5 Players to Watch at The Honda Classic
Joaquin Niemann triumphed during a record-breaking week at Riviera Country Club, as the Chilean set the 36-hole scoring record and managed to hang on to victory after muscling his way into the early lead.
PGA Tour Rookie, Cameron Young, threatened to steal Niemann’s thunder as he produced the only significant competition towards the 23-year-old until Collin Morikawa’s late rally.
As a consequence of his majestic week in California, Niemann moves up to a career-high world ranking of 20th and 7th in the FedEx Cup seasonal standings.
The Genesis Invitational marked the end of the West Coast Swing, as the players head to Florida for the Honda Classic.
The Honda Classic was established as a PGA Tour tournament in 1972, originally under the name Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic.
Until last year, it was exclusively the first tournament during the late winter Florida Swing, but it has returned to its roots this season.
Since 1982, Honda has been the sponsor of the tournament and the competition succeeded the National Airlines Open Invitational that ran for three years prior to 1972.
In 1984, the event was held at TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs and it remained at that venue until 1991.
The following three years allowed Weston Hills Golf & Country Club to showcase their impressive facility before moving to the Country Club at Mirasol and then settling at the Champion Course at PGA National - where it remains today.
Although this event no longer attracts the globe’s best players - highlighted by the fact only 12 of the world’s top 50 have committed this year - this was not always the case.
Jack Nicklaus has won twice and he is the only golfer to have successfully defended his title (1977, 1978).
In 1972, the prize money awarded to the victor was $52,000, more than double the winner received for that year’s Masters ($25,000).
Previous winners include: Sungjae Im (2020), Justin Thomas (2018), Rickie Fowler (2017), Padraig Harrington (2005, 2015), Rory McIlroy (2012) and Ernie Els (2008).
The Bear Trap - holes 15-17 - holds the potential of making or breaking champions, as over 1,500 balls have found the water around this stretch since 2007!
The Previous Edition
Matt Jones tied the course record at PGA National during the opening round of last year’s event, notching nine birdies on his way to a three-stroke lead over Russell Henley and Aaron Wise.
After such a comprehensive start, Jones was arguably three standard rounds away from victory but both Wise and Henley had initiated a platform ready to chase.
The Australian’s following three rounds read 70-69-68 - improving a stroke on each day - failed to emulate his glittering start yet remained enough to record a five-stroke victory.
The triumph signalled the end of a seven-year winless streak and also his second PGA Tour title after winning the Houston Open in 2014.
Brandon Hagy, who has failed to win a PGA Tour event to date, must have been thinking what could have been as he finished runner-up to Jones.
The American produced a marvellous second round of 62 - just one-stroke off tying the course record equalled by Jones the previous day - but a third outing of 76 damaged his hopes of a maiden victory.
Sungjae Im, defending his title, finished T8th after three rounds in the sixties was followed by a 70, whilst Adam Scott was a few strokes behind in T13th.
Five to Shine
Considering only 12 of the world’s top 50 will be teeing it up in Florida, this is an ideal opportunity for those players who have not yet established their careers with victories.
Furthermore, this is a wonderful chance for Tommy Fleetwood to record his inaugural PGA Tour title as he makes his first start on the American tour since the turn of the year.
As always, we aren’t including these players with the sole objective of winning. Those mentioned may also be seeking form with three important events in the next six weeks: Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players Championship and, of course, The Masters!
As is standard, we start with the defending champion and Matt Jones must be feeling excited to tackle the course he shares the 18-hole record on. The 41-year-old has had a decent start to the season, recording one top 10 finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions (3rd) but his excellent display at the Genesis Invitational on the weekend resulted in a T15th finish from a very competitive field. At the age of 41, the Australian must wonder how many more opportunities he’ll have to taste victory, but there’s no better place to start than a course you have championed previously.
If we look at his seasonal statistics, there are some signs of promising reading but other areas that will need to improve drastically. The two-time PGA Tour champion played the harrowing Bear Trap in two-under last year throughout his four rounds, which would have undoubtedly nudged him towards the title. With so much water and minimal landing spaces, accuracy is the most vital attribute and he had that in abundance for the week. Sadly, his Greens in Regulation percentage of 68.73% ranks him 118th on tour this year, and that will need to miraculously improve if he is to successfully defend his title. He’s 8th for Eagles per hole and 41st for driving distance, but his driving accuracy of just 53.99% will surely cause him problems. However, if he can produce another superb 61, it may be enough to see him through yet again.
Tommy Fleetwood will always be a national treasure, and his down-to-earth personality makes it so easy to root for the Southport-born golfer. He came agonisingly close to securing that elusive maiden PGA Tour title at this event during the 2020 edition, and we’re adamant he had the entire nation behind him. He may have come up short, but he has proven he has what it takes to perform around here - can we be on the cusp of his first victory in America? Realistically, it could not happen to anyone more deserving and after the troubling 2021 he had to endure, it would be the perfect platform to regain the tantalising form we typically associate with the 31-year-old.
