5 Storylines: The Honda Classic

The PGA Tour’s annual west coast swing has concluded after a thrilling seven weeks in Hawaii, California and Arizona, which saw some popular champions in Jon Rahm, Jason Day, and Bubba Watson, among others.

Phil Mickelson flashed his magic, posting top-6 finishes in each of the last three events, and perhaps most notably, the five weeks saw the long-anticipated return of Tiger Woods, still bar none the biggest draw in professional golf.

Now, the Tour heads east for the first time since November, with Florida’s PGA National as the host venue for this week’s Honda Classic.

An impressively strong field highlighted by Tiger, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, and defending champion Rickie Fowler will take their shots in a brutal challenge where the winning score is often just single digits below par.

A tournament made famous by the association of legendary comic Jackie Gleason, here are some of the storylines to watch most closely this week at the Honda Classic.


1. RICKIE DEFENDS

Last year’s Honda Classic yielded the fourth victory of the career of Rickie Fowler, his first victory in a tournament where he held the 54-hole lead. Despite playing his final round over par (+1), Fowler did not lose a single shot to the field, leaving with the same 4-stroke advantage he had to begin the day.

Some front-nine Sunday struggles brought the “here we go again” feeling back into the atmosphere, but three back-nine Fowler birdies put the title out of the field’s reach over the event’s final holes.

Rickie finished the tournament at 12-under, which was tied for the second lowest winning score since the tournament moved to PGA National in 2007. Gary Woodland and Morgan Hoffman shared runner-up honors, finishing at 8-under for the week.

The victory was considered a resilient effort from Fowler, who had squandered a large 36-hole lead at the previous year’s Honda. This year, he enters the tournament with a different kind of pressure, as he is heavily favored to go back-to-back in Florida.

Rickie has not added career win No. 5 to his resume in the past 12 months, but in that time, he has many high finishes, including nine finishes inside the top 10.

So far in his four starts in the new season, he has a runner-up, a T4, and ranks third on Tour in scoring average. In his most recent start, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Fowler held the 54-hole lead, but wilted on Sunday despite good conditions, shooting a 2-over 73 and dropping into a tie for 11th.

His positive experience at PGA National (three top 10s in eight starts) should aid him tremendously in his desire to bounce back from his bitter disappointment at TPC Scottsdale.


2. TIGER COMEBACK TOUR, STOP NO. 3

The most closely-followed golf story of 2018 has been the long-anticipated return of Tour legend Tiger Woods to competitive golf after an agonizing year-long injury sabbatical.

His first official tournament back was a rousing success, as he posted a T23 at the Farmers Insurance Open three weeks ago, and more importantly, showed no ill effects from his past injuries and procedures. The second event of his return went… not quite so well.

At last week’s Genesis Open, Tiger shot rounds of 72 and 76 that included a combined 12 bogeys and one double bogey. He was 6-over through 36 holes, three strokes south of the cut line.

Last week was not all bad for Tiger, however. He had five round one birdies, and was more accurate off the tees than he had been at Torrey Pines.

Not only did Tiger feel well physically, he committed to the following week’s tournament: the Honda Classic, his first time playing back-to-back events since August of 2015.

Like last week at Riviera, PGA National is one of the very few places Tiger has not won. He has only played the Honda Classic three times, finishing runner-up to Rory McIlroy in 2012, a T37 in 2013, and then in 2014, back spasms forced a WD during the fourth round, the day after posting an impressive 5-under 65.

If Woods is going to make the weekend, he will need to be much more consistent on the greens than he was at Riviera.


3. J.T. AND RORY

With Phil Mickelson taking a much-deserved week off after a hectic recent schedule, the a significant portion of the crowd not tracking Tiger will probably be following Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who, in addition to Fowler, are the only three players in the Honda field current ranked inside the top 10 of the OWGR.

At No. 4 in the world, Thomas is the highest-ranked player in the field. His early start to the current season has not been as successful as it was last year, where he already had three victories by mid-January, but he’s still played consistently well.

