PGA Tour best bets: Honda Classic

February 22, 2022 05:13 PM
USATSI_17499152

​Joaquin Niemann became just the fourth wire-to-wire winner at the Genesis Invitational and the first on the PGA Tour since 2020, when Nick Taylor pulled it off at Pebble Beach. Niemann's even-par round of 71 on Sunday was good enough to earn his second PGA Tour victory — and a third consecutive outright win for this column at 60-1 — by two strokes over Collin Morikawa and Cameron Young. Niemann led the field for Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Tee To Green and was second for Strokes Gained: Around The Green. The 23-year-old Chilean and former No. 1-ranked amateur looked like he was going to run away from the field but ranked dead last among 75 players for Strokes Gained: Putting (-3.77 strokes) on Sunday. However, he gained everywhere else to finish 19-under. Niemann will be part of this week's Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, at a price of 20-1.

The West Coast swing has ended and now the Florida swing begins. The Honda has a quality field but isn’t stacked with elite players, largely due to its spot in the schedule. It follows the Genesis Invitational, which featured each of the top-10 players in the world, and precedes the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship. Furthermore, some players will take this week off simply because PGA National is the most difficult non-major championship course on the PGA Tour, with an average score of + 1.38-over par. 

Sungjae Im, the 2020 Honda Classic champion, tops the market at 13-1. Daniel Berger (16-1) resides in Jupiter, about 15 minutes north of PGA National, and lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington in the 2015 Honda Classic. Brooks Koepka (20-1) is another Jupiter resident and was born in West Palm Beach, about 20 minutes south of PGA National. Koepka was runner-up here in 2019. Louis Oosthuizen (20-1) makes his second start of the season on U.S. soil, where he still seeks his first victory despite 14 worldwide wins including a major championship.

Billy Horschel (22-1) has two top-six finishes here, while Tommy Fleetwood (25-1) has a third (2020) and a fourth (2018) in two appearances. In addition to Fleetwood, Shane Lowry (30-1) and Alex Noren (33-1) are part of a strong European — and international — contingent that will tee it up this week to start their respective runs to the Masters, which is six weeks away. Matt Jones (50-1) is the defending champion after opening with a 61 to tie the course record. 

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, Florida, where Gleason had his retirement home on the course. “The Honeymooners” star served as the tournament’s host through 1980.

The tournament has been played at various venues around South Florida until moving to PGA National in 2007. Since moving to PGA National, the Honda Classic has been able to attract more top players on a more consistent basis. Multiple winners of the event include Jack Nicklaus (1977, 1978), Johnny Miller (1980, 1983), Mark Calcavecchia (1987, 1998) and Padraig Harrington (2005, 2015). A host of major champions have also emerged victorious including Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Adam 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 was originally designed in 1981 by Tom and George Fazio but has undergone several toughening renovations, most recently in 2018 by Jack Nicklaus. It is a 7,125-yard, par-70 layout with water in play on 15 of 18 holes and lots of testy bunkers and difficult rough. PGA National is susceptible to wind gusts that will push balls into trouble, namely the water. PGA National has had the most water balls of any course on the PGA Tour over the last three years. The water hazards also force players to lay up more often than not, so you will not see many drivers off the tee. 

The rough is not all that penal (2.25 inches), but the fairways are narrow at an average width of 29.4 feet (12th-narrowest on tour). The TifEagle Bermuda greens are contoured, elevated and large but only slightly above average for speed (12 stimpmeter). This track is the toughest on tour outside of major championships with an average score of 71.38 (+ 1.38). 

PGA National is best known for the “Bear Trap,” an arduous stretch (Nos. 15-16-17) that play as the fourth-most difficult three-hole stretch on tour, behind only Quail Hollow (16-17-18), Pebble Beach (8-9-10) and Muirfield Village (16-17-18).

Water looms throughout the “Bear Trap,” which includes two 175-yard par-3s and a tight dogleg par-4 playing just over 430 yards. It always makes for a climactic finish with chasers taking aggressive lines at these tight pin locations over water, while leaders do their best to stay dry and escape to the par-5 18th.

Potential correlated courses here include Bay Hill, Innisbrook (Copperhead), Waialae (short par-70 with multiple winners on both tracks), Concession (Nicklaus design), Quail Hollow (Fazio design) and Colonial (short par-70).

Recent History/Winners

— 2021: Matt Jones (-12/268); 70-1

— 2020: Sungjae Im (-6/274); 35-1

— 2019: Keith Mitchell (-9/271); 300-1

— 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); 400-1**

— 2014: Russell Henley (-8/272); 300-1***

— 2013: Michael Thompson (-9/271); 300-1

— 2012: Rory McIlroy (-12/268); 9-1

— 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 and Ryan Palmer***

Statistical Analysis

Strokes Gained: Approach (Last 24 Rounds)

Five of the last six winners at the Honda Classic have rated seventh or better for Strokes Gained: Approach during their winning weeks.

