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PGA Tour Course Preview: Honda Classic

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Honda Classic: Course Insight

The PGA Tour lands in the Sunshine State this week for the 45th playing of the Honda Classic, marking the 11th time this event will be held at PGA National. Five of the top-15 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are in the field, including defending champion Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia, and Rickie Fowler.

Since the tournament moved to PGA National in 2007, no Honda champion has finished in the top-20 the following year, and half of them didn’t even make the cut. Seven of the last 10 winners have been international players.

Jack Nicklaus renovated the 7,140 yard, par-70 Champion Course in 1990, with two smaller revamps in 2012 and  2014, making it one of the most torturous and taunting courses players see all year.

Seventy-eight bunkers are stationed around the greens and near the landing zones of tight Bermuda fairways, where the rough is relentless. Twenty-six water hazards come into play on 17 holes to inflict heaps of pain. The greens are not end-of-the-world devilish, but these firm, fast, undulating surfaces will still claim their fair share of victims. Some are quite large, putting a premium on lag putting.

Last season Honda was the second most difficult non-major course on Tour, playing 1.768 strokes over par, and a big reason it’s been so unkind is the fiendish, 803-yard endurance trial known as the “Bear Trap.” This infamous three-hole stretch on Nos. 15, 16, and 17 can crush any player’s game into submission.

The Bear Trap has played at a collective 3.44 strokes over par since 2007, and more than 75% of all players who’ve challenged this punishing trifecta of holes have hit into the water. Last year it accounted for nearly 30% of all double-bogeys on the course.

When players reach the 15th tee, they’re greeted by a menacing bear statue and often require a tourniquet to escape. Nickluas once sternly stated, “It should be won or lost right here” and it usually is.

The par-3, 179-yard 15th hole features a narrow, peanut-shaped green that slopes down, and right to left. It’s protected by a large pot bunker in the back-left, and water bordering the front, right, and back. Pumping winds can make the hole seem like a funhouse mirror, playing tricks on player’s minds. When pins are tucked in the right corner, shots off the tee will need to start right and directly over water to hold the prevailing winds.

The Golden Bear designed the 15th hole to wreak havoc on players who don’t take aggressive swings here, and to reward players who suck it up with quality ball striking. Rory McIlroy probably summed it up best a few years ago when he said, “it’s a scary shot, just brutal.”

view from No. 15 behind the bunker 

The dogleg right par-4, 434-yard 16th hole is all about hitting the fairway. Tee shots swallowed up by lengthy fairway bunkers on both sides will make approach shots over water and directly into the wind extremely awkward. Players would be advised to use a long iron or wood off the tee. A clean second shot into the slightly elevated, two-tier green should take the water and bunker that runs about three-quarters of the length of the putting surface out of play.

The par-3, 190-yard 17th hole features an elevated tee shot over water and into a very small, diagonal-green, with prevailing winds blowing left to right. Water borders the entire front and right side of the green, with a deep bunker in position to collect errant shots fired back-left. Finding this bunker will leave players with a tricky up-and-down as the green slopes back towards the water.

Taking the dubious honor of the most difficult hole last year was the dogleg left par-4, 465-yard 14th hole. It surrendered only 25 birdies and dished out a crippling 183 bogeys or worse. The fairway narrows inauspiciously where most tee shots will land, and is strongly bunkered along the left side.

In 2014, when Nicklaus redesigned No. 14, relocating the green 17 yards closer to the water that also runs alongside the entire right fairway, he said, “I honestly believe it will be more exciting, but I don’t think it will be any more difficult.” Perhaps this was just Jack’s way of letting the players know they can also relax after their round by having a root canal.

Players to Watch

The players best equipped to tame PGA National are the ones who can stay dry, and avoid the punitive rough. Fairways-Hit and Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green should be two of the most decisive stats in determining a winner.

Justin Thomas finished T-3 here last year, and he’s ranked fourth on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. If there’s an Achilles to his game right now it’s Fairways-Hit, checking in at a slender 55.43%. But I’d look for JT to rebound from his T-39 finish at the Genesis Open, and add another top-10 finish to his already phenomenal season.

Adam Scott put forth a solid performance in his 2017 Tour debut at Genesis, and there’s really nothing to suggest he shouldn’t perform well again this week defending his title. However, I don’t think it’s a fluke that defending champions fail to make the cut half of the time here since 2007, and while I expect Scott to be around on Sunday, I don’t think he’s going to be a factor.

Winner Prediction

Sergio Garcia has finished in the top-10 at Honda in two of his last three appearances. In his solo second place finish last year he ranked first in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green last year. Last week at the Genesis Open, the Spaniard had some putting issues, but seemed to find the rest of his game. Garcia was extremely accurate off the tee and hit greens at an impressive clip. It should all come together for Sergio this week.

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