“A lot of people say, ‘I like a challenge.’ I don’t like a challenge. Life is tough enough without any challenges.”
That humorous quote came from the lips of legendary actor/musician/comedian Jackie Gleason. He was obviously being facetious when he said that, but if we take him literally, it’s quite ironic that he was such an avid golfer and golf fan, as golf is undoubtedly among the most fiercely challenging sports ever devised.
Gleason loved golf so much, in fact, that in the 1970s he became the host of a new PGA event, which in its nascency was called the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic. That event eventually became The Honda Classic, an annual PGA Tour event that takes place this week.
It also marks the Tour’s 2017 move from California to the golf paradise of Florida, a place a myriad professional golfers call ‘home’. This year’s edition brings an impressive collection of elite talent to Palm Beach Gardens, even when factoring the absence of the two big, previously committed names that were forced to pass due to injury: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Among the players who will be there include Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, and Masters Champion Danny Willett. At a course where the winning score is typically in the single-digits, the winner will need to pack the biggest punch in the field, or as Gleason’s classic, capricious TV character Ralph Kramden would say, “Pow! Right in the kisser!”
Beginning in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, the tournament that is now known as the Honda Classic has been held exclusively in Florida, but has found difficulty in finding a permanent host course.
Changing courses every 6.4 years on average, the Champion Course at PGA National Golf Course in Palm Beach Gardens has been the tournament’s location since 2007, with no imminent plans of another switch.
On Florida’s southeast coastline, roughly 80 miles north of Miami, it’s another exceptionally beautiful location with wonderful weather, perfect for February golf.
The inaugural tournament was won by Tom Weiskopf, who fought off Jack Nicklaus by a single stroke.
The tournament boasts big-name past winners like Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Kite, Vijay Singh, and Rory McIlroy. Nicklaus, in addition to Johnny Miller, Mark Calcavecchia, and Padraig Harrington are the only players with multiples victories at The Honda Classic, with two wins apiece.
Name: PGA National Golf Club – Champion Course
Where: Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
Distance: 7140 yards
Architect: George and Tom Fazio
Winning Share: $1,152,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of The Honda Classic is Adam Scott. Scott started the final round one shot ahead of Sergio Garcia, and held at least a share of the lead the entire Sunday.
When both players bogeyed the par-4 16th hole, Scott was still holding onto a one-stroke lead. Scott played the last two holes par-par, while Garcia went bogey-birdie, securing Scott’s first win of the 2015-16 season and 12th of his career.
Scott finished -9 for the week, with only Sergio (-8) finishing within three shots of him.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Padraig Harrington
2014: Russell Henley
2013: Michael Thompson
2012: Rory McIlroy
2011: Rory Sabbatini
Lowest Final Score: 264 (-24), Justin Leonard, 2003
Lowest Final Score (PGA National): 267 (-13), Camilo Villegas, 2010
Low Round: 61, Brian Harman
Round 1: 2-6:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 2-6:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 1-3:00 PM – Golf Channel | 3-6:00 PM – NBC
Round 4: 1-3:00 PM – Golf Channel | 3-6:00 PM – NBC
1. European Star Power
The Honda Classic might not have the strongest field of the still-young season, but it certainly has the best collection of European talent. With this tournament preceding the World Golf Championships (WGC) – Mexico Championship, a number of the better European Tour players see the Honda as an opportunity to get re-acclimated to PGA Tour golf before a big-ticket event. Here are a few to look out for:
The 32-year-old Cabrera-Bello will be making his 2017 American debut at PGA National. He will be hoping for an early season like he had in 2016, when he finished T11, 3, 4 in his three pre-Masters starts.
Cabrera-Bello would be even happier if he played like he did at the Ryder Cup, where he was Europe’s lone undefeated player (2-0-1). This will be his first Honda Classic.
The young Englishman Fitzpatrick is making his first stateside appearance since last October, when the 22-year-old played in his first Ryder Cup, losing both of his matches, including a 4&3 loss to Zach Johnson in the anchor match.
