Honda Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
THREE years ago something most unexpected happened at the Honda Classic. Padraig Harrington, who had plumbed the depths of despair, came from nowhere to win the tournament. Harrington being Harrington, he told us that he had always known his game was still in there somewhere and that he expected to start winning regularly again.
The Irishman is notorious for tinkering with his swing. There have been occasional sparks of brilliance in the time since that memorable victory but, by and large, he has continued to struggle. However, what that victory showed us is that it is possible for anybody on the PGA Tour to have one of those weeks when every drive finds the middle of the fairway, every approach finds the heart of the green and all those putts that normally slide by instead find the middle of the hole.
One man for whom all of the above seems to happen most weeks is defending champion Rickie Fowler. And more of him soon. The Honda Classic was won in 2011 by Rory Sabattini, in 2012 by Rory McIlroy, in 2013 by Michael Thompson, in 2014 by Russell Henley, in 2015 by Harrington, and in 2016 by Adam Scott.
Fowler is one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour, with both his fellow players and with the fans. At the recent Waste Management Phoenix Open he wore a pin on his cap with a photograph of Griffin Connell, a seven-year-old Fowler superfan who died the week before the event. Fowler was desperate to win the tournament for Griffin’s family and was bitterly disappointed that he came up short. And in many ways that sums up what he has so far achieved in his career.
The 29-year-old has won four times on the PGA Tour and twice on the European Tour and in 2015 he memorably finished in the top five in all four of that year’s majors. It was widely expected that he would kick on from that point and duly land that elusive first major, but it has yet to happen for the American. He won the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December but his brilliant play was completely overshadowed by the fact that it happened to come during Tiger Woods’ return to action. There are those who will tell you that this was little more than an exhibition event and while it is true that there was only a field of 18 players, every single one of them was there to win. And had it been a full-field tournament, there is little or no doubt that Fowler would still have come out on top.
His ball striking is glorious but it is his putting stroke that makes him stand out from the rest. Nobody holes more 10-foot putts than Fowler and it can surely only be a matter of time before he puts it all together in a major. Until he does, he will continue to be saddled with the tag that nobody wants – best player not to have won a major.
It is six years since McIlroy won this tournament and, as he continues his build-up to The Masters, he returns to PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, after missing last year’s tournament as he recovered from the rib injury that blighted his year. For only the second time in his career, McIlroy failed to win a tournament last year, but he has made a magnificent return to action in 2018 after a winter spent working on all parts of his game.
The distance he hits the ball is well known, but it may surprise some to learn that he actually hits it further than anybody else on the PGA Tour – and that includes Dustin Johnson. What is most impressive about the four-time major winner is the number of fairways he finds. In saying that, every once in a while he produces a drive that misses the short stuff by miles – and it tends to happen when the pressure is on. It happened at the 16th hole during the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic when he hit a wild slice that ultimately cost him the tournament. And there are still those worrying misses from short range on the greens.
McIlroy in full flow is the most magnificent sight in tournament golf. That he is the most naturally gifted golfer on the planet is beyond argument. If he turns up an event with all parts of his game working properly nobody can live with him. But for all his gifts, it has been a while since we have seen that and if he is to win The Masters in April and complete a career Grand Slam then he simply must find a way of eliminating those mistakes. If anybody can do it, McIlroy can.
Rory McIlroy. Looking for a stellar year
Rickie Fowler. Ready to put Phoenix Open disappointment behind him
Daniel Berger. The next big thing
Rory McIlroy. Looking so good
Rickie Fowler. Everybody loves Rickie
Daniel Berger. Terrific ball striker
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Ready for another big week on the PGA Tour
Keegan Bradley. Rebuilding his career
Bryson DeChambeau. Does it his own way
Tommy Fleetwood. Good enough to win in the USA
Tyrrell Hatton. Hoping to have recovered from his wrist injury
Ben An. Wonderful player
Alex Noren. Having fun on the PGA Tour
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