— Daniel Berger, 26.4

— Russell Knox, 22.9

— Hudson Swafford, 18.7

— Shane Lowry, 15.7

— Luke Donald, 14.2

— Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 13.9

— Mito Pereira, 13

— Martin Kaymer, 13

— Joaquin Niemann, 11.9

— Lucas Glover, 10.9

— Vaughn Taylor, 9.8

— Louis Oosthuizen, 9.8

— Aaron Rai, 9.5

Strokes Gained: Ball Striking (Last 24 Rounds)

Even with players not using driver off the tee as often this week, distance on the forced layups will still be somewhat important. Strokes Gained: Ball Striking takes into account Strokes Gained: Off The Tee plus Strokes Gained: Approach, and this allows us to model a stat which is even more crucial on a shorter par-70 layout.

— Daniel Berger, 31.6

— Russell Knox, 28.5 

— Sungjae Im, 24.2

— Hudson Swafford, 23.3

— Keith Mitchell, 22.3

— Cameron Young, 21.7

— Jhonattan Vegas, 21.3

— Ryan Armour, 18.3

— Joaquin Niemann, 17.4

— Hayden Buckley, 17.1

— Aaron Rai, 16.1

— Lucas Glover, 15.1

— Mito Pereira, 14.9

Strokes Gained: Par-4s (Last 24 Rounds)

On most par-70s including this one, 12 of the 18 holes are par-4s. 

— Cameron Young, 30.3

— Mackenzie Hughes, 23.7

— Denny McCarthy, 23.2

— Brian Harman, 23.1

— Sungjae Im, 20.2

— Erik Compton, 19.9

— Joaquin Niemann, 19.2

— Keith Mitchell, 19.1

— Brendon Todd, 17.3

— Daniel Berger, 16.1

— Taylor Moore, 16

— Mito Pereira, 15.6

— Satoshi Kodaira, 15.1

Bogey Avoidance (Last 24 Rounds)

Every player this week is going to make bogeys, especially on Nos. 5-7 and Nos. 15-17. The winning score here won’t be 20-under par but more likely in the single digits or low teens. 

— Michael Thompson, 22.2

— Keith Mitchell, 21.1

— Sungjae Im, 19.8

— Brian Harman, 18.1

— Denny McCarthy, 17.1

— Mark Hubbard, 16.2

— Russell Knox, 15.1

— Billy Horschel, 14.4

— Nick Taylor, 13.5

— Beau Hossler, 13.4

— Matthew NeSmith, 12.2

— Joaquin Niemann, 12.1

— Mackenzie Hughes, 11.3

Scrambling Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

Nine of the last 11 Honda Classic winners ranked in the top 10 for scrambling during their winning weeks. Three of those winners ranked first (Thomas, 2018; McIlroy, 2012; Sabbatini, 2011). Scrambling Gained will have some heavy overlap with Bogey Avoidance. 

— Michael Thompson, 13.2

— Mark Hubbard, 10.3

— Kevin Streelman, 9.8

— Keith Mitchell, 9.6

— Beau Hossler, 8.8

— Denny McCarthy, 8.7

— K.H. Lee, 8.2

— Mito Pereira, 7.9

— Robert Streb, 7.8

— Sungjae Im, 7.6

— Brian Harman, 7.6

— Mackenzie Hughes, 6.8

— Matthew NeSmith, 6.5

— Louis Oosthuizen, 6.5

Strokes Gained Total: Difficult Conditions (Last 24 Rounds)

The winning score has only reached double digits under par three times in the last 10  years here.

— Louis Oosthuizen, 54

— Patrick Reed, 42.7

— Aaron Wise, 40.7

— Daniel Berger, 40.7

— Kevin Streelman, 38.7

— Matthew Wolff, 36.2

— Brooks Koepka, 25.7

— Denny McCarthy, 24.3

— Patrick Rodgers, 22.4

— Ian Poulter, 21.8

— Shane Lowry, 21.6

— Joaquin Niemann, 21.1

— Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 20.8

Strokes Gained: Bermuda Putting (Last 24 Rounds)

With the West Coast swing behind us, the move to Florida means Bermuda grass on the greens.

— Christiaan Bezuidenhout, 22.7

— Brian Gay, 22.3

— Denny McCarthy, 18.9

— Billy Horschel, 18

— Harry Higgs, 17.9

— Brendon Todd, 16.1

— Sung Kang, 15.2

— Patrick Reed, 14.6

— Martin Trainer, 13.8

— Vaughn Taylor, 13.3

— Alex Noren, 11.6

— Erik Compton, 11.3

— Aaron Wise, 11.1

Selections

Billy Horschel (22-1)

“Bermuda Billy” got back in the winner’s circle twice in 2021 after a three-year winless stretch. Horschel has won seven times on the main tours (six, PGA; one, DP World). Six of those victories came off of a top-11 finish in his previous start, and he finished sixth last time out at the Phoenix Open. He also finished second last year at Concession, which is a correlated course to PGA National. Last summer, Horschel began teaming with caddie Mark “Fooch” Fulcher