The PGA Tour heads to Florida and PGA National for the Honda Classic this week for what should be a fantastic event.
World No.3 Rory McIlroy makes it back-to-back starts on the PGA Tour, after being in contention after three great rounds at Riviera last week. A final round 75 put to sword any chances of him taking home the Northern Trust Open trophy, despite starting with an eagle on the Par 5 1st.
It was instead big-hitting, Bubba Watson who got the W and with that win he continued his streak of a win in each of his last three seasons, with 2013 remaining his only season without a PGA Tour victory since his first Tour win in 2010.
Close runners-up behind Watson were Adam Scott and Jason Kokrak who both finished just one shot shy at -14. Completing the top-10 were Dustin Johnson at -13, K.J Choi and Marc Leishman -12, Chez Reavie -11, Matt Kuchar and Sung Kang at -10 and lastly Ryan Moore at -9.
There is quality at top-to-bottom of that list and any leaderboard that includes Watson, Scott and Johnson in the top-5 was no doubt a strong event. These three have been in the upper-echelons of world golf in recent years, with Watson and Scott both having 9 wins on the PGA Tour, and Scott and Watson both have a Green Jacket (Masters) to their name, with Scott almost adding the Claret Jug (Open Championship) also.
On to this week, and the players will need to negotiate the tricky PGA National, a course that ranked 4/52 in terms of difficulty in 2015.
Those that played Riviera last week will know all about challenging golf courses, however those that didn’t will no doubt be facing their toughest test in 2016.
On this 7,158 yard par 70 course it is imperative you hit a solid amount of greens in regulation to even give yourself a chance of winning here. Last year’s winner Padraig Harrington ranked 24th in Greens in Regulation, joining only Russell Henley (2014) and Rory Sabbatini (2011) as the only players to win here without ranking inside the top-10 for greens hit since PGA National took over as the host course here in 2007.
Whilst the last two years have seen players in the 20’s and 30’s for Greens in Regulation on the week win, last year’s top-10 tells a different story. Of the players in the top-10 last year, only Harrington (24th), Luke Donald (29th) and Patrick Reed (43rd) ranked outside the top-10 for GIR. Paul Casey and Ian Poulter who finished the week tied for 3rd place, finished 1st in GIR, along with Jeff Overton who finished 7th, others to tie for 1st in greens hit were Charles Howell III, Robert Allenby and Ryan Palmer who finished T44, T51 and T25 respectively on the leaderboard. Daniel Berger who narrowly lost out to Harrington ranked 10th in GIR, alongside Russell Knox who tied with Casey and Poulter in 3rd, and the last remaining player of the top-10 – Jim Herman finished the week in 7th place and also ranked 7th in GIR, so I still think hitting regular greens is important this week.
Another thing to bear in mind this week is the change in putting surface. PGA National features Bermudagrass greens, and this is a change from the Poa annua greens that have been used on the West-coast in recent weeks. Russell Henley was interviewed after his win here in 2014 and he had this to say “I think it might have something to do with getting back to the Bermuda grass,” said Henley, who is a native of Georgia. “I feel like whenever I play [the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles], I’m uncomfortable. “I think those courses are just ones I’m still trying to get comfortable on, and then when I come over here to some Bermuda grass, I look down and I feel like it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Now of course, Henley is one man, but I am sure he is not the only player in the field this week glad to see the change in putting surface and we may just see an upturn in form from those who have been struggling with the putter earlier this year.
There are another couple of things to bear in mind this week as well. Firstly, American’s do not dominate this event like they do most week’s on their own Tour. In the 9 renewals of this event since 2007 (when the event arrived at PGA National) only three times has it been won by an American players (Henley 2014, Michael Thompson 2013, Mark Wilson 2007). Of the other 6 winners, two were from South Africa (Ernie Els and Sabbatini), two from GB & Ireland (Harrington and McIlroy) and then there was Y.E Yang from South Korea and Camilo Villegas of Colombia, so this definitely has a global feel about this event in recent years.
