For someone who had not won on the PGA Tour in seven years, and just once in 329 career starts, Matt Jones sure did not look uncomfortable holding a Sunday lead.
The 40-year-old Aussie conquered PGA National, one of the most difficult venues on the PGA Tour, to the tune of a runaway victory over Brandon Hagy at the Honda Classic.
An event that had not seen a double-digit under-par finisher since 2017, Jones’ 12-under-par winning score tied the lowest since 2010, and his five-stroke margin-of-victory tied Camilo Villegas (2010) and the legendary Jack Nicklaus (1977) for the biggest in the event’s 49-year history.
At the final event of the 2021 season’s Florida swing, Jones asserted himself as the best golfer in the field immediately, opening with an insane 9-under 61 that tied the course record. For context, last year’s WINNING score was 6-under.
As is often seen when a relatively-anonymous golfer posts a ridiculously-low score, Jones fell back some in round 2 with an even-par 70, but a 1-under 69 on Saturday, combined with the carnage leveled on the rest of the field, had him at 10-under and three strokes out front going into the final round. If he were to hold on, it would be his first win since the 2014 Vivant Houston Open.
Jones was barely threatened on Sunday.
He really only faced two serious challengers, who got into the mix at different times. LSU product Sam Ryder started the final round four strokes behind, and with a par-birdie-eagle start, briefly got within one stroke of the lead. Jones birdied 1 and 3 himself, and Ryder, who shot a 63 in the second round, lost all momentum and did not birdie another hole the rest of the day.
Then came Aaron Wise. The 24-year-old who starred at Oregon University, began the week with a pair of 64s to take the 36-hole lead. He even led by six strokes at one point on Saturday, but collapsed over the second half of his round on the way to a 75. Still just three strokes behind Jones going into Sunday, Wise exploded back into contention with birdies on Nos. 3, 4, and 5, and was just one back at the turn.
Again, though, Wise found back-nine trouble with a triple-bogey 7 on the par-4 10th, and suddenly the lead was back to four.
Jones made the turn at 1-under, fell to even-par on the day with a bogey at 11, but immediately bounced back with birdies on 12 and 13 to end any realistic chance the field had to catch him. Closing with a birdie, and a bogey, and three pars meant a 2-under 68 that was five strokes better than anyone else.
His 12-under final score was just the fifth time in the past decade that anyone has finished 10-under or better at PGA National, with three of those coming at Rory McIlroy’s 2012 victory.
In addition to the pressure of trying to end a long winless drought, Jones had the misfortune of a nightmare Sunday pairing. Known as the fastest player on Tour, Jones drew five-time Tour winner J.B. Holmes as his partner, who is widely regarded as the slowest player on Tour, something that has caused friction between Holmes and his colleagues in the past.
It likely did not help that Holmes took more shots than anyone in the field on Sunday, not carding a single birdie in a 9-over 79 that plummeted him from T2 to T46. Jones had nothing negative to say about Holmes, however, at least nothing that was recorded anyway.
While Jones came into the week off a CUT-T55 stretch in the past two weeks, there had been signs that the strong ball-striker was coming around with his game. Prior to that, he had made the cut in ten straight starts with three finishes inside the top 11, including a T8 at last month’s Genesis Invitational.
Leaderboard: Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Rd 4)
1. Matt Jones -12 (-2)
2. Brandon Hagy -7 (-4)
3. Chase Seiffert -6 (-6)
3. Brendan Steele -6 (-5)
3. Denny McCarthy -6 (-3)
3. Russell Henley -6 (-2)
3. C.T. Pan -6 (E)
8. Adam Hadwin -5 (-2)
8. Camilo Villegas -5 (-1)
8. Zach Johnson -5 (E)
8. Sungjae Im -5 (E)
8. Sam Ryder -5 (+1)
13. Adam Scott (-4)
13. Steve Stricker (-4)
13. Aaron Wise (-4)
25. Joaquin Niemann (-2)
25. Phil Mickelson (-2)
30. Chase Koepka (-1)
30. Keegan Bradley (-1)
36. Shane Lowry (+1)
46. J.B. Holmes (+2)
53. Jason Dufner (+3)
58. Jimmy Walker (+4)
65. Rickie Fowler (+7)
How Matt Jones Won The Honda Classic
Opening with a 61 obviously was very advantageous to Matt Jones’ chances at PGA National, but it spoke highly of his fight and determination that he was able to battle back when it was becoming the Aaron Wise show, and then stay out front when many would have wilted on such a notoriously brutal course.
Jones was one of just four players in the field without an over-par round for the week, and none of the other three, two-time major champion Zach Johnson, defending Honda champion Sungjae Im, nor John Huh had anything lower than a 67 in their eight combined rounds.