Fleetwood hasn’t won a professional golf tournament since 2019, which ended a span of five wins across just two years - including his heroic Ryder Cup display at Le Golf National. Still, he’s only 31 and when you possess as much talent as the Englishman has, another victory is surely just around the corner. He has not actually played in enough events on the PGA Tour this season to qualify for statistics, so we will use his DP World Tour performances for a reference instead. Fleetwood has always been dialled with his irons, and that trend has continued this year, locating 73.61% of greens and ranking in 8th for GiR. He’s evidently built more power too, averaging six yards further off the tee than last year, but finding just 53.57% of fairways won’t win you golf tournaments. Despite all of this, the Honda Classic could be the weekend where everything changes - and just in time with the Masters on the horizon too.
The DP World Tour will dominate this week’s inclusions, with three players from Europe. Lee Westwood must like his chances with a restricted field, although there are still some powerhouses to overcome. The Englishman’s back-to-back displays in Florida last season truly rolled back the years, as he was unfortunate to finish runner-up on both occasions. Nevertheless, at the fine age of 48, he’s still got the game to compete with the world’s best. Westwood will have a genuine shout at being one of the greatest golfers to have never won a major championship if he finishes his career as it currently stands, but 25 DP World Tour wins is nothing short of magical. Only winning twice in America, however, is a case of what could have been.
His last victory came a little over two years ago - at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship - from a stacked field too. He’s only played three times this season, twice on the DP World Tour and once on the PGA Tour, and it’s not been made clear as to why he has made so few starts. Of course, he is heavily linked with the Saudi Golf League that has come under heavy scrutiny and subsequent disarray following the publishing of Phil Mickelson’s careless comments, so that could be one reason. We must not also forget that his last outing in America, the Houston Open, finished with him missing the cut after he shot 84 during the second round - 14-over-par for the day. There’s not much point in detailing his seasonal statistics considering he’s played so little, and there’s no better way to respond to the negative media attention that currently encapsulates him than winning his next golf tournament.
Henrik Stenson is another firm favourite for golf fans and it is so easy to get behind the Swede – a truly phenomenal player when everything is flowing. He’s been uncharacteristically quiet over the past few seasons, which is a real shame as he enters his mid-forties. Regardless of his recent form, he has had a stellar career that was topped off with the 2016 Open Championship as he kept Mickelson off his back for the entirety of the final round at Royal Troon. Unlike Westwood, the 45-year-old has won six times on the PGA Tour, which also includes The Players Championship, the flagship event of the American tour.
The year of 2016 was actually one of his best, as he won the BMW International Open for a second time before winning his first and only major a month later. Despite his early success, this season has been well below the standard that we associate with the one-time major champion. Of the two events he has played on the PGA Tour, he has missed the cut on both occasions and he is currently ranked 185th in the world, which is truly unbelievable. Sure, golf moves fast, but winning your maiden major and then spiralling down the world rankings in the space of six years must not have been something he was envisioning. His finishes on the DP World Tour are more positive (T39th and T60th) but still nowhere near the level he’ll demand from himself. The Honda Classic will spark a new week, however, and another chance to ignite his sub-standard season so far.
What a classy guy Gary Woodland is. The amount of work he does behind-the-scenes on tour, giving his time to entertain and meet young fans is truly fantastic and something that highlights his character. He didn’t participate during last week’s Genesis Invitational and the tour missed him sorely, although his performances this season haven’t quite been up to scratch - excluding his T9th finish at the CJ Cup that Rory McIlroy won in October. Let us not forget, however, that this man is a major champion and his success during the 2019 U.S. Open is exactly what he deserved. A great champion who has a heart of gold, there is nothing to discredit the personality of Woodland.
Whilst his character may be immune to critique, his golf game certainly isn’t and he needs to improve with the business end of the season impending. Woodland is known for his extraordinary drives and his average of 314.9 yards off the tee certainly gives him an advantage on the field - a strong reason as to why he is 2nd on tour for eagles per hole - but his driving accuracy lets him down, locating just shy of 52% of fairways. His scoring average of 71.332 (124th) is also not doing him any favours and he’s been rusty with his irons and wedges this term, finding just 69.88% of greens (94th). He's ranked 91st for SG: Putting as he gains just .079 strokes on the field. Strangely, his putts per round during the opening day is 27.57 (14th), but the following three days read 30.14 (197th), 30.67 (197th) and 29.00 (106th). If he can continue to read the greens beyond the first day, he may be able to save some strokes on the putting surfaces. Considering the reduced field, this is a great chance to spark his season and he should fancy his chances - providing he stays out of the water that dominates The Bear Trap.
This week’s inclusions have been vastly different from the previous entries, as the majority of players are battling themselves to find some sort of form.
Westwood, Stenson and Fleetwood have not played that much golf at all this season, although they will start to feature more frequently with spring just around the corner.
The field will not be as strong as last week and thus, can we see a young star make a name for themselves - or will it be one of the older guys who secures victory, in a desperate bid to revive their career?
Either way, we are guaranteed an excellent week in Florida and The Bear Trap will provide copious amounts of entertainment as the players plot their way through the finishing stretch.
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