Also this is not a course you play catch-up on. Of the last seven winners, five of them have been within one stroke of the lead at the halfway stage, and both Henley and Harrington were both in an around the lead over the first three days, with the latter never being more than three strokes off the lead at any point during the tournament. You have got to keep close to the leading pack, so a slow start isn’t going to get you anywhere here.
Wilson (72) and Sabbatini (71) are the only two players since 2007 to shoot over 68 here and still win the event. The lowest opening round of the past winners here was 64 which was shot by Russell Henley in 2013 (although McIlroy who he beat in a play-off opened with 63) and the highest other than these two was the 68 shot by Y.E Yang in 2009.
This event is notoriously known for tight finishes as well, since moving to PGA National, with 2/9 wins coming by way of play-off, 4 by 1 stroke, 2 by 2 strokes and the anomaly that was Villegas’ win as he won easy, by 5 strokes. Also McIlroy and Villegas are the only two players to shoot four rounds in the 60’s on the way to their victory, whilst John Rollins also managed four rounds in the 60’s however still finished 2nd behind Yang in 2009.
Due to the nature of the course, wind comes into play a lot and this may be what levels the playing field and why we saw an increase in International winners at this event.
To summarise, players will need to get off to a fast start, hit plenty of greens and convert their chances when they get them. They will also more than likely have to deal with blustery conditions at some point during the week, so it would be a definite plus if the players you decide to back are good in windy conditions and/or have a low ball flight that won’t be effected as much.
With all this in mind, here are my picks for the 2016 Honda Classic.
Branden Grace 33/1 (StanJames 6 places, Betfred 5 places) 1pt e/w: South Africa’s Branden Grace has been in scintillating form worldwide this season, and in his last 8 starts he has 1 win, six top-10’s (five of which were top-5s) and a 22nd place finish.
He has had three weeks off since his win at the Qatar Masters, but after announcing himself in a big way to the American audience last year, he is no doubt ready to return to the PGA Tour and rectify his 71st placed finish here on debut in 2013.
In 12 starts on the PGA Tour in 2013 (including majors and WGC events) Grace managed to make the cut just five times, and missed seven as he had a dismal season worldwide. Even on the European Tour where he managed four wins in one season the year before, he was fairly average as he failed to follow-up with another win. It is tough however to follow-up a four-win season, and had he have not been so good the year before his 2013 wouldn’t have seemed so disappointing.
Grace has made the step to the next level now, and has become a better player, better even that when he won four times and he genuinely looks like he can win any week he tees it up, no matter how big the event. At 33/1 this week he looks fine value and I am hoping that his miss-cue here three years ago was exactly that and that actually the course should suit.
In two starts that count as PGA Tour events in 2016, Grace has finished T17 at the co-sanctioned CIMB Classic and T5 at the WGC-HSBC Champions although neither event was played on American soil.
In 2015 however Grace played very well state-side, no more so than when he finished T4 in the U.S Open at Chambers Bay, and 3rd at the PGA Championship. He also posted top-20 finishes at the RBC Heritage (T7) and at the WGC-Cadillac Championship (T17), so he certainly has fond memories of his golf in this part of the world over the last year or so, and he will be hoping to carry that on here.
His low-ball flight will aid him this week, should the wind get up and he has also played well and won in difficult conditions, so I fully expect him to able to cope with the windy conditions. As a result I think all the time he’s still in the form that he is, he is a must-back at odds of 33/1. Should his form decline any time soon then you may have to look into things a bit more, but at this stage he looks confident at taking on any course, in any field and I fancy his chances here.
Kevin Kisner 45/1 (StanJames 6 places, Bet365 5 places) 1pt e/w: Kevin Kisner is currently 2nd in the FedEx Cup standings, after winning his first PGA Tour title back in November, which came after a 2nd place finish at WGC-Cadillac Championship and was also followed by 9th and 5th place finishes at the Hyundai Tournament of Championships and the Sony Open in Hawaii respectively so he’s been in stunning form this season.
