Angled greens, savage winds, and devastating bodies of water greet the best players in the world this week as the PGA Tour heads east for The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa. Rickie Fowler returns to defend his title against a strong field that includes FedEx Cup champions Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, and Masters champion Sergio Garcia – making his first start of the 2018 season.
Quality ball striking will be key to success for the eventual champion. The Champion Course is known for penal rough, demanding par-4s, and one of the toughest closing stretches in all of golf. Hole 15 to 17, collectively known as “the Bear Trap,” will take center stage again this week, and for good reason.
Looking at the scorecard, none of the yardages jump out as difficult: the 15th is a 179-yard par-3; the 16th is a 434-yard par-4; the 17th is a 190-yard par-3. Looks, however, can be deceiving. More than 75-percent of the players who’ve challenged the Jack Nicklaus designed Bear Trap since 2007 have hit at least one ball in the water. Honda Classic fields during this same time have been more than 2.5 strokes over par collectively on the Bear Trap. Water ball donations, re-teeing, and big numbers are inevitable.
Rounds can get away from players quickly, even before they reach the Bear Trap. The 217-yard par-3 fifth, the 479-yard par-4 sixth, and the 226-yard par-3 seventh make up the Tour’s fourth-hardest three-hole stretch over the past 10 years. There’s simply no room to rest or play defensive anywhere on this par-70, 7,110-yard track.
The start of the Bear Trap is a short par-3, but winds make this 179-yard 15th hole very tricky. Players need to hit their shots over water and into a diagonal green that runs left to right. The hole usually plays with winds coming in from the water, which brings the large bunker on the left into play. Getting up and down from this bunker is extremely difficult due to the green sloping away from the bunker and back towards the water. There’s simply no bailout anywhere on No. 15, and any tee shot that doesn’t hit the green is courting disaster.
The superb 556-yard closing hole is a double dogleg par-5 with ample opportunity to reach in two. There are bunkers off the tee that pinch both sides of the fairway, and second or third shots have to carry water to reach the green. Conservative players will use a mid to long iron for their second shots to leave a very manageable 100-yard pitch to the green. The putting surface is perched out hanging over the lake and protected by four bunkers on every side. Back-right is the toughest pin position.
Caddy+ view from No. 18 at PGA National
Water on the left side from tee to green makes the 479-yard, par-4 No. 6 a tough birdie hole and can knock a player’s confidence early. Off the tee there’s room to bail out on the right, however, a series of bunkers on that side will gobble up errant drives. Players who miss the fairway will find it very difficult to hit the green on approach. A three-level green will result in more three-putts than any other hole if second shots are sloppy, and there are subtle challenges to pitching around the green, particularly when pin positions are in the back-left.
Players to Watch
In two starts this season Tiger Woods has been both brilliant and forgettable. It’s been a roller coaster of birdies followed by double-bogeys. Until Woods figures out how to keep his drives in the fairway, he’s going to struggle making cuts. Clunkers with his irons will be punished more at PGA National than it was in his previous two starts this season, and it won’t be nearly as easy to get up and down. Playing tournament rounds is the only way Woods will be competitive again, and we all hope that happens before The Masters. It just won’t be this week. Tiger to miss his second consecutive cut.
Rory McIlroy looks like he’s fully recovered from his year-long rib injury and he has good memories of the Honda Classic. Rory reached World No.1 for the first time when he won here in 2012 and followed that up with a near-miss playoff loss in 2014. McIlroy should also benefit this week from putting on familiar Bermuda greens as opposed to the trickier poa annua surfaces in recent weeks. A few wayward drives and bunkered approach shots are all it takes to slide down the leaderboard at Honda in a hurry, and McIlroy needs to sharper a few areas of his game before he finds himself in contention again. Look for McIlroy to finish outside the top-25.
Rickie Fowler looks different to me this year than any year previously I’ve seen him play. Fowler’s still hitting fairways and greens at a good clip, and his putting has been rock solid. Rickie’s also ranked 11th on Tour in Sand Save Percentage – another key stat this week considering PGA National has almost 80 bunkers spread throughout. What’s different about Fowler, however, is his demeanor. Rickie hasn’t won in three starts so far this season, but in each event, he looked like he expects to be great. Not merely believing he can be, but legitimately expecting to be. A victory this week would make Fowler the second back-to-back winner in Honda history alongside Nicklaus, and if he can successfully defend I think that’s also going to translate to a green jacket in two months.