The Honda Classic
It was another low key week for us at the Genesis Invitational. Our team of four was depleted before the start of the event with Matt Fitzpatrick’s withdrawal with flu meaning we were down to three and with Jon Rahm never getting out of first gear until Sunday we were always up against it.
The event itself was won by Joaquin Niemann who produced a scintillating display over the first two days before nursing his lead home over the weekend for a wire to wire victory.
Plenty of people including myself have been waiting for something big from Niemann for a while now and this was the week it all clicked. Still only 23yrs old the sky is the limit for the young Chilean and I expect plenty more big performances from him this year.
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.
Over recent years the Honda Classic has heralded the beginning of the Florida Swing however last year following a rejigging of the schedule it found itself wrapping up the four event stretch in the Sunshine State. This year though normal service is resumed and the event returns to its traditional slot as the first of the year on the East Coast.
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 change in schedule this event is the one that has been hit hardest this this year as most of the big names take a week of before the WGC.
The market is headed up past champion here Sungjae Im. Im is then followed by Daniel Berger, Louis Oosthuizen, Joaquin Niemann, Billy Horschel and Brooks Koepka.
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 last years 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 twice in the last 7yrs has the winning score been double digits under par. Firstly in 2017 when Rickie Fowler came home in -12 for a 4 shot victory and then last year when Matt Jones triumphed by five on a -12 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;
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
2012 Rory McIlroy
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 have also been wins in the past 10yrs for Rory McIlroy, and a comeback win for Padraig Harrington.
In amongst this though there were maiden PGA tour successes Sungjae Im, Michael Thompson and Keith Mitchell, alongside wins for Matt Jones & Russell Henley.
Im is undoubtedly headed to the very top of the game, so of these winners you could only really class Jones, Thompson, Henley and Mitchell 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.
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.
This was also the case with 2012 winner Rory McIlroy.
One other of the past ten winners had finished 13th here the year before.
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 last years 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 in 2019 and 2020 with both Im and Mitchell players who had clearly indicated before that they were far more comfortable on Bermuda.
Last year of course with the change to the schedule this switch was not a factor but this year it is back in play.
We look set for a dry four tournament days although Tuesday leading in shows for the potential of a shower. Temperatures look to be up in the low 80s through the week.
Wind as is normally the case here will be a factor to a certain extent 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 six players this week as follows;
BILLY HORSCHEL – 22/1 – 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 16th
First cab off the rank this week is Billy Horschel.
It’s been a long time since Horschel last landed an individual stroke play victory on the PGA Tour, coming up to five years to be precise and that will certainly be enough to put many off this week at the odds.
As we know though that statistic doesn’t actually tell the full story and over the past twelve months Billy has actually landed two big titles, firstly in the WGC Matchplay just under a year ago and then in the Autumn when he headed over to the UK and landed the PGA trophy at Wentworth. As a result Billy actually has two more wins than the combined total of the four players around him in the market over that period!
Despite his success over the past year it goes without saying though Horschel will be frustrated by his lack of return over recent times on the PGA Tour in the regular events and that will be something he is looking to put right as soon as possible.
Moving on to this week then and there are plenty of indicators that this could be the week that Billy puts this right. Firstly we have seen with Horschel over the years that he is a ‘confidence player’ and therefore when he gets some momentum going he is a man to keep onside.
The most memorable example of this of course was back in 2014 when he came from nowhere to post a second place and then two victories to bag the Fedex Cup trophy however there have been plenty of other examples over the years.
In 2013 his first tour title came on the back of three straight top tens while in 2018 he bagged the Zurich pairs with Scott Piercy after two straight solo top 11s. Last year meanwhile he won the Matchplay three starts after finishing runner up in the WGC at Concession.
The fact then that Billy has finished 11th and sixth in his most recent two outings on the PGA Tour should have us very much on alert.
Returning to Horschel’s runner up finish at Concession last year that result on another Nicklaus design in Florida certainly gives us a nice line of form over to this weeks venue and the fact that Billy has posted two top tens here in his last five visits naturally gives us plenty of encouragement as well.
At his best Billy is known as a really strong ball striker however it has to be said that he has struggled with his approach play in particular in the early part of this season and it is his putter, which has done most of the damage. Interestingly though he wrapped up his week in Phoenix last time out with a really strong ball striking display gaining over 3.5 strokes from tee to green and just under three in approach play. Hopefully then something clicked on that Sunday in that department he can bring in to this week.
