HONDA CLASSIC: The PGA Tour now makes the migration east for three Florida-based events over the next four weeks, the first being this week’s Honda Classic, a tournament that boasts an impressive list of champions over its 46-year history. In the last decade alone, names like Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott, and Rickie Fowler have graced the trophy, and the field is top-heavy once again this year, with Fowler (10.5) and McIlroy (13.5) joined by world No. 4 Justin Thomas (11.5) atop the market, followed by three other top-15 players– Sergio Garcia (21.0), Tyrrell Hatton (31.0), and Tommy Fleetwood (32.0). Fowler is the defending champion, and he’ll look to become the first back-to-back winner of this event since Jack Nicklaus in ’77-’78, when it was known as the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic.
PGA National’s Champion Course will serve as the host venue for the 12th consecutive year; it’s a Fazio brothers design that was heavily modified by Jack Nicklaus in 1990, 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 eleven years. Fowler’s total of 268 (12-under) last year was good enough for a 4-shot victory and was the lowest winning score since McIlroy’s 268 in 2012.
What sort of players are we looking for this week? Well, reliable ball-striking and the ability to play in the wind are must-haves, and we should also be seeking players who are comfortable on Bermuda grass, as the Bermuda that covers PGA National tee-to-green is known to be especially grainy. That means players with ties to the Southeastern United Staes, Australia, South Africa, and other warm-weather locales should be at the top of our list. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (11.5)- Thomas hasn’t posted a victory since October’s CJ Cup, but the stuff about him getting off to a slow start this season has been greatly overblown: he finished 14th at the Sony Open, 17th in Phoenix, and then 9th at Riviera last week. He may have cooled off slightly from his torrid pace of a few months ago, when he won three times and added a runner-up in an eight-week stretch that began with August’s PGA Championship, but he’s been playing well and could be due for a breakthrough in his second tournament since reuniting with longtime caddie Jimmy Johnson. After all, he’s contended before at this event, finishing third here in 2016, and his ball-striking and comfort with Bermuda grass make him a natural fit at PGA National. Thomas should be considered a blue-chip option this week and is well worth a bet, even at a shortish price like 11.5.
Daniel Berger (52.0)- This tournament should be right up Berger’s alley: a Florida native who played collegiately at Florida State, he always plays his best on the Bermuda-covered courses of the Southeast, and he’s good in the wind as well, so the usual conditions at PGA National should suit him. It’s a bit surprising, then, that he’s missed the cut here in each of the past two years, and I’m sure that fact, combined with his missed cut at Riviera last week, will throw plenty off Berger’s scent this week. But he did finish runner-up in this tournament back in 2015, so he knows how to attack the Champion Course, and he’s gotten off to a good start the season, logging top-15 finishes in four consecutive starts prior to last week’s blowup. I have a feeling he’ll put the weirdness of Riviera behind him and respond with a strong performance in his home state. At better than 50/1, Berger may be the best value on the board this week.
Luke List (152.0)- List is among the longest guys on the PGA Tour and the Champion Course doesn’t really favor bombers, so not many people are likely to have him on the radar this week. But he’s quietly begun to play some good golf after a slow start to the season, responding to back-to-back MCs with a 12th-place showing at the Farmers Insurance Open and 26th-place finishes at both Phoenix and Riviera, and now he returns to the Bermuda-covered courses that he generally favors. He’s shown flashes of form at PGA National, and when put into context his performances say a lot about his fondness for the course: last year he managed to make the cut despite missing the cut in three straight events heading into the week, and in 2016 his 10th-place finish here came in the midst of a stretch of 7 missed cuts in 10 starts. In other words, he’s been playing terribly heading into this event in each of the past two years and has still managed to scratch out something decent. He’s in much better form this time around, so I think he’s worth chancing at a price like 152.0.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Tyrrell Hatton (1.79) vs. Tommy Fleetwood (2.08)
After a great two-week run in the UAE many were expecting big things out of Fleetwood in his 2018 stateside debut last week, but he managed to break 70 just once in four rounds at Riviera and wound up finishing 37th. This will be his debut appearance at this event, and though he’s played well in Florida before, his lack of experience at PGA National is certainly a negative. Hatton, meanwhile, finished 5th in this tournament last year despite complaining vociferously about the Bermuda rough, so there’s obviously something about the Champion Course that he likes. His last start was three weeks ago in Dubai, where he finished third, beating Fleetwood by four shots. Recommendation: Hatton at 1.79
Alex Noren (1.89) vs. Gary Woodland (1.89)
Noren has been rock-solid over the past few weeks, following his runner-up finish at the Farmers Insurance Open with a T21 in Phoenix and a T16 at Riviera. But he’ll be making his debut appearance in this tournament, and his record on Bermuda grass is pretty uninspiring. Woodland, on the other hand, has an excellent record in this event, making the cut in all five of his career appearances and finishing runner-up last year, and he’s only a couple of weeks removed from his impressive win in Phoenix. Recommendation: Woodland at 1.89