HONDA CLASSIC: This year’s Florida Swing begins in earnest at an event that has long been a fixture on the PGA Tour schedule but has seen its fortunes dim in recent years, as only two of the world’s top 20 players will be in Palm Beach Gardens this week to tee it up in the Honda Classic.
The reasons for this tournament’s decline in popularity amongst the players are varied, and the slot on the schedule is now worse than ever due to it being the week after back-to-back $20 million “Designated” events. Many players are enjoying some rest while gearing up for the critical Bay Hill – Players – Match Play – Masters stretch, and of course the LIV talent drain cannot be ignored at this point.
Another factor at play is the golf course– difficult and demanding, the Champion Course at PGA National has never fared well in the anonymous surveys certain golf magazines will use to reveal players’ preferences. A par-70 that plays longer than its 7,125 yards, it’s tight off the tee, with water everywhere you turn and firm Bermuda greens that are heavily bunkered. And then there’s the infamous Bear Trap, holes 15, 16, and 17, two treacherous par-3s sandwiched around a difficult par-4. When the wind is right, it can be among the most challenging 3-hole stretches in golf and has ruined many a player’s round and tournament. Bottom line: it’s going to be a grind this week. Only twice in the past 10 years has the champion of this event finished better than 10-under, and this is one of the few non-majors that regularly features an over-par cut (it was +2 last year).
All of that can make things quite exciting from a viewing and betting perspective, of course, and we’ve seen some thrilling finishes here over the years. What this tournament lacks in star power it usually makes up for in drama. That said, I’m looking for the most drama-free players possible this week… guys who have been playing boring, fairways-and-greens golf. And we must keep in mind that players who excel on the West Coast are not always the same ones who have success in Florida. With all that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Denny McCarthy (37.0)- While McCarthy might not be your quintessential fairways-and-greens machine, his ball striking has been steadily improving in recent months and that was on full display at the Genesis last week, as he shot par or better all four rounds, an impressive feat at Riviera, and rode a 3rd-round 64 to a 14th-place finish. And he’s just three weeks removed from a T4 at Pebble Beach which saw him fire another crucial weekend 64, this one on Sunday. He remains an absolute demon on the greens, ranking near the top of every major putting stat on Tour, topping out at second in putts 10-feet and in (he’s making 92% of putts 10-feet and in. 92 percent!! Marinate on that one for a minute…). Critically, McCarthy seems to have figured out how to get around PGA National after missing the cut in his first three appearances at this event, finishing 3rd here in 2021 and finding the top-30 last year. He’s well worth a bet at a price like 37.0.
Chris Kirk (42.0)- Right in the same price range as McCarthy is another guy who is worth a hard look this week: Chris Kirk. Though he hasn’t made much noise since back-to-back 3rd-place finishes at the Sony and the American Express, that was only a month ago, and he hasn’t played much in the meantime, choosing instead to keep his powder dry for the Florida Swing, which has always been a profitable stretch for him. He’s been particularly successful at this tournament, with a string of quality finishes that include a T7 last year and a T25 in 2021. His ball-striking stats have been excellent over the first part of this season, especially the “on approach” numbers, and Kirk has always been a player who doesn’t waste many shots around the greens… he currently ranks 2nd in 3-putt avoidance and 1st in scrambling from 10 yards and in (he gets it up-and-down, in other words). A win this week would be huge for his career, and this is the venue– and the type of field– where it could definitely happen. Kirk is a nice value here at better than 40/1.
Mark Hubbard (118.0)- Hubbard has never had much luck on the West Coast despite being a native of Colorado, finding most of his success in his time on Tour in Florida and the Southeast. He did finish 20th at Pebble Beach a couple of weeks ago, however, and the last time he was on Bermuda grass he finished 5th at the Sanderson Farms Championship (we won’t count the Houston Open, when he was disqualified after one round). Now he returns to the style of golf where he’s most comfortable, and a course where he’s had success on multiple occasions. With a style of play that is more about accuracy and short game than length off the tee, Hubbard has excelled at PGA National, making the cut in 4 of 5 career appearances at this event and finding the top-15 in both 2020 and last year. He’s a dark horse this week for sure, but with a history of success in this tournament and some glimpses of good golf already this season, Hubbard is worth a flier at triple-digit odds.