In six season starts, Thomas owns a win – the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges back in October – and five additional top-25 finishes. Yet, just two of those finishes were top 10s – the aforementioned win in South Korea, and a T9 at last week’s Genesis Open.

At Riviera, Thomas led the field in driving distance, while finishing fourth in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green, and T5 in GIR (Greens in Regulation). The 24-year old Kentucky native did struggle around the greens, but the rest of his game was clicking, which should be a great sign coming into the week.

Thomas missed the cut at last year’s Honda Classic, but finished T3 in 2016, posting under-par scores in each of his four rounds.

McIlroy, the world’s 10th-ranked golfer, is playing a Tour event for the third-consecutive week as he tries to round back into elite form after a rib injury led to a very disappointing 2017 season. Rory took some time off late in the year to heal, and looked excellent in a pair of European Tour starts (T3, 2) in the UAE. But those strong performances have not translated well in his first two starts on U.S. soil.

He missed the 54-hole cut two weeks ago at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. While he was better at last week’s Genesis Open, particularly on Sunday where his 3-under 68 was among the best scores in the field, he was too far back, after opening 71-69-73, to make a serious run, and finished T20.

Like Thomas, Rory has been a little all-or-nothing at the Honda Classic, winning the 2012 event, and finishing runner-up after making a four-man playoff in 2014, but he missed the cut in his two most recent appearances (2015 and 2016). He missed last year’s tournament due to injury.


4. DEBUTS OF EURO STARS

Each tournament over the past month has brought the 2018 debuts of a handful of top-end international players who primarily compete on the significant time on the European Tour.

Last week, it was Haotong Li, Thomas Pieters, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, and reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood.

The quintet all made the cut at Riviera, but none finished especially well, with the low man being Fleetwood at T37. Li and Kaymer both finished T53, with Pieters and Schwartzel T68.

This week, six more international stars are playing in the U.S. for the first time this year, with hopes to fare better than last week’s group.

SERGO GARCIA

The highest-ranked player of this group is Sergio Garcia, who currently sits at No. 11. This will be Garcia’s first PGA Tour event since finishing T10 at the Tour Championship back in September, although he has notched one victory apiece on both the European Tour and Asian Tour since.

The 38-year-old Spaniard made 16 of 17 PGA Tour cuts in 2017, and while just three of those 16 ended in a top-10 finish, one of those wins was at The Masters, where Sergio ousted Justin Rose in a playoff to notch career major No. 1, emphatically ending what was perhaps the most famous winless drought in golf.

Now, Sergio is beginning a season as a former major champions for the first time, which takes considerable pressure off his shoulders, and he could thrive with that monkey off his back. He has played well at the Honda in recent years, posting a T14 last year, a T8 in 2014, and a runner-up finish to Adam Scott just two years ago.

TYRRELL HATTON

In 2017, Tyrrell Hatton had something of an up-and-down season, or rather a warm-then-cold-then-hot year, as he mixed early-season top 10s with mid-season missed-cuts followed by end-of-season wins.

A T4 finish at last year’s Honda Classic was the first of three consecutive top-10s early in the year. Hatton then went into a terrible slump, failing to finish better than T29 in the eight PGA events he entered from April to August, including badly missing the cut at all four majors.

After missing the cut at the PGA Championship, however, Hatton found his form and went on a tear in Europe, going T3, T8, WIN, WIN in his next four events.

In 2018, he has two starts, both in Europe, with finishes of T15 and 3, and has risen to No. 15 in the world rankings, one spot short of his personal record.

LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN

The former Open Champion Oosthuizen did not contend a lot in the U.S. in 2017, but as he has a penchant for doing, he was relevant on the big stages, finishing runner-up at both THE PLAYERS Championship, and the PGA Championship.

With that T2 at the PGA, Oosthuizen completed the “runner-up career grand slam”, as he now has a second-place finish at all four majors.

