HONDA CLASSIC: After a thrilling and successful week at The Players, the PGA Tour heads south on its Florida Swing, where a stressful golf course will await those who either need the money/status or have determined that grinding their way through four rounds on an unforgiving layout is the best way to prepare for next week’s WGC Match Play.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who will be teeing it up in Austin next week have decided to use this week for rest and preparation, so this field isn’t quite up to the usual Honda Classic standards, with world No. 15 Daniel Berger the highest-ranked player in attendance. But it should be a fun week nonetheless, particularly if you’re one of those fans who watches pro golf for the same reason many NASCAR fans go to the races– to see the wrecks and carnage. PGA National’s Champion Course has a way of humbling the world’s best, and over the years we’ve seen plenty of drama and disasters in this tournament, many coming at the infamous Bear Trap, the three-hole stretch consisting of two treacherous water-laden par-3s– numbers 15 and 17– and the par-4 16th, a dogleg-right around water that forces players to take on the trouble with their approach shots. Since 2007 there have been 1,515 ball deposited in the water on these three holes alone, with nearly 80% of the players who have competed in this tournament in that time finding the drink at least once in their trips through the Bear Trap.
Ah, but if it were only those three holes that players had to worry about…
The Champion Course is a demanding tee-to-green challenge throughout, with narrow fairways, difficult Bermuda rough, and water that comes into play on 15 of 18 holes. A par-70 that measures 7,125 yards, it’s not a bombers-only track, though length off the tee definitely helps in certain spots, and the greens aren’t unreasonably small, though they may start to feel that way if they firm up as the week progresses. The cutline is over-par every year in this tournament, sometimes well over-par, and last year’s champion Sungjae Im only needed to reach 6-under par to claim the victory, the type of winning score usually reserved for major championships. Whoever hoists the trophy this week will have displayed both steely nerve and ball-striking brilliance.
The aforementioned Berger heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 12.5, with defending champ Im right behind him at 16.5. This feels like a wide-open type of week to me, so don’t be afraid to take a shot on some of the longer-odds guys… and hey, don’t be afraid to listen to some good advice either, as we’ve struck gold here lately, hitting on Max Homa at 82.0 a few weeks back and then cashing again last week after a brilliant Sunday from Justin Thomas. Let’s hope we can keep it rolling with these three selections…
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Talor Gooch (40.0)- The 29-year old Gooch is playing the best golf of his career this season, logging three top-5s and vaulting up to 38th in the FedExCup points race. He tied for 5th at The Players last week after a splendid Sunday 67, earning the largest check of his career and proving that he can shine in high-pressure, big-time events. An Oklahoma native who played collegiately at Oklahoma St., Gooch has always been something of a Bermuda specialist, so PGA National’s Champion Course should suit him quite nicely, and indeed he has performed well in this tournament over the past couple of years, finishing T20 in 2019 and T38 last year. This is one of those cases where great current form meets good course history, and with a field devoid of big-name stars, Gooch could be well-positioned to pick up his first PGA Tour victory. At a price like 40.0, he’s worth a shot.
Byeong-Hun An (84.0)- The man affectionately known as Benny had a rough go of it last week on one of the sport’s most iconic holes, taking an 11 at No. 17 on Thursday at The Players after depositing four balls in the water. It was a week to forget for An, for sure, but he’s actually been playing some solid golf lately, making five consecutive cuts prior to last week and finding the top-10 at The American Express. Now he comes to one of his favorite “get well” spots on the schedule– the Honda Classic, where most players cannot withstand the punishing nature of the course but Benny An just goes along his merry way, hitting fairways and greens, avoiding the trouble, and cashing fat checks. He finished 4th here last year despite an opening-round 76, and 5th in 2018. His only other appearance was a T38 in 2019, so An has really never had a bad week at PGA National, and I expect him to get over his octuple-bogey rather quickly and find his tee-to-green mastery again at one of his favorite tracks. At better than 80/1, he’s the best value on the board this week.
Maverick McNealy (118.0)- There’s no doubt that young McNealy is talented– he proved as much in his stellar amateur career– but consistency has eluded him thus far as a professional, and you can find him packing up the hotel on Friday evening just about as often as you find him cashing checks. That said, when he gets it going he’s not scared to go low, as we saw last month at Pebble Beach when he responded to a missed cut at the Farmers by breaking 70 in all four rounds and finishing runner-up. That was just three starts ago, so the taste of success is still fresh for McNealy, and the fact that he’s shown the ability to immediately bounce-back from bad weeks is worth noting, particularly after his poor showing at The Players last week. He was quite impressive in his debut appearance at this tournament last year, finishing T11, so there’s reason to think that PGA National suits his eye. If you’re looking for a “live” longshot this week, you could do a lot worse.