You get the sense that the golf season is just starting to crank up a few gears. The first major of the year, The Masters at Augusta, is just six weeks away, and a place in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings secures a place there and at next week’s money-spinning WGC Mexico Championship.
Naturally enough then, plenty of big guns will be out in force at PGA National this week, located in the heart of Palm Beach Gardens in sunny Florida, for the Honda Classic: a mainstay of the PGA Tour dating back decades.
If you are at a loose end at any point from Thursday to Sunday then this is a tournament well worth a watch. Like Riviera last week, the PGA National layout can be devilish at times, with tight doglegs and sizeable water hazards making the players’ life rather tricky.
And then we have the wind – expected to reach speeds of up to 17mph this week and the ‘Bear Trap’, a trio of holes from 15-17 designed by the ever-demented Jack Nicklaus. This is one of the toughest stretches in professional golf, and any prospective champion will need to come through here unscathed if they are to lift the trophy on Sunday.
The defending champion is Rickie Fowler, who lives barely half an hour from the course. He is rather fancied – by us, at least – to go well again this week.
Fowler has lived in Jupiter, Florida for the past eight years or so, and his experience of playing in the Sunshine State’s high winds could once again prove pivotal this week.
A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, the 29-year-old has won in similarly breezy conditions on the Links of the Scottish Open and in the desert of Abu Dhabi, so his consistency in the wind is clear for all to see.
A common characteristic of Honda Classic winners is that many of them have also captured major titles. Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els, Y.E Yang….all are major champions who have won this event in the past decade.
Fowler may not have yet gotten over the line in a major but he has finished inside the top-five in all four of them, and that is close enough for us.
There is one obvious question mark about Fowler: does he possess the bottle to become the prolific winner that his talent deserves? We shall have to wait on that front, but perhaps playing in front of a ‘home’ crowd will again bring out the best in him. He wobbled in the final round last year, but the support was such that he did ultimately get over the line.
At 9/1 you won’t get rich from backing Fowler this week, but he is to all intents and purposes the most likely winner given all of the conditions.
Top 10 Finish
The nature of PGA National dictates that the players have to pick their way around, rather than smashing the ball off the tee and taking it from there. The complexity of the course, and the prevailing winds, give an advantage to a handful of players, and two of those are Brian Harman (5/1) and Brandt Snedeker (6/1).
Harman is arguably one of the most improved players around, and he has added consistency to his undoubted talent in the past year. Second in the second major of 2017, the US Open, the left-hander also won the Wells Fargo Championship and also connected an outrageous five top-10 finishes as the 2017 season bled into 2018.
Harman has played some excellent golf at PGA National without necessarily having the high finishes to go with it, but rounds of 61 and 64 – in tough conditions, remember – are proof positive that the layout suits his eye.
Snedeker is feeling his way back from wrist and chest injuries, but a pair of top-25 finishes in his last pair of outings is encouraging.
A short stretch that places an emphasis on course management is right up Sneds’ street, and he has shown form at a couple of the other courses that Tom Fazio – the architect of PGA National – has been responsible for: top-10s at both Pinehurst Resort and Conwy Farms.
Factor in a number of strong showings in tough US Opens, as well as a second-place finish in the perennially windy Sony Open, and Snedeker may well be a dark horse to watch at 55/1. We’ll take him at 6s in the Top-10 market.
Top 20 Finish
The intricacy of PGA National doesn’t really lend itself to outsiders doing the business, but we can certainly have a dabble on a two-time US Open winner who is available at 10/1 to secure a top-20 finish.
Retief Goosen is an old hand at 49, and he will have the nous to pick his way around PGA National; hopefully avoiding its many pitfalls as he goes.
A 12th place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open plus an opening round of 68 at the difficult Riviera last week suggest he is striking the ball rather nicely, and while the youngsters around him hack and slash their way into the hazards we’re rather hoping Goosen will just plod his way around and get into those top 20 places.