He missed his first cut on his last start in Phoenix, three weeks ago but before that he had not finished worse than T37 this season and now he’s back on preferable putting surfaces he should be good to go here this week.
“I always struggle on the West Coast,” said Kisner, who played collegiately at Georgia. “A good ol’ Southern boy doesn’t putt on poa annua too well.” This is what Kisner said after missing five straight cuts on Tour between the Humana Challenge (now Career Builder Challenge) and the Northern Trust Open last year.
After starting the season so well, it is not as imperative for Kisner to play every week, and a result has been able to pick and choose his schedule this season. Due to this he has decided to play just once in the last five weeks but hopefully the extended break will serve him well.
Kisner made his course debut here last year finishing 51st but that was off the back of that five-event stretch where he failed to make the weekend, and he comes into this event this year in much better shape. Now a Tour winner the belief will be much higher and he has already performed well this year at courses he didn’t in previous seasons and I see no reason why that cannot be the case again this week.
I really do think Kisner is overpriced at 45/1 given his form all year round and he will be keen to get right back on track after his missed cut in Phoenix made it just three missed cuts in his last 24 starts on the PGA Tour, dating back to April last year.
Zac Blair 250/1 (Bet365, Betfred, Ladbrokes) 0.5pt e/w: After making just two of his last five cuts and finishing 33rd and 60th in those weeks he did make the weekend, you may think it’s crazy to side with Blair this week, but there are logical explanations.
Firstly it was only six weeks ago that Blair finished 3rd at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he was putting on Bermudagrass greens, the same surfaces he will be putting on this week. In the three events prior to that week in Hawaii, Blair finished T43, T10 and T33 so he had a four-week stretch where he was playing some solid golf, and he definitely seems to be the typical horses for courses type player.
The Sony Open is a good guideline to this week, as we have seen Henley and Wilson both win the Sony and also win here, whilst Sabbatini has won here and gone close in Hawaii. Ernie Els has also won both events. It must be the wind factor that makes this a similar test to that of the Sony Open, as does the matching putting surface and hopefully Blair can put his nightmare West-Coast swing behind him and play well this week.
He did exactly this last year, after finishing T6 at the Sony Open last year, he missed the cut at the Humana Challenge (now Career Builder Challenge), Pebble Beach and Northern Trust open, although he did finish T11 at the Farmers Insurance Open in-between. This year however he failed to make the cut at Torrey Pines, but did manage to make the weekend at Pebble Beach (T60) and play at the Phoenix Open (finishing 33rd). He missed the cut last week, but again he did this last year and still went on to perform well here at PGA National.
Blair finished T22 last year, shooting a pair of 71’s to make cut, before shooting his first under-par round of the week on Saturday (69) and finished the week of with a level-par 70. This is steady scoring for someone who was out of form and was also making his course debut. Now he has experience of playing here, he may well be able to better that T22 finish from last year, and get closer to the 3rd place finish he managed at the Sony Open earlier in the year.
It’s also worth noting that Blair much prefers putting on these surfaces. On Bermudagrass greens, he has a SG: Putting average of 0.682, which although is not great, is much better than his expected strokes gained (0.257) on all courses.
At 250/1 he is more of a value pick, but at the same time looks as though he could perform here on a course he should be more than comfortable with and suited to. We have seen some surprise winners over the nine-year span that it has been at this course, so it is definitely worth keeping an outsider on side, and he’s my pick of the bunch lower down the market.
It was a dismal week for my selections last week, but I am hoping to improve on this in a big way here in Orlando.
Other honourable mentions this week, who will feature in my Draft Kings lineups are: Russell Knox (40/1), Luke Donald (66/1) and Adam Hadwin (150/1), all of whom’s prices didn’t quite match my expectations, although if you were quick enough, there was some 66s about Knox and at that price I would have added him.
Profit/Loss for 2016: -5
Total Points staked this week: 5