Honda Classic guide
A preview and best bets for this week's PGA Tour event - the Honda Classic at PGA National in Florida.
By Dave Tindall Twitter: @DaveTindallgolf
Last Updated: 26/02/14 2:01pm
The Sunshine State of Florida welcomes the PGA Tour for the first time in 2014 as a top-class field, including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, contest the Honda Classic.
Although Honda has sponsored this event since 1982, the Champion Course at PGA National is relatively new to the schedule.
This year's tournament will be the eighth at the Tom and George Fazio-designed layout that was given its most recent facelift by Jack Nicklaus in 2002.
The Champion Course at Palm Beach Gardens was opened in 1981.
Many in the field will be glad to return to strokeplay after early exits in last week's WGC Match Play while the two finalists in Arizona, Jason Day and Victor Dubuisson, sit this one out.
This could be a good week for the overseas-born players as just two Americans have captured the title in the past eight years - Michael Thompson last year and Mark Wilson in 2007.
The big-name Europeans have fared well in that time with Padraig Harrington (2005), Luke Donald (2006) and McIlroy (2012) all lifting the trophy.
As usual, Sky Sports will have live coverage of all four days' action, with the first broadcast at 7pm on Thursday.
The Champion Course at PGA National was the venue for the 1983 Ryder Cup and, in an ultra-tight contest (unusual back then), it took a Lanny Wadkins birdie at 18 to deny Europe a first triumph on U.S. soil. The 7,110-yard par 70 is best known for the tough three-hole stretch from 15-17 called the Bear Trap (named after Jack Nicklaus - the 'Golden Bear'). Ahead of last year's event, the Bear Trap (par three 15th, par four 16th and par three 17th) had accounted for 24 percent of all bogeys, 56 percent of all double bogeys and 74 percent of all triple bogeys since 2007 although in 2013 it let up a little with none of 15, 16, or 17 ranking in the top three hardest holes. However, last year, a scoring average of 71.318 made PGA National the hardest par 70 on the PGA Tour outside of the majors.
For the fifth time in seven runnings, single digits under par was sufficient to win the Honda Classic trophy last year. That's a rarity on the PGA Tour (it's happened just once in 13 events in the current 2013/14 season). The full list of champions and winning scores at PGA National reads: 2007 Mark Wilson (-5), 2008 Ernie Els (-6), 2009 YE Yang (-9), 2010 Camilo Villegas (-13), 2011 Rory Sabbatini (-9), 2012 Rory McIlroy (-12), 2013 Michael Thompson (-9).
The leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Rory McIlroy (8/1): Rory had a low-key first three visits here (13th, 40th, 70th) but he's been the story for the last two years. In 2012 he produced a brilliant display to win and go to world number one while last year, when clearly troubled, he stormed off the course after shipping shots galore in round two. His game, and his head, look in a much better place this year after a second in Abu Dhabi and a ninth in Dubai so it's not a surprise to see him as the favourite in front of Tiger.
Tiger Woods (9/1): There are some obvious fors and againsts for Tiger this week. On the plus side he's won his last three starts in Florida (Players, Bay Hill, Cadillac in 2013); on the downside he hasn't had a top 10 in a PGA Tour event on US soil since August! In this tournament he produced a flying finish (62) to finish runner-up on debut in 2012 while last year he was a modest tied 37th after a closing 74. This is his first start since his tied 41st in Dubai four weeks ago.
Charl Schwartzel (16/1): The South African hasn't been outside the top 15 in three starts at PGA National (9th 2013, 5th 2012, 14th 2011) so clearly gets on well with the course. He only made the second round of the Match Play, which could be a blessing in disguise in terms of freshness, while before that he shot four strong rounds (69-68-68-68) to finish fifth in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. His only win on U.S. soil remains his Masters victory in 2011.
Adam Scott (18/1): The current Masters champion makes his first start since the two Hawaii events at the start of January where he finished sixth (Tournament of Champions) and eighth (Sony Open). It's only the Aussie's second appearance in this event and he certainly doesn't have happy memories of the first when he shot 77-82 to miss the cut by a mile. Scott has won 10 times on the PGA Tour but his only Florida success came 10 years ago at The Players.