Aided by nine Thursday birdies, Jones’ 20 birdies (he also had one eagle) led the field for the week. Fortunately, he gave himself plenty of margin of error for his 10 bogeys, half of which came in the second round.
Jones also led the field for the week in strokes gained: tee-to-green with a ridiculous +14.3. He was second in the field in strokes gained: around-the-green, and by hitting 17 of 18 greens on Sunday, he finished sixth in greens in regulation for the week.
What Winning The Honda Means For Matt Jones
Matt Jones has yet to reach the Tour Championship – the final round of the FedExCup Playoffs – in his PGA Tour career, but after jumping from 60th to 11th this week, he stands an excellent chance.
Additionally, he rose precipitously in the Official World Golf Ranking from 83rd to 49th, just eight spots short of his career high of 41st after his win in Houston in 2014. He is now just two spots behind fellow countryman and former world No. 1 Jason Day, something that felt unthinkable just a few years ago.
This could be most helpful to him in regards to exemptions in major championships. Jones has been almost completely irrelevant in the majors, having not even made the cut in one since he finished T79 at the 2017 PGA Championship.
The only time he made waves on that stage was when he took the 36-hole lead at the 2015 PGA Championship, which was eventually won by Day. Jones is well-remembered at that championship for hitting a tee shot so far off course that he had to hit his second off the carpet in a hospitality tent. He faltered in the weekend to finish T21, his best result in 16 career major starts.
Jones is also now qualified for next month’s Masters, which he has only played once, missing the cut in 2014 after not having qualified until the week before.
The Demise of Phil?
It had been a very difficult 2021 for 44-time Tour winner Phil Mickelson, who at 50 years of age appeared to be sinking into irrelevancy.
In 11 starts coming into last week’s PLAYERS Championship, Mickelson had missed five cuts and failed to finish better than T44. He also fell out of the world’s top 100 for the first time since 1993.
A respectable T35 at TPC Sawgrass was promising, and that improvement continued to PGA National with a T25. On Sunday, Phil opened birdie-par-eagle and got within five of the lead before settling into an even-par 70.
He was an impressive (especially given his age) seventh for the week in driving distance, and third in greens in regulation.
Sunday’s Stars at The Honda
Sunday’s low round came from a largely unknown man who may have secured his next season’s Tour card with the showing.
Chase Seiffert shot a bogey-free 6-under 64 to jump 38 spots from T41 to a share of third. The 29-year-old Florida native posted the best finish of his 37-start career, which moved him from 125th to 91st in the FedExCup standings, greatly improving his chances of playing full-time on the Tour next year.
Seiffert was second in the field for the week in strokes gained: approach-the-green.
Brendan Steele finished T4 at this event last year, sitting just one stroke off the 54-hole lead. This year, he did one position better, finishing T3 after a 5-under 65 on Sunday, matching the score he shot in the second round.
Steele played his first eight holes in 5-under, and was sixth in the field in strokes gained: putting, usually a horrendous part of his game.
Perhaps Chase Koepka is something in professional golf other than Brooks’ brother after all. The younger brother of the four-time major champion was phenomenal on Sunday with a 3-under 67 to jump 25 spots up the final leaderboard from T55 to T30.
Even more remarkably, he rose 1130th to 886th in the world rankings, just 874 spots behind Brooks.
Sunday’s Stumbles at PGA National
J.B. Holmes, a five-time PGA Tour winner, deserves credit for getting into Sunday’s final pairing. Since winning the 2019 Genesis Open, he had made 31 consecutive starts without a top 10.
That being said, he was undeniably awful on Sunday, as his 9-over 79 did not include a single under par hole. It was a little reminiscent of the most recent Open Championship, where he was in third place after 54 holes and finished T67 after a final-round 87. He finished 6-over for that week despite not shooting a single round in the 70s.
On Sunday at PGA National, he hit just five fairways, seven greens in regulation, and lost nearly six strokes to the field tee-to-green.
Nobody else was as bad as Holmes on the final day, but Ryan Armour only dropped four fewer spots on the final leaderboard, as a 7-over 77 moved him from T18 to T58.
Armour was also birdie-free on the final day. The Ohio State product may have drawn too much inspiration from his alumni’s basketball team, and has not finished inside the top 45 anywhere since January.
Keegan Bradley has shown improved form on several occasions lately, but cannot seem to put four rounds together, and his performance at the Honda was not an exception. The four-time Tour winner shot a 4-over 74 in the final round to drop 23 spots from T7 to T30.
It was similar to what happened to Bradley two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he followed a third-round 64 with a Sunday 78 to plummet out of contention.
Something Just Clicked
“To be honest, I struck it amazing. I have a funny text that I sent someone, because I was hitting it pretty good on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I said ‘if someone beats me this week, they’ll have cheated’.
“I was pretty confident going into the week which is not normal for me. Something clicked, just clicked for me.”
– Matt Jones, Honda Classic Champion