Honda Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
Rickie Fowler has a chance to prove that the swing changes he has been working on are beginning to beat fruit when he returns to PGA National for the Honda Classic, a tournament he won three years ago.
Fowler joins a world-class field which includes Brooks Koepka, Gary Woodland, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry. Fowler only missed out on a playoff last year when Keith Mitchell memorably holed a 15-foot putt on the final green to deny him. It was his 14th runner-up finish on the PGA Tour.
Fowler has been working on his swing with new coach John Tillery in recent months. He started 2020 with a fifth-place finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a 10th place finish at The American Express, but there are many observers who remain unconvinced about the changes he is making.
In 2019, Fowler picked up his fifth PGA Tour title in Phoenix and qualified for the FedEx playoffs for the 10th consecutive season with six Top 10 finishes and 18 made cuts in 20 starts. All of which begs a pretty obvious question: why change a winning formula?
Fowler has no doubts. He wants to win a major, and he wants to win multiple times on tour. “For me, a multiple-win year is the goal,” Fowler said. “That’s really where my goals start. It’s not necessarily cuts made or top-10s, Top-5s. I want wins. So that’s what would define a successful year. So I have got to start with the first one and go from there. But a multiple-win season would be nice. Obviously, make one of those a major and it’s a really good year.”
Gary Woodland already knows what that feels like, having landed the US Open at Pebble Beach last year, holding off the challenge of Koepka.
And then there is Koepka, who is still smarting from losing his world No 1 ranking to Rory McIlroy. But, as he points out, he was on the sidelines for weeks after suffering a knee injury. Four of his seven PGA Tour victories have come in majors.
Koepka, who last year tied for second with Fowler behind Mitchell at the Honda Classic, won the PGA Championship after finishing second at The Masters. He also finished second at the US Open and fourth at The Open, becoming only the fifth player in history to finish in the top five in all four majors. Funnily enough, Fowler is another member of that club. The big difference is that he is still looking for his first major.
At the PGA Championship at Bethpage in New York, Koepka held off Dustin Johnson by two strokes. The victory allowed him to supplant Johnson and regain the No1 spot in the rankings.
Koepka would have been the first player since Willie Anderson in 1903-05 to win three consecutive U.S. Opens, but Woodland beat him by three strokes even though Koepka was the first player in history to post four scores in the 60s and not win.
At the 2019 Honda Classic, Koepka birdied two of his final three holes in the final round to post a four-under 66 and claim a share of second place with Fowler at 272. That was one stroke behind Mitchell.
“Every golfer and fan in the local community obviously takes great pride in what Brooks has accomplished the past several years,” Honda Classic Executive Director Kenneth R. Kennerly said. “We are excited that he has decided to return to The Honda Classic. His presence will undoubtedly create an enormous amount of excitement at this year’s tournament.”
Four victories on the European Challenge Tour allowed him to graduate to the European Tour and he credits that experience with helping him to become the golfer he is today.
“Going over there was a bunch of fun. It’s the best time I’ve ever had playing golf,” Koepka said. “You become more of a well-rounded player playing different places, having to travel, doing that sort of thing. I felt like I was good enough to be out here [on the PGA Tour] when I was there. It’s just hard to get out here. I felt like if I just did what I was supposed to do and kind of dug deep and stayed patient that I was going to find a way. Luckily enough it was pretty quick.”
He made 12 of 16 cuts with two top 10 finishes to earn his card for 2015. That’s when he put together a breakthrough season with his first victory (Waste Management Phoenix Open) and eight Top 10 finishes. Koepka had five top five finishes in 2016 before beginning his major run at the 2017 US Open. But he has not been at his best since returning from injury and will feel that he has a point to prove this week.
“I view myself completely differently than people view me,” he said. “I still think it’s weird when I walk into a place and I can see eyes are on me just for dinner. And I’m like, What’s everybody staring at? I just view myself as a regular guy, just like everybody else. And I just happen to be really good at golf, and that’s it. I don’t view myself any different than anybody else does. I’m just a regular guy. That’s how I’d like to be treated. I don’t want to be put up on a — I don’t want to say a pedestal or anything like that, but I just want to be just like everybody else, just a normal person.”
This is more than just a golf tournament. The Honda Classic awarded $5.1mi to 157 South Florida charities last year, the 13th consecutive year that it has been able to increase its impact on the lives of local children and their families. More than 75,000 children and their families benefited from the Honda Classic Cares initiative.
Nobody saw Mitchell’s victory coming 12 months ago. He won a mini-tour event in 2014 and lost a three-man playoff in Brazil on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica in 2015. But, in the main, his career had been one huge disappointment. In August 2017, he had a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole in the final regular-season event of the Web.com Tour in Oregon. Making the putt would secure his PGA Tour card, but he missed it.
Did it prey on his mind? “I think about it all the time,” Mitchell said about that putt. “I don’t have a number, but it’s in the thousands.”
So you can only begin to imagine what was going through his mind when he came to the final green 12 months ago and faced a 15-foot putt that would change his life forever. And he holed it.
“If I make par here, I got a playoff with two of the best players in the world and potentially Hall-of-Famers of all time,” Mitchell said. “That’s a big thought for a guy that’s on his second year on Tour that’s never won. So I was able to execute and that’s something I haven’t been able to do in the past.”
An 11-foot birdie putt at the 12th was the start of three birdies in the next four holes. Once he reached 8 under after a brilliant tee shot to 4 feet at the par-3 15th, he was in a five-way tie for the lead.
Koepka was about to finish at 8 under, but Fowler was in the group immediately ahead of Mitchell. He had to hear the roars at both the 17th and 18th holes when Fowler rolled in birdie putts to also reach 8 under.
Mitchell pulled his tee shot at the par-five 18th into the fairway bunker. His ball was too close to the lip, preventing him for reaching the green in two. A solid bunker shot set him up 130 yards away with his third shot. And the rest is history.
Rickie Fowler. Has a point to prove
Brooks Koepka. Still looking for his best form
Tommy Fleetwood. Desperate for that first PGA Tour win
Rickie Fowler. New swing put to the test again
Brooks Koepka. Shaking off the ring rust
Tommy Fleetwood. Looking to extend remarkable record of not missing a cut
Justin Rose. Will be there or thereabouts
Louis Oosthuizen. Has made a decent start to the season
Rory Sabbatini. Has found some consistency
Lee Westwood. Now a genuine Ryder Cup contender again
Daniel Berger. Showing signs of life again
Charl Schwartzel. Beautiful golf swing
Ian Poulter. Needs to arrest rankings slump soon
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