We are now onto the first leg of the Florida swing and with two dramatic finishes at both the WGC-Mexico Championship and the Puerto Rico Open last week, the Honda Classic has got a lot to live up to. Despite a lot of players skipping the week, with the likes of Bay Hill and WGC Match Play favoured over this, there is still a stellar field assembled here, and luckily for event organisers this event itself has never been short of drama.
Last year Keith Mitchell held off starlets Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler to win his first PGA Tour event by a single stroke, and he was the fifth winner of the last six to win by either a single stroke or in a play-off. Three of the last six renewals have gone to a play-off with maybe none more dramatic than when Russell Henley outlasted Rory McIlroy and Ryan Palmer in 2014.
The Course and what it will take to win here
Given the toughness of this test, this event is immune to the typical bomb and gouge style of play we have become accustom to on the PGA Tour week-to-week and instead rewards those that are accurate with their approaches and get up and down with regularity.
Course form and form on similar tests, as well as a preference of putting on Bermuda greens all come into play here as well, and there are a few pointers. Form on Par 70 layouts, where anything a couple under-par is a good score, like Copperhead (Valspar) or other short, wind-exposed tests like the RSM Classic are worth looking at, but one event in particular correlates best though and that is the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Four winners of the Sony Open, including 2018 champion, Justin Thomas have won this event and Ryan Palmer who lost out to Russell Henley in a play-off in 2014 also won the 2010 renewal of the Sony. Several other players have impressed across both courses and it’s little surprise given both courses are exposed to wind, have Bermuda greens and are Par 70 courses around the 7,000 yard mark.
Hitting more than your fair share of greens is obviously going to be advantageous but a bit like Riviera a couple of weeks ago, plenty are going to be missed throughout the week due to a mix up in yardages, being stuck in the rough or just generally tough shots, so how you scramble here is imperative. This is highlighted by the performance of those at the top of the leaderboard each year. In 2012 Rory McIlroy beat Tiger Woods and Tom Gillis to lift the trophy and Rory ranked 1st in Scrambling whilst Gillis ranked 2nd and it was the same in 2018 when Thomas ranked 1st in Scrambling and beat Luke List by a shot, who himself ranked 2nd in the same category. In 8 of the last 9 renewals the person that’s led the field in Scrambling has also placed in the top 7/8 on the leaderboard, so it appears a superior short game this week will stand you in good stead to at least contend.
Billy Horschel 25/1 (SkyBet 8 places 1/5 odds) 1.5pts e/w:
The fear here is that when a bet looks too obvious, it often comes back to haunt you, as it did for me recently with Bubba Watson at Riviera. I am happy however to take a punt that Billy Horschel lives up to expectations here at PGA National, a course which looks tailor made for him to record a victory at.
Lots of golfers live in Florida, but Horschel is a Floridian through and through, as he was born, raised and educated in the area, which is why as a Florida Gator he is affectionately known as “Alligator Billy”.
In terms of current form, Horschel has put a slow start to the season behind him, finishing 9th in both Mexico and Phoenix over his last two starts. He rode a hot putter in Phoenix but in Mexico he sharpened his iron play, hitting all 18 greens in regulation on Saturday, allowing him to post a bogey-free 68. It was a similar story on Sunday as he hit 13/14 fairways and 16/18 greens and finished the day with a cool 65 to climb the leaderboard again.
Horschel clearly had the ball on a string this past weekend and we know when he gets hot he can ride form to a victory or two (see 2014 FedEx Cup playoffs!) Horschel has generally performed well here over the past four years, with just one missed cut to his name in that span, where he was coming into the event off the back of two missed cuts and clearly out of sorts.
He has never come into this event in better form than he is this week, and with 4th, 8th and 16th place finishes to his name here over the past four years, his improved current form may be all he needs to get over the line. When 4th and 8th he ranked way down the field in SG: Putting for the week, but he’s been solid with the flat stick so far this season ranking 16th in SG: Putting and if he can keep it at that level for the rest of the year, it will be far and away his best putting season of his career.
At 25/1 you’re backing a proven winner, who’s known for stringing performances together and performs best at these sort of tests.
Byeong-Hun An 33/1 (SkyBet 8 places 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:
No one will be happier than Benny An with the move to Bermuda greens, as the elite ball-striker struggles to take advantage of his excellent tee-to-green game on Poa surfaces. A fairer surface here at Honda may just be what needs – although it is still a big if in his case.
In general ball strikers will reign supreme when it’s all said and done, but you need to be at least average at putting and this is not something we can rely on from the Korean. On the flipside, he is certainly capable of getting hot one week and putting isn’t the biggest prerequisite to success here.
In two starts in this event, An has finished 5th and 36th and that 36th last year came after he had to bounce back from a four-over-par opening round. A final round 65 in 2018 shows just what he can do at this course when he’s on song and he’s certainly in decent nick so can perform again.
