HONDA CLASSIC: The PGA Tour’s Florida Swing kicks off this week with the Honda Classic, a mainstay on the schedule for the past 40 years as other events around it have come and gone. This tournament generally features a terrific field and major champions have won it in 6 of the past 12 years, but there has been a bit of grumbling about who’s not here this year– Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods, just to name a few. This led longtime golf columnist Geoff Shackelford to suggest this week that the “model” for pro golf isn’t working, and perhaps something like the proposed Premier Golf League would be better for the sport. I disagree strongly with this sentiment, as I don’t have much interest in watching glorified exhibitions in which everyone in the field is guaranteed a fat paycheck, but the idea is gaining traction, and big names continuing to skip prominent events will only add fuel to the fire.
The players who are in attendance this week will certainly have their work cut out for them, as the host venue, PGA National’s Champion Course, is one of the toughest tracks on Tour. It’s a Fazio brothers design that has been heavily modified by Jack Nicklaus to the point where it’s now considered a Nicklaus design for all intents and purposes. Like most Nicklaus courses, it prioritizes ball-striking and forces players to take on shots that can be very penalizing if not properly executed. Water comes into play on 13 holes, and the notorious “Bear Trap”– the par-3 15th, par-4 16th, and par-3 17th– is among the most nerve-wracking finishing stretches in all of golf and has ruined many a good round. The demanding layout frequently gets an assist from the strong coastal winds, which helps explain why the winner of this tournament has reached double-digits under par just three times in the past 13 years. Last year’s champion, Keith Mitchell, finished at 9-under, holding off Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka by a single stroke.
Mitchell is back to defend and if you like his chances this week you can strike it rich, as he’s currently trading at a whopping 160.0 at BETDAQ. Considering he hasn’t logged a single top-10 in his last 20 starts, I think I’ll look elsewhere, but it should be noted that with the change in geography and grasses (hello, Bermuda), we could get some surprises this week. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Viktor Hovland (36.0)- I realize this isn’t a great time to back Hovland from a value perspective, but I just can’t help myself. I mean, are there five players in the field this week who are better than him right now? I don’t think so. And I’m not just talking about his win in Puerto Rico last week, though that was awfully impressive… it’s the total package. The guy is an absolute ball-striking machine, ranking in the top-15 on Tour in both Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and Strokes Gained: Approach the Green, and the Champion Course is one of the most demanding tee-to-green layouts in the world. Hovland also ranks 6th in the PGA Tour’s Total Putting stat and 13th in Putting Average, so he isn’t some GIR machine who struggles on the greens– he’s the total package, and his rapid ascent up the world rankings is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s never played this tournament before, of course, but he does have considerable experience with Bermuda grass after spending his college years in Oklahoma, so the Florida Swing should be right up his alley. Let’s see if he can make to two in a row this week.
Daniel Berger (44.0)- This tournament is tailor-made for Berger, a Florida native who played collegiately at Florida State and always does his best work on Bermuda. He’s had success here in the past, finishing runner-up on debut in 2015 and posting solid finishes (T36, T29) in each of the past two years, so he should be plenty comfortable with his plan to attack the course. And he’s been playing some great golf this season, finishing 38th or better in all five of his starts and really heating up in his last two events– T9 in the Phoenix Open, and T5 at the AT&T Pebble Beach. After taking the last two weeks off he should be fresh and ready, and given his past success at the Champion Course and his tee-to-green ability, he should be considered one of the favorites this week. His price doesn’t really reflect that, which is why I’m enthusiastically aboard.
Bud Cauley (102.0)- You won’t see many people tipping Cauley this week, as he doesn’t contend much and isn’t the type who will wow you with his stats and ability, but he profiles as a great dark-horse candidate in this spot and should be given serious consideration at a triple-digit price. A Florida native who played collegiately at Alabama, Cauley is a bona-fide Bermuda specialist who is a threat on courses where distance off the tee isn’t a requirement. Measuring just over 7,100 yards from the tips, PGA National- Champion is such a course, and Cauley has a nice history in this event, finishing 12th last year and 27th in 2017. He’ll be bringing a bit of form with him this year, as he’s logged two top-25s in his last four starts, including a T4 at The American Express last month. He’s certainly not a name who is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but don’t be surprised if you see him on the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday. If you’re looking for a live longshot, Cauley is an excellent candidate.