Fitzpatrick’s 2016 highlight was an impressive T7 that was largely aided by a final round 67, which tied tournament Champion Danny Willett for low Sunday round. In Europe, Fitzpatrick is coming off a two-victory season where he finished 6th in the final Race to Dubai standings.
Entering a crucial year of his somehow still majorless career, Garcia, now 37 years old, is playing his second U.S. tournament of the season. He already has a 2017 win in Europe, fending off a strong field at the Dubai Desert Classic.
In addition to his runner-up finish at last year’s Honda Classic, Sergio finished T8 in 2014. With one more victory, he would pass Seve Ballesteros as the all-time PGA Tour wins leader among Spanish players.
One of the biggest Euro Tour breakouts in 2016, Hatton was a complete unknown to Americans before bursting onto the PGA scene with top-10s at both the Open Championship (T5) and the PGA Championship (T10).
In Europe, Hatton notched his first career victory and added two runner-ups in a season where he finished 4th in the final Race to Dubai standings. He finished T3 at the recent Dubai Desert Classic, a finish that vaulted him into the top 20 in the Official World Golf Rating.
As a two-time major winner and former world #1, Germany’s Kaymer is no stranger to American golf. He might not quite be at the level he was in 2014 when he won both the Players Championship and the U.S. Open in a three-week span, but his experience still makes him a threat anywhere.
Kaymer made the European Ryder Cup team last October, but was abysmal, just barely avoiding a 0-4-0 record when Matt Kuchar imploded down the stretch of their Sunday singles match. Like Fitzpatrick and Hatton, this is Kaymer’s first event on American soil this season.
Kaymer may have been one of the big European duds at Hazeltine last October (along with Lee Westwood and Danny Willett), but the unquestioned star of the European Ryder Cup team was Ryder Cup rookie Pieters, who scored the most points for either team.
The 25-year old bomber from Belgium was also incredible at The Olympics, and finally broke through in an official PGA Tour stroke-play event with a T2 at last week’s Genesis Open – highlighted by a lights-out final round 63.
Poulter’s game has taken a sharp downward turn since 2013, but he remains one of the more popular players on Tour. The 41-year-old Englishman missed most of the second half of 2016 with an injury and has not had any notable finishes in four early-season events between October and November.
Poulter was the 54-hole leader at the 2015 Honda Classic, but a final round 4-over 74 dropped him into a tie for third. He finished T43 in last year’s edition.
Willett was on top of the world when he shot a final-round 67 at Augusta to win The Masters by three strokes. Since then, however, it has been largely a struggle for the 29-year-old, whose best PGA Tour finish since The Masters was a T37 at the U.S. Open. He was also a disaster at the Ryder Cup.
Willett did manage to finish second in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, however, mostly off the strength of his early season form. He, too, is making his 2017 American debut at The Honda Open – his first appearance at the event.
Additionally, the tournament field also includes several prominent European players who have played multiple events in the U.S. already this season, such as Paul Casey, Francesco Molinari, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, and two-time Honda winner Padraig Harrington.
Four-time major winner, 2016 FedEx Cup Champion, and 2012 Honda Classic Champion, Rory McIlroy, was originally set to play at PGA National, but was forced out by a rib injury (which is reportedly healing well).
2. Can Adam Scott Go Back-To-Back?
2016 was another banner year for Adam Scott. He chased a win at The Honda Classic with a victory the very next week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship (now the WGC-Mexico). He added two runner-up finishes and while he was mostly quiet midseason, Scott finished his season on a tear, posting top 10s in all four FedEx Cup playoff events, including 4th place in the first three.
At year’s end, the 36-year-old had 13 career victories – the most of any active player under-40. Scott’s resume includes a major victory (2013 Masters), a world #1 ranking, and is 6th in all-time career earnings – having netted over $45 million in his 17 years as a professional. If he decided tomorrow to quit golf, his career would be considered a rousing success.
Scott played at last week’s Genesis Open in L.A., where he finished with a solid 9-under-par – good for T11. It was Scott’s first PGA Tour event of the 2017 calendar year, and first U.S. event of the 2016-17 season. (His only two other starts this season came back in October at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, and the WGC-HSBC Champions in China.)