An opened with rounds of 65-66 in Phoenix and put himself in a great position to win, but backtracked with rounds of 70-72 over the weekend. It was a completely different story last week in Mexico though, as he opened with a round of 75 on Thursday, but followed up with rounds of 69-72 to head into Sunday with more encouragement. A final round 65 showed he has plenty to offer again and he can hopefully carry that momentum into this week, on a course more suited to his strengths.
An ranks 13th in SG: Around-the-green and 23rd in Scrambling on the season, with the latter pretty remarkable considering he ranks 208th (!!) in SG: Putting. If he putts anywhere close to half decent this week, his ability to get up and down could really put him in a great position and I think he’s worth chancing to do just that.
At 33/1 he may not look the best value on paper, but the field is not the deepest and he is a brilliant talent who just has one glaringly obvious issue with is game, which can be overcome week-to-week anyway.
Harris English 60/1 (SkyBet 8 Places 1/5 odds) 1pt e/w:
Harris English has enjoyed something of a renaissance this season with four top-6 finishes to his name already, the only issue is these all came at the end of 2019. His start to 2020 has been slower, with poor outings at the Desert Classic and at Torrey Pines where he’s played well before, but he picked up again last time out. I had him circled for the Phoenix Open given his previous course form and luckily he didn’t make me pay for leaving him out, but did perform well enough to offer encouragement ahead of this week, finishing in a tie for 16th and one shot outside the top-10.
Given English’s wins at the St. Jude and Mayakoba, it is clear he likes playing on shorter and potentially windy courses, with further evidence coming from multiple top-4 finishes at the Sony Open. It is surprising then, that for the first few years his ball-striking and form at similar courses didn’t translate into results here, but over his last three starts at PGA National, he’s improved every year. His 12th place finish last season trumps his previous best 18th here which came on debut in 2012 and he can build on that a year later.
Only three players had a better aggregate score than English (68-68) over the weekend here last year and two of those were Rickie Fowler (former winner) and Ryan Palmer who has finished 2nd here in the past. If he can get off to a quicker start this week, he should be able to contend here and at the very least finish inside the top-6 for the fifth time this season.
At 60/1 I think it is worth backing a player who ranks inside the top-27 in SG: Tee-to-Green (17th), Off-the-Tee (17th) and Approach (27th). He also ranks 2nd in Greens in Regulation and 18th in Scrambling so he has all the tools to succeed here.
Lee Westwood 66/1 (SkyBet 8 places) 1pt e/w:
I picked Westwood to play well in Mexico last week and although he didn’t place he put in a decent performance, finishing in a tie for 22nd and breaking par in each of his four rounds. He did this without having his best stuff tee-to-green or even around the greens, so on a more familiar course, he may well excel.
Westwood now returns to the Honda Classic, a tournament he used to love and in an area he also used to reside a few years ago. A former Palm Springs resident and a course specialist, I really think Westwood can win this week as he returns for the first time since 2015.
Off the course Westwood went through a tough divorce, which led to him giving up his home in Florida in recent years and you would think that’s had an effect on him playing here, but he now appears to be in a good place on and off the golf course and he can finally win on a track that’s seen him produce some great golf over the years, and get that long-awaited 3rd PGA Tour victory.
Westwood has never missed a cut here in eight starts and has finished inside the top-9 on four occasions, going particularly close in 2012 when he finished 4th and just four behind McIlroy. This was largely down to a final-round 63 and the Englishman has an abundance of low scores on this course. Despite finishing T46 in 2014, Westwood opened with rounds of 68-65 and also closed with a round of 66 a year later when 25th so even when not at his best he’s shot low rounds here.
A winner already this season on the European Tour, Westwood is in a great position to get a well overdue win on the PGA Tour as well, and there may not be a better course for him to do so.
At 66/1, I think Westwood is a fair price to contend in a decent but not too deep field.
Kyeong-Hoon Lee 100/1 (SkyBet 8 places 1/5 odds) 0.5pt ew:
Kyeong-hoon Lee may well be the value bet of the week in my eyes, considering his form on the PGA Tour this season and his impressive debut here 12 months ago.
Lee had previous at this course, finishing 8th at the Web.com Q-School final in 2015, with rounds of 70-71-69-69. He followed this up four years later, finishing T7 on is event debut with rounds of 67-69-68-71. Clearly then this is a course that Lee feels comfortable on and in his current form that could result in a chance for his first win on Tour.
The Korean finished T14 in Puerto Rico last week thanks to a final-round 67 and was T13 a week before at Riviera. A second-round 73 cost him the chance to contend but rounds of 67-69-69 should not be sniffed at on a course as demanding as Riviera and given this is a similarly difficult test, it is worth looking at those that performed well on equally tough layouts.
Four top-21 finishes so far this season including an impressive T5 finish at the RSM Classic, his highest finish on this Tour, Lee stands out to me, even if statistically he doesn’t really do anything that well.
He ranked 3rd in the field tee-to-green here 12 months ago and tied for 1st in Greens in Regulation, so had he of scrambled better (T35) he would surely have gone closer to winning.
At 100/1 I think it is worth chancing he will repeat his performance from 12 months ago, if not go better this time around.
Total Points Staked this week: 10
Profit/Loss for 2020: -18.5