A Florida man through and through Horschel is yet to win in his home state and this will also be something he is desperate to put right and with momentum on his side I am keen to be onboard this week.
JHONATTAN VEGAS – 50/1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 42nd
Next up this week I am going to roll the dice on Jonny Vegas.
A three time winner on tour Vegas last tasted success in Canada back in 2017 so a fourth tour win is well overdue.
Through the second half of his 2020/21 season Vegas came close on a couple of occasions to breaking that drought Posting runner up finishes at the Palmetto Championship and again at the 3M Open however on both occasions it wasn’t quite to be.
This season while he hasn’t quite reached those heights yet his form has been steady, missing only two cuts in seven starts and his last couple of outings have seen him play solidly over on the West Coast.
Looking at Jonny’s week in LA more closely though and we will see that he finished 14th in approach play, gaining strokes every day, 20th from tee to green and tenth in good old fashioned GIR, with the putter for which he ranked 73rd, letting him down. Basically then a mirror of his season to date and indeed his recent trends.
Returning though this week to PGA National in good ball striking form Vegas arrives at a venue, which has been kind to him over the years and where he has a best of fourth place in a run of five straight made cuts over the past five years and where last year he actually gained strokes with his putter over the final three days while his ball striking didn’t quite click.
A two time winner at the Nicklaus designed Glen Abbey and a winner many years back at the American Express, which features a Nicklaus layout Jonny clearly comes to life on one of Jack’s designs and I expect him to step back up again this week.
AARON WISE – 45/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Moving on and I am next going to take a chance that Aaron Wise can build on last weeks first cut made of 2022 and deliver a big week at a venue that clearly suits his eye.
After a period in the doldrums Aaron has started over the past 12 months or so to gradually look like the player again we thought he was once heading to be. Seemingly at his strongest on tough classical tests and/or by the coast Wise’s best results over the last 2yrs or so have come by the coast in Mexico and Bermuda when he was second and third respectively and on courses that correlate well here such as the Nicklaus designed Muirfield Village where he was ninth last year and Qual Hollow where he was also ninth last year and has previously finished second.
With regards to PGA National Wise has made three previous visits here finishing 33rd, 35th and 13th last year however that doesn’t quite tell the full story with regards to last year as Aaron shot two rounds of 64 over the first two days to take a three shot 36 hole lead before stalling over the weekend. Not the result he would have been looking for in the end then but a clear pointer that he is at home here.
Returning to the current season and Aaron produced a really solid run of results in the Fall including two top ten finishes making it somewhat surprising that he has started 2022 slowly. At Riviera however there was enough across the four days to show that he might be getting back on track, particularly in the first two rounds with his ball striking over the first two days and if you couple this with the fact Aaron is the type of player who can spring to life on any given week when the track suits his game and I am happy to take my chances this time out.
CAMILLO VILLEGAS – 125/1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
If ever there was a player who fits the stereotype of someone who comes back to life when the tour hits Florida then Camillo Villegas is that man.
Still only 40 Villegas has returned to the tour over the past eighteen months following well documented personal tragedy and if he were to return to the winners circle it would most likely be the most popular victory for many a year. Whether that can happen or not is debatable of course however if it is to happen there are a handful of venues you would see as most likely of, which PGA National is most certainly one.
A winner here way back in 2010 Camillo showed last year when finishing eighth here again that this is a course, which suits his ball striking strengths well. Add this to the fact that alongside that performance his other two best returns last season came when he was sixth at the RSM Classic and 11th at the Valspar and it is clear to see the type of track and the part of the States that he is most at home on.
From that point of view then the fact that Villegas has produced three steady but unspectacular performances in his three most recent starts on the West Coast to make the cut certainly catches the eye.
A local resident in Jupiter Villegas will be much more comfortable back in his own back yard this week on a course he knows well and likes and at the odds on offer I am happy to chance him to build on his efforts over on the West Coast.
ADAM SVENSSON – 125/1 - 1pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 9th
Next up I am going to take my chances with Adam Svensson.
After an unsuccessful stint on the PGA Tour in the 18/19 season Adam has returned this time around on the back of two wins on the Korn Ferry Tour over the 20/21 campaign looking far better equipped to make a go of things.