The 35-year-old has 11 career victories on the European Tour, but has not won a PGA event since blitzing the field at the 2010 Open Championship. A T21 at last year’s Honda Classic was Oosthuizen’s only Honda in four tries that did not end in a missed-cut or a withdrawal.

KIRADECH APHIBARNRAT

This will be the Honda Classic debut for the husky Thai native Aphibarnrat, who will also be playing on U.S. soil for the first time since the 2016 PGA Championship.

The 28-year-old who is ranked No. 38 in the world has seven career victories between the European and Asian Tours, and two weeks ago won his most recent start, the ISPS Handa World Super 6 Perth, a European Tour match-play event.

The Thai star’s other recent top finishes include a T2 at the DP World Tour Championship, and a solo fifth at the Indonesian Masters, which was won by Justin Rose.

DYLAN FRITTELLI

For some reason, Frittelli is listed as deceased on his PGA Tour profile, but he is very much alive and playing the best golf of his career as of late.

A college teammate of Jordan Spieth, Frittelli won twice on the European Tour in 2017 in addition to two other runner-ups, and has risen inside the world’s Top 50 (No. 47) after finishes of T6 and T5 in his two most recent events.

Frittelli has played very little in the U.S. as a professional, and will be making his Honda Classic debut this week.

BERND WIESBERGER

The 32-year-old from Austria, Wiesberger has recently slid out of the world top 50 (No. 53 currently) after a tough stretch on the European Tour.

The Austrian did win an event in 2017, the Shenzhen International, and has had a few good finishes on the PGA Tour in the past year: a T12 at THE PLAYERS Championship, a T16 at the U.S. Open, and a T9 at the recent WGC-HSBC Champions.


5. RECENT STRUGGLES OF PAST HONDA WINNERS

PGA National has been the host course of the Honda Classic since 2007, and while it has had some high-profile winners in that time, most notably Rory McIlroy in 2012 and Rickie Fowler in 2017, it’s also had several who’ve seen their games tail off considerably.

Several of them are in the field this week:

ADAM SCOTT

A former major champion and world No. 1, Adam Scott won the 2016 Honda by a stroke over Sergio Garcia. Since that season, however, Scott has been amazingly ordinary.

The Aussie had just four top 10s in 2017, and for the first time since 2000, he failed to notch a top-5 finish.

Scott has especially struggled in the new season, finishing outside the top 50 in three of four starts, with a 25th place finish in the other. Also, as of this week, Scott has slipped out of the world top 50 for the first time since 2009.

PADRAIG HARRINGTON

Harrington’s surprising victory at the 2015 Honda Classic was his second career title in the event, as he also captured the 2005 tournament at Mirasol.

Since that 2015 triumph, however, Harrington has posted just one top 10 on the PGA Tour – a T6 at the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

The 46-year-old three-time major winner made just four cuts in 11 events in 2017, and has been awful in four Tour events on the new season, with two missed cuts sandwiched between a T54 and T64.

Harrington did notch a pair of 2017 fourth-place finishes on the European Tour, however.

MICHAEL THOMPSON

Thompson captured his lone PGA Tour victory at the 2013 Honda Classic, but has been largely irrelevant since, with just a single top 10 in each of the past four years.

Now ranked No. 356 in the world, Thompson shot a first-round 65 at the 2016 Honda, but a third-round 79 doomed his chances resulting in a T53 finish.

RORY SABBATINI

The 41-year-old from South African took the Honda title in 2011, his sixth career victory, but he’s not won on Tour since.

Over the past three seasons, Sabbatini has just one top-10 in 52 starts. In nine starts on the new season, he has three times as many missed-cuts (3) as top 25s (1). He’s missed the cut in his two most recent attempts at PGA National.

CAMILO VILLEGAS

Villegas set the PGA National scoring record in his 2010 Honda victory, reaching 13-under for the week and winning by a course-record five shots.

The four-time Tour winner has been in a tailspin the past four seasons, and now just barely ranks inside the world’s top 400 (No. 392).

An opening-round 79 led to a missed cut in last year’s edition.


Credits: Getty Images


Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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