Looking to become the second player in history to successfully defend at the Honda (Jack Nicklaus did it in 1977-78 – then called the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic), Scott is hoping that his elite iron game will not let him down in Palm Beach Gardens.
Scott’s first appearance at PGA National (in 2010) could not have gone worse as he shot 77-82 (+19) in the first two rounds and missed the cut, but like he has consistently done in his career, he bounced back and in his two Honda appearances since – a T12 and last year’s W.
This is later in the year than Scott typically begins his regular PGA Tour season, but based on his solid play at Riviera, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be in contention at the Honda again.
3. What to Make of Rickie Fowler?
In last year’s Honda Classic, fan favorite Rickie Fowler started the tournament with matching 4-under 66s to take the 36-hole lead. After going bogey-free over those first two rounds, Fowler went hard in reverse on Saturday, not carding a single birdie to shoot a four-over 74. A final round 71 left him in a tie for 6th, which while disappointing in a vacuum, it was the fifth week in a five-tournament span where he had four top-8 finishes.
That tournament was something of a microcosm of Fowler’s career. On the biggest stages, he’s come close many times, but often ends up taking two steps back. In 2014, he finished in the top five of all four majors, but has been completely irrelevant in the majors since.
Now in 2017 he has eight full seasons under his belt, and the 28-year-old is still looking for major victory #1. He does have three career victories, including the 2015 Players Championship, but his legacy demands more. How he performs in these early season events could tell plenty about the state of his game, and whether he is mentally ready to take the next step.
Fowler is still frequently mentioned in the same breath as the brightest young stars in the game, but should he really be? And for how much longer?
4. Does Padraig Harrington Have a Shot at Honda Win #3?
It feels like it has been forever since Padraig Harrington, the 45-year-old from Ireland, was a winner on Tour, but it is easy to forget that he won The Honda Classic just two years ago, beating that season’s top rookie, Daniel Berger, in a playoff.
The win ended a seven-year victory drought that dated back to the 2008 PGA Championship. During that magical ’08 season, Harrington won the final two majors, and reached as high as #3 in the world rankings. Since then, he’s plummeted as far down as #371, but has now settled in the middle tier – ranked #150 going into last week’s Genesis Open.
Also the Honda winner in 2005 – in a playoff over Vijay Singh and Joe Ogilvie, Harrington is the only two-time event champion in the field. The familiarity should keep him confident, but he will need to dig deeper to capture Honda win #3. He was T43 in his title defense last year.
Harrington is coming off a season where he was tremendous around the greens, but abysmal off the tee.
Other Notables In The Field
Already with three wins on the season, Thomas marches into PGA National, his local course, in tremendous form. That combined with previous positive results at the Honda makes him one of the best bets in the field.
Last year, Thomas was the only man in the field to shoot under-par in all four rounds, going 69-69-68-69 to finish in a tie for third place.
The 2017 season has been something of a bounce-back season for Bradley, who has not been able to recapture the elite form he showed from 2011 to 2013. By his seventh event of the current season, he already had more top 10s (3) than he did in 26 events in the 2016 season (2).
Bradley has missed the Honda Classic cut the past two years, but has had some success at PGA National before, posting a T4 in 2013, and T12s in 2012 and 2014.
Oosthuizen, one of the biggest South African names in the field, has played the Honda three times previously, once missing the cut, and twice withdrawing after three rounds.
Simply getting to Sunday would be his best finish at PGA National, but after a recent third place finish at the Phoenix Open, Oosthuizen has his sights set higher.
Adam Scott’s fellow countryman, Leishman, had been amazingly consistent this season, finishing in the top 25 of all six events he had entered going into the Genesis Open. He looked well on his way to another high finish with a first round 67 at Riviera, but imploded both early and late in round 2, shooting a six-over 76 and missing the cut.
If Leishman can put his one poor round of the year aside, he should stand a good chance at PGA National.