While Svensson has hardly set the tour alight on his return this season he has been reasonably solid to date, particularly this year, making all of his cuts so far in 2022 and posting a best of seventh place on the Bermuda greens at the Sony Open.
After that finish Adam produced three steady efforts in California finishing 49th last time out at Pebble Beach, an effort, which included a 63 on day two before taking the last couple of weeks off.
Refreshed after a break then and Svensson now tee’s it up in his adopted home state and this is where things get really interesting for the week ahead.
To expand further and Svensson spent his college days in Miami, so just down the coast from this venue, and he has shown he is very much at home on wind effected coastal tracks notably when winning on the Korn ferry Tour in the Bahamas.
More pertinently for this week though prior to making waves on the Korn Ferry Tour Adam’s finest hour after turning pro came on this very course when he won the Web.com Q School by seven shots in 2015.
In addition to this the Canadian now resides locally in Palm Beach Gardens, so his level of comfortability/familiarity with the Champions course at PGA National must be huge.
Adam played this event in 2019 and I actually chanced him that week at huge odds. Unfortunately on that occasion he finished down the pack in 59th but a 64 on day two was a reminder that this course should really suit his game.
This time around Adam returns as a much improved/solid player and I am happy to side with him again at juicy odds.
HAYDEN BUCKLEY – 150/1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Finally I shall wrap things up by risking a player that I have been waiting on to arrive in Florida, Hayden Buckley.
Buckley has already rewarded us handsomely once this season when we were onboard at huge odds at the Sanderson Farms last Fall when he notched a fourth place finish.
Buckley followed up that performance with an eighth place at the Shriners and another strong finish at the Sony Open at the start of the year, where he was 12th, sees him well on his way to keeping his card for next year.
Since that 12th place however Buckley has gone somewhat off the boil out on the West Coast as he has missed three cuts in four with only a 49th place at Pebble Beach to show for his efforts.
As we know though a switch from West to East can see a change in fortune for players and to me Hayden looks a prime candidate to benefit in such away.
To expand further and firstly although born in Tennessee, Buckley who played his college golf in Missouri now bases himself in Forty Myers over on the West side of Florida and a couple of hours away from this weeks venue. Back in his adopted home state then not only did he Buckley have success on the college circuit in Florida with a win but far more significantly he landed his breakthrough win on the Korn Ferry Tour at the Lecom Classic in Florida all but twelve months ago to the day so he will clearly be far more comfortable teeing it up back in the Sunshine state than over on the West Coast.
Returning to Hayden’s efforts so far this season on the tour and his fourth place and 12th place finishes at the Sanderson’s and Sony Open both came on Bermuda surfaces and it is pretty clear that he will be more at home on these surfaces.
In addition to the 25yr olds undoubted comfort back in Florida we also have some evidence that he is comfortable at PGA National as after qualifying in to the event in 2020 he went on to make the cut. Granted he struggled over the weekend but as a vastly improved player two years on he will certainly take some encouragement from that week.
Furthermore in his short time on tour it has become clear that Buckley’s strengths lie in his ball striking and that I would expect his skill sets to be ideal for what’s needed here.
All in all Buckley is a tenacious improving player and in a field which lacks real strength in depth I an more than happy to chance him at these odds back in Florida.
UPDATED 22nd FEB
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - NICK WATNEY - DK VALUE $6600 - FINISHED 30th - DK POINTS 57
My first sub $7K DK pick this week is Nick Watney. After returning to his original long time coach Butch Harmon last summer Watney showed immediate signs of an upturn in the fall when finishing runner up at the Sanderson Farms in the fall.
Subsequently 2022 has started slowly for Nick however last week at Riviera he showed some glimpses of an upturn on his way to a 55th place.
This week Nick returns to a venue he has always played well at making his last six cuts at PGA National and I expect him to stick around for all four days again.
PICK 2 - BRANDON HAGY - DK VALUE $6500 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS 22.5
Next up in this section this week is very much a 'horses for courses' pick in Brandon Hagy.
Hagy arrives in Florida this week it must be said in pretty poor form however PGA National has had a habit in bringing out the best of him over the last few years with two 21st place finishes in his last four visits to go with his stand out runner up showing last year.
We know Hagy has a penchant for Nicklaus layouts having also played consistenty well in the Barracuda and as the type of player who can find form from nowhere I am happy to chance him this week.