The PGA Tour’s flagship event, THE PLAYERS Championship, has come and passed for another year, with last week’s “fifth major” being taken by 14-time Tour champion Justin Thomas.
The Tour is still not done in golf-crazy Florida, though. The action this week shifts over to The Honda Classic, held at PGA National Resort and Spa in the city of Palm Beach Gardens. One of the more difficult venues on Tour, last year’s champion finished just 6-under par.
The strength of field is considerably less than it was at TPC Sawgrass, with just three players in the top 20 of the OWGR, including none of the top 10, are in attendance. Even still, it has been an incredibly competitive event in recent years, and in its history has had such notable winners as Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Fred Couples, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, and the aforementioned Thomas.
Among the best storylines at the 2021 tournament are the following:
1. Im Defends Honda Classic Title
Coming off a rookie season where he made a stunning 35 starts, with seven top 10s, and a trip to East Lake for the final round of the FedExCup playoffs, Sungjae Im notched the first win of his career by taking last year’s The Honda Classic.
Three strokes back of Tommy Fleetwood’s 54-hole lead, the then 21-year-old Im birdied four of his first fives holes, and then held off the field late to shoot a 4-under 66 and better Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes by one stroke.
It remains Im’s only victory, but he has more than proven himself to be no one-hit wonder. He was a tremendous asset at the President’s Cup, has risen to No. 18 in the OWGR, and among his five top tens since that win, was a runner-up finish at The Masters. It would be considered very surprising if he does not add at least a few more wins over the next several years.
Now, Im arrives at a tournament as the defending champion for the first time. In the almost 50-year history of The Honda Classic, there has only been one back-to-back winner, and that was 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus, who took the 1977 and 1978 editions.
Nobody should be counting him out though, as he comes in with confidence after shooting two rounds of 66 in a T17 performance at THE PLAYERS, and only world No. 15 Daniel Berger is ranked higher than him among the field.
2. Lee Westwood’s Wild Fortnite
Seemingly overnight, 47-year-old Lee Westwood has re-emerged as a threat on the PGA Tour. Two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Westwood held a one-shot lead through three rounds over reigning U.S. Open champ Bryson DeChambeau, losing by the same amount after dueling late into the round.
Then last week at THE PLAYERS Championship, Westwood again held the 54-hole lead, this time by two over (again) DeChambeau, but some late hiccups resulted in a second place finish to Justin Thomas.
Losing by a shot, on consecutive Sundays, to world No. 5 DeChambeau and No. 2 Thomas – inarguably two of greatest golfers on the planet – is still quite impressive.
“Everybody keeps telling my how old I am. I’m 48 in a month’s time, and I’m still out here contending for tournaments and playing in final groups with great players like Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thomas and people like that,” said Westwood after Sunday’s finale at Sawgrass.
“It’s just a joy to be involved and still playing well and being able to contend.”
Westwood was once the DeChambeau and Thomas of his generation, reaching No. 1 in the world rankings, and winning all over the world. Yet his career has been largely defined by not quite getting to the top in the big ones. On nine occasions, he has finished second or third in a major championship without winning, and finished somewhere between second and fourth twelve times.
This recent surge, combined with a December runner-up on the European Tour’s (where he has 25 career wins) DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, has golf fans wondering if Westwood’s major chances have really passed.
The last time he really contended on that stage was when he finished T2 at the 2016 Masters, and even then he was kind of a forgotten man in the battle between Jordan Spieth and eventual winner Danny Willett.
If Westwood were to triumph this week, it would be his first win on the PGA Tour since the 2010 St. Jude Classic, where he won a three-man playoff after Robert Garrigus blew a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole. He does have a strong history at The Honda Classic, finishing T4 just last year, and posting top 10s on three other occasions.
Right now, he is already the third player on the PGA Tour to finish runner-up in consecutive events this year, following Joaquin Niemann in January and Tony Finau in March.
3. Phil Tees Up Honda Classic Start
The fall of 50-year-old Phil Mickelson from the world’s top 100, a place he had not been since 1993, lasted just one week, as the 44-time PGA Tour winner elevated back into the No. 99 position after a solid T35 performance last week at THE PLAYERS Championship.
At TPC Sawgrass, he had three rounds of 71 plus one round of even-par 72. He was sixth in the field in birdies, although he also added 13 bogeys and one triple, the former which ranked 143rd in the field.
It was his best result in his past 12 PGA Tour events, a span where he missed five cuts and posted nothing better than a T44. He even struggled in his last Champions Tour event, leaving fans wondering if they had seen the last of Phil making waves among the younger players on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson decided to stick around in Florida for this week’s Honda Classic, his first time at PGA National since a T37 finish in the 2016 edition. An event he has only played a handful of times, his best finish was a T11 in 2002.
It is difficult to count out the Hall of Famer anywhere, given his length and experience, but if he wants to move up even further in the OWGR, he will need to find more fairways, something he has been abysmal at in recent months. He currently is in the negative on the PGA Tour in all six strokes gained categories.
4. Fowler Returns to Relevance at Honda?
The Honda Classic has been very competitive in recent years, with six of the past seven editions resulting in either a playoff or a one-stroke victory for the winner. The exception was in 2017, when Rickie Fowler won by four strokes over Morgan Hoffman and Gary Woodland.
Fowler had a four-stroke lead through 54 holes after opening 66-66-65, which is basically unheard of at PGA National. Even with a 1-over 71 in the final round, which included a bogey-bogey finish, his 12-under final score is tied for the lowest score to par since Camilo Villegas finished 12-under in 2010.
In the past decade, it is the only double-digit under-par score posted in the event that did not happen 2012 (three players).
In addition, the 32-year-old was runner-up to Keith Mitchell in 2019, and has two other top 10s. With arguably the best course history in the field, Rickie should be looking at this week as an opportunity.
And that opportunity is to regain relevancy in professional golf. The five-time Tour winner, who has finished second or third in all four majors (without a win), is in the midst of a poor season by his standards.
In 13 2021 starts, Fowler has five missed cuts and has not finished better than T20. He has been especially terrible over the past two weeks, posting three(!) rounds of 76 or worse at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and then missed the cut at last week’s PLAYERS Championship, an event he had won before, shooting rounds of 77 and 73. In those two rounds at TPC Sawgrass, he had four bogeys and four double-bogeys. Over his last eight rounds on Tour, he has eight double-bogeys and one triple.
Currently, Fowler is not even exempt for next month’s Masters, a major he has not missed since 2010, his first full-time season on Tour. He has fallen to 81st in the OWGR, down from a high ranking of fourth after winning the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in 2016.
5. Koepka in Field at PGA National; No, Not That One
Four-time major champion Brooks Koepka made big news on the PGA Tour after emerging from a post-injury slump to win this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, and then finishing T2 at the WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession. He was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, near where PGA National is located. He finished co-runner up to Keith Mitchell in the 2019 edition.
Unfortunately for Koepka, he again is missing time with knee problems, and his status for next month’s Masters Tournament is currently in doubt.
However, the 2021 Honda Classic will not be Koepka-free. The former World No. 1’s younger brother Chase, ranked 1118th in the OWGR, is set to tee off, the first time this calendar year he will have teed off anywhere that had world rankings points.
On a sponsor’s exemption, this will be Chase Koepka’s Honda Classic debut. He has made seven career PGA Tour starts with a high finish of T5, when he was paired with Brooks at the Tour’s sole event played in duos, the Zurich Classic (2017).
When Chase last played on the PGA Tour, he was leaving the 2020 3M Open on a surprisingly high note: he made the cut and shot a 63 in the final round to finish T26. Brooks actually missed the cut in that same event.