklaus design, Glen Abbey, in the RBC Canadian Open a couple of months or so later.
Back then this week in comfortable surroundings and clearly in a good groove of form I happy to take Ben to finally get over the line and post his maiden PG Tour title.
LEE HODGES – 50/1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 14th
Next up this week I am going to, for a first time from memory since he joined the tour, chance Lee Hodges.
Hodges enjoyed a strong debut season on tour last year finishing 76th in the Fedex Cup while posting a best finish of third at the Amex. His second best effort meanwhile came in this event when he finished ninth.
Lee’s sophomore season as it does for many however has not so far really gone to plan with the lone real bright spot to date coming in the CJ Cup in South Carolina last Fall where he finished seventh. Since then however, after finishing 38th at the Mayakoba in his following start, Lee embarked on a run of five consecutive MC’s, which he only snapped last week at Riviera.
At Riviera Hodges played really nicely over the first two days to get right in the mix with all areas of his long game really firing, however not unsurprisingly when finding himself in the second last pairing on Saturday in the company of Cantlay and Morikawa he faltered. To his credit though he steadied the ship on Sunday to post a level par round to finish 18th and to bank a nice big cheque.
If we then look at his stats for this season to date and despite the fact that Lee has struggled for decent chunks of it, the only area, which is letting him down is ‘around the green’ as in all other key areas he has positive numbers.
On to this week then and Hodges returns to a track, that not unsurprisingly with his solid all round game, he produced a solid performance on last year and in far weaker company than last week he should feel far more at ease if he can get in the mix again.
Hodges showed he knows how to win on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020 and in an event that has seen its share of maiden winners over the years it is not too big a leap to picture him triumphing at this level.
HARRY HIGGS – 125/1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Next up I will roll the dice on Harry Higgs.
Higgs’s biggest claim to fame over the past 12 months or so has been being one half of the ‘topless double act’ with Joel Dahmen on the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, an incident, which has been very much brought back in to the forefront of our minds with the arrival of the Full Swing Netflix documentary.
While then the affable Higgs has become something of a fan favourite off the golf course, as so often happens in this type of situation his on course play has gone down hill at the same time.
Now embarking on his fourth season on tour Harry started off with a really solid debut campaign in 19/20, notching two top tens at the Farmers and in Bermuda where he finished second. Moving on 20/21 was also another strong campaign which saw a standout fourth place at the PGA Championship and a 66th place finish in the Fedex Cup.
Unfortunately though 21/22 saw the wheels come off Harry’s game and after finishing 14th in his Masters debut in April Harry managed to make only four more cuts in the season with only one result of any note, an 11th at the Barracuda.
With a finish of 147th in the Fedex Cup and a blank return from the Korn Ferry finals Harry then is now relying on scraps from the table of the 125-150 category to get starts when he can this season, meaning after sitting out the last two weeks this is an opportunity he really needs to take advantage of.
So that’s the bad news out of the way, the good news is Higgs’ does appear to have now turned a corner as after missing the first three cuts of the season he has now stuck around for five of the past six weekends when he has tee’d it up, including on the past three occasions.
Furthermore if we look at those five occasions on which he has made the cut going back to the Mayakoba last year, on each occasion he has put at least one really good round together. To expand further there was a 62 at the Mayakoba, a 63 at the RSM, a 66 and 62 at the Amex, a 66 at the Farmers and a 66 last time out at Pebble.
Moving away from recent form and a look at Harry’s resume since he came on Tour also gives cause for encouragement this week as he has shown us that, not unsurprisingly for a Texas guy used to the wind, he is more than comfortable by the coast.
I’ve mentioned already the two top tens in his debut season at Bermuda and the Farmers, if we then move on to 20/21 his standout moment when fourth in the PGA came at Kiawah Island so another great week by the coast. Furthermore that year Higgs produced a creditable 19th here at PGA National having sat 10th at the halfway stage.
To sum up then Harry has clearly turned a corner with some glimpses of some really good stuff over recent months and this looks a great opportunity for him to now string four rounds together and get in the hunt at juicy odds.
ANDREW NOVAK – 250/1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 29th
Finally this week having backed one player already for the first time I will finish with another debutant for these columns, Andrew Novak.
Having muddled his way through his debut full season on the PGA Tour to 156th place in the Fedex Cup standings Novak has had limited opportunities to make his mark so far this campaign, however when chances have come along he has by and large made good use of them to date. Testament to this is that he has made four out of six cuts and posted two top 20 finishes including a best placed 12th at the Sony Open.
A native of North Carolina Andrew posted his one win to date by the Coast in Florida at the Lecom Classic in 2020, the same event won by one of our picks this week Ben An last year.
Add that to the fact that his best efforts on the PGA Tour to date over the last season and a bit have come at the Mayakoba, Puerto Rico, Corales, Mexico Championship, the RSM, Bermuda, The Sony and last time out at Pebble Beach and we clearly have a player who is at his best on a wind effected coastal test. Furthermore I also like the fact that we have a good link to the Mexico event that Novak performed strongly in to finish 15th last year and here, courtesy of Kurt Kitayama who finished top five in both.
Not the longest off the tee Novak’s strength to date on the PGA Tour has been his tee to green game, and at the Sony in January he ranked third for the week in this area while at Pebble Beach in his most recent start he was ranked 18th for the week from tee to green in the two measured rounds. We know then he has the right ‘fit’ with his game for PGA National.
The 27yr old missed the cut here last year by a couple of shots with rounds of 72 and 73, however he was struggling hugely at the time having missed the cut in three of his first four starts of the year and finishing 70th in the other so no huge disgrace, instead then for some positive course history I will look at the fact that he Monday Q’d in here back in 2018 for only his second ever start on the tour before making the cut for the first time and finishing 57th.
It has clearly taken Andrew time to adapt to life on the PGA Tour however he appears to be getting more comfortable as each week goes by and on an upward curve and I will chance him here at big odds to finally make the frame for the first time on a venue, which should suit.