Graeme McDowell (18/1): G-Mac has form figures on this track that read 9-9-6 and twice during the last three years he's fired a six-under 64. "I've always enjoyed this golf course. I think it rewards accuracy off the tee and good, aggressive iron play," he said last year. Having won a US Open, McDowell loves a grind so it's easy to see why he enjoys it so much. So far this year he's finished seventh at Pebble Beach (scene of that 2010 US Open win) and shown his battling qualities to reach the last eight of the World Match Play.
Phil Mickelson (22/1): As usual, Mickelson skipped the World Match Play as it clashed with his kids' school holidays but, as he also missed the Northern Trust Open at Riviera for the same reason, this year he's turning up at the Honda. He's not played this event since 2002 so it will be his debut at PGA National. As a six-time US Open runner-up, Mickelson likes it tough so he'll be out to step up on his last two efforts on the PGA Tour, 19th at Pebble and 42nd at Scottsdale.
Sergio Garcia (22/1): This will be Sergio's first Honda appearance since a run of three straight appearances between 2008 and 2010 when he finished 43rd, 13th and 50th. He's made the top eight in three of his last four starts in Florida so does well in this part of the world. His chief plus though is the fact that he's won two of his last three strokeplay starts - December's Thailand Golf Championship and last month's Qatar Masters.
Although Americans don't have the best record in this event, maybe it might help if we looked for one who has rounded his game in the various weathers of the European Tour - Brooks Koepka.
The forecast in Palm Beach Gardens this week is a bit of a mix and the PGA Tour's own meteorologist, Stewart Williams, says of Thursday's opening round: "It'll be a rough day as far as golfing weather goes."
Friday could see rain too before it improves on the weekend but hopefully Koepka will cope with whatever is thrown at him.
The 23-year-old, who won three times on the European Challenge Tour last year, was born in nearby Wellington and went to college at Florida State so has strong local connections.
Interviewed on Tuesday, he said: "I grew up wanting to play this tournament," before adding that he'd played the course "about 30 times" in various junior and amateur events.
He's even played the pro-am here and with plenty of family coming to watch he'll be hoping he can repay the sponsor's exemption he received and score what would be a hometown win.
Koepka's last start produced a third place in hot company in the Dubai Desert Classic while he also finished third on his PGA Tour debut in the Frys.com Open back in October.
Fellow young dasher Victor Dubuisson made a huge impact in the Match Play so hopefully Koepka, who was in Arizona as first alternate but never got to play, will take a bit of inspiration from that and shine here.
Billy Horschel is another Florida-born player, who also attended the University of Florida and looked as if he might have a huge week in the Match Play.
He made six birdies in 13 holes to wallop Jamie Donaldson 6&5 in round one and then lost at the 22nd hole in an epic battle with eventual winner Jason Day.
The upside is that he'll be fresh here and hopefully he can throw in one of his big performances.
Last year he had a win (Zurich Classic of New Orleans), a second and a third in a four-tournament burst and then showed his ability to dig in when fourth in the US Open.
This year he's been calmer with a sixth in the Hyundai and a couple of top 25s but he looks as if he might be on the verge of another big week.
Horschel could have done well here last year but for a blowout on Saturday (he shot 66-69-81-70 and was 11th at halfway) so back him at 55/1 to put in a bold show.
Two years ago Brian Harman smashed the course record by three shots as he played PGA National in a remarkable 61. It helped him finish 12th.
Last time out he recorded a third place in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera so if we put those two simple facts together he's worth a go at 100/1.
Two other top 10s in his nine most recent starts and his hot putter add further confidence.
The fine record of big-name Europeans has to be noted so the one at the most appealing odds is Sergio Garcia at 22/1 (G-Mac at 18s just looks too short).
Half of the battle with Sergio is his mental state but with a new girlfriend and a Ryder Cup to look forward to, the Spaniard is in a good place and the recent wins in Qatar and Thailand are probably no coincidence (indeed he had his girlfriend caddying for him when he won in Thailand).
One final point. There's six pay-out places this week so celebrate rather than despair if any of the picks come sixth!
1pt e.w. Brooks Koepka at 70/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Billy Horschel at 55/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Brian Harman at 100/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
2pts e.w. Sergio Garcia at 22/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)