Best bets for PGA Tour's Honda Classic

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Justin Thomas shot 12 under par over the weekend and gained 11.18 strokes tee to green to win the Players Championship at 22-1 for this column last week. His ball-striking made up for some shaky putting Sunday, when Thomas lost two strokes on the greens. Thomas is not in this week’s Honda Classic field, but last week’s runner-up, Lee Westwood (20-1), has finished second two weeks in a row, and the 47-year-old veteran is ranked in the Official World Golf Ranking top 20 for the first time since 2013 at No. 19. Daniel Berger (10-1), a winner this season at Pebble Beach and T-9 last week, is the top-ranked player in this field at No. 15. He is followed in the market by last year’s Honda Classic champion, Sungjae Im (12-1). Joaquin Niemann (20-1) is trying to rediscover his form from January, when he had back-to-back runners-up in Hawaii. Adam Scott (25-1) won here in 2016, and Russell Henley (30-1) did so in 2014. Shane Lowry (30-1) finished eighth at the Players, his best finish since last summer in Memphis. The struggles of Rickie Fowler (50-1) have been well documented, and he is trying to claw back into the OWGR top 50 to qualify for the Masters. He has had success here at PGA National with a victory in 2017 and a runner-up in 2019. This has the potential to be a wide-open event considering none of the OWGR top 14 players are here because this tournament is sandwiched between the Players Championship and the WGC-Dell Match Play. 
 
The Event
 
The Honda Classic was founded in 1972 as Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic and was played at the Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla. Gleason’s retirement home was on the course. The star of “The Honeymooners” was tournament host through 1980. The event was played at various venues around South Florida until moving to its current home at PGA National Resort and Spa in 2007. Since then the Honda Classic has been able to attract more top players on a more consistent basis. IMG has organized the event since 2013, and the tournament’s main charitable beneficiary is the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, chaired by Jack Nicklaus’ wife Barbara. Multiple winners of the event include Nicklaus (1977, ’78), Johnny Miller (1980, ’83), Mark Calcavecchia (1987, ’98) and Padraig Harrington (2005, ’15). A host of major champions have won this event, including Rory McIlroy, Thomas, Scott, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Mark O’Meara, Nick Price, Fred Couples, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Larry Nelson and Lee Trevino.
 
 
The Course
 
The Champions Course at PGA National Resort and Spa was designed by Tom and George Fazio in 1981 but has undergone several toughening renovations, most recently in 2018 by Nicklaus. It is a 7,125-yard, par-70 with water in play on 15 holes and plenty of tough bunkers and difficult rough. The TifEagle Bermuda greens are contoured, elevated, large and fast (11.5 Stimpmeter). This track is one of the toughest tests on the tour outside of major championships. The average winning score the last 13 years has been slightly higher than 9 under par. The winner has broken into double-digit under-par scores only three times.
 
Here is the difficulty rank for PGA National in recent years:
 
 
Year Scoring Average Difficulty Rank on PGA Tour
2020 71.90 (+ 1.90) Third
2019 71.02 (+ 1.02) Fifth
2018 72.30 (+ 2.30) Second
2017 70.56 (+ 0.56) 16th
2016 71.77 (+ 1.77) Fifth
2015 71.83 (+ 1.83) Fourth
 
 
PGA National is most notable for what is known as the “Bear Trap” from the 15th through the 17th, arguably the most difficult three-hole stretch on the PGA Tour.
 
Honda Classic Recent Winners
 
2020: Sungjae Im (-6/274), 35-1
2019: Keith Mitchell (-9/271), 225-1
2018: Justin Thomas (-8/272), 12-1*
2017: Rickie Fowler (-12/268), 16-1
2016: Adam Scott (-9/271), 20-1
2015: Padraig Harrington (-6/274), 300-1**
2014: Russell Henley (-8/272), 200-1***
2013: Michael Thompson (-9/271), 300-1
2012: Rory McIlroy (-12/268), 8-1
2011: Rory Sabbatini (-9/271), 80-1
2010: Camilo Villegas (-13/267), 30-1
 
* - playoff win over Luke List
** - playoff win over Daniel Berger
** - playoff win over Rory McIlroy, Russell Knox, Ryan Palmer
 
Stats
 
Strokes Gained Approach (last 24 rounds)
1. Russell Henley 22.1
2. Keegan Bradley 21.9
3. Chez Reavie 18.5
4. Matthew NeSmith 18.3
5. Wesley Bryan 18.1
6. Henrik Norlander 17.0 
7. Cameron Tringale 16.3
8. Rob Oppenheim 15.9
9. Martin Kaymer 14.9
10. Scott Stallings 14.7
Four of the last five winners have ranked seventh or better in this category during their winning weeks here. 
 
Strokes Gained Ball Striking (last 24 rounds)
1. Keegan Bradley 28.8
2. Henrik Norlander 25.4
3. Ryan Moore 24.3
4. Daniel Berger 24.2
5. Matthew NeSmith 24
6. Cameron Tringale 23.6
7. Cameron Davis 22.7
8. Russell Henley 20.4
9. Joaquin Niemann 19.7
10. Chez Reavie 18
Greens In Regulation
1. Matthew NeSmith 74.87%
2. Jim Furyk 73.96%
3. Stewart Cink 73.54%
4. Cameron Percy 73.36%
5. Aaron Wise 72.71%
6. Russell Knox 71.99%
7. Joaquin Niemann 71.97%
8. Russell Henley 71.93%
9. Henrik Norlander 71.57%
10. James Hahn 71.56%
More approach shots of 175-200 yards have been taken at PGA National than at any other course on the PGA Tour in the last five seasons. Here is a look at Proximity to the Hole from 175-200 yards over the last 24 rounds:
1. Sepp Straka
2. Martin Kaymer
3. Tyler Duncan
4. Ryan Moore
5. Byeong Hun An
6. Keegan Bradley
7. Richy Werenski
8. Chez Reavie
9. Pat Perez
10. Lucas Glover
Scrambling Gained (last 24 rounds)
1. Ian Poulter 14.8
2. Jim Furyk 10.1
3. Nick Taylor 9.5
4. Bo Hoag 9.4
5. Mackenzie Hughes 9.3
6. Dylan Frittelli 9.3
7. Wyndham Clark 8.5
8. Brian Gay 7.7
9. Shane Lowry 7.7
10. Henrik Stenson 7.4
 
Selections
 
Joaquin Niemann 20-1
 
While Niemann has not kept his form from Hawaii earlier this season, where he shot a combined 45 under in back-to-back runner-up finishes, he is still playing good golf. He leads this week’s field in Scoring Average, Birdie Average and Strokes Gained: Total and is second in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee. 
 
Niemann has an excellent recent history on par-70s, having finished fifth in 2018 and first in 2020 at Old White TPC, second at Waialae in 2021, eighth at Colonial in 2018, fifth at TPC River Highlands in 2019 and third at Olympia Fields in the 2020 BMW Championship.
 
The GIR and ball-striking stats have remained solid, but the putting can come and go. However, he seems to like these TifEagle Bermuda greens, with a fifth and a second the last two years at Waialae and a third last season at the RBC Heritage. 
 
Cameron Tringale 40-1
 
Tringale rates in the top 10 for this week’s field in SG: Approach, SG: Ball Striking and SG: Total. 
 
He has posted six top-30 finishes in his last nine starts back to November in Houston. 
 
Ian Poulter 73-1
 
Poulter fell out of the OWGR top 64 last weekend and is hanging on to a spot in next week’s Match Play. As one of the most consistent match players in the world, he definitely wants to be in that field. 
 
He has been a bit out of form lately, but this is the type of course where he can flourish due to his superior scrambling skills. No one has been better in this category of late. 
 
Kyoung-Hoon Lee 75-1
 
Lee has two top-10 finishes in three appearances here. He also had a close call at Phoenix this year, finishing runner-up to Brooks Koepka. 
 
He was third last week at the Players in SG: Off The Tee. 
 
Matthew NeSmith 100-1
 
Like Lee, NeSmith was right in the mix at Phoenix before finishing seventh.
 
He has missed the last two cuts, but his ball-striking and approach games have continued to flourish. NeSmith leads the PGA Tour for Greens In Regulation and ranks in the top 5 in this field for SG: Approach and SG: Ball Striking. 
 
Chez Reavie 125-1
 
Reavie is in poor form, having missed four of his last six cuts, and he has not played this event since 2013. 
 
Nevertheless, he ranks highly in SG: Approach, SG: Ball Striking and Proximity from 175-200. He’s worth a stab at a big price. 
 
Bo Hoag 150-1
 
Hoag missed the cut at the Players, but before having to slam the trunk Friday, he rated second in the field for SG: Off The Tee and eighth in Driving Accuracy. 
 
He has a long history with course redesigner Nicklaus. Hoag’s late grandfather Robert was a close friend of Nicklaus’ and was highly involved with the construction of Muirfield Village. Robert Hoag also served as the club chairman there for many years. 
 
Kenya Open
 
Antoine Rozner made a 60-foot putt on the 72nd hole Sunday to win the Qatar Masters and notch a 25-1 winner for this column. Rozner has two wins in his last six European Tour starts dating to December’s victory at the Golf in Dubai Championship. Last weekend’s triumph also moved Rozner into the OWGR top 64 and gained him a spot in the WGC-Dell Match Play next weekend. This week the European Tour moves to Kenya for the Magical Kenya Open. American Kurt Kitayama (18-1) was ninth last week in Qatar. Italian Guido Migliozzi won this event two years ago and shares a 25-1 tag with Kalle Samooja, who finished sixth here two years ago, and Austrian Matthias Schwab. South African George Coetzee (28-1), Welshman Jamie Donaldson (fifth last week) and Englishmen Chris Paisley (seventh last week) and Aaron Rai, all at 30-1, follow in this week’s betting market. 
 
The Event
 
In 2019, the Kenya Open returned to the European Tour for the first time since 1990. From 1991-2018, this event was part of the European Challenge Tour. This tournament has been won by big names, such as Seve Ballesteros in 1978 and Ian Woosnam in 1986. Last year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19. 
 
The Course
The Karen Country Club, designed by Remy Martin in 1937, in Nairobi plays host this week. The tight parklands track plays at a par-71 of only 6,920 yards. It is also played at altitude, where the ball flies about 7% farther than at sea level, so it will feel like about a 6,500-yard layout. The greens are Bentgrass and are fairly fast at 12.5 on the Stimpmeter. While the course is not long, the greens are small and it is heavily tree-lined.
 
Recent History/Winners
2019: Guido Migliozzi (-16/268)
2018: Lorenzo Gagli (-11/273)
2017: Aaron Rai (-17/267)
2016: Sebastian Soderberg (-18/266)
2015: Haydn Porteous (-17/267)
2014: Jake Roos (-10/274)
2013: Jordi Garcia Pinto (-12/272)
 
Selections
 
Garrick Higgo 43-1
 
Higgo finished fifth here in 2019 at the Karen Masters on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. 
 
He was better than his 19th in Qatar last week but shot 77 in the windy conditions Sunday. 
 
Louis De Jager 60-1
 
He finished T-2 here in 2019 and ranked in the top 25 for all Strokes Gained categories, so the South African has shown a complete game here. 
 
Will Besseling 60-1
 
The Dutchman made his 2021 debut last weekend in Qatar and made the cut. Although there’s not much recent form to go on, he led the European Tour for Greens In Regulation and was second for SG: Off The Tee, which can be highly beneficial on a course that will play shorter due to the altitude. 
 
Gaganjeet Bhullar 75-1
 
Bhullar was T-2 last week in Qatar and fifth here in 2019 for the last Magical Kenya Open. 
 
Last week he was second in SG: Around The Green, ninth in SG: Putting, 10th in SG: Tee To Green and 15th in SG: Approach. 
 
Ondrej Lieser 120-1
 
The Czech product has won four of his last 27 starts combined on the Pro Golf and Challenge tours. A step up in class here, for sure, but recall that Migliozzi was unproven here two years ago after graduating from the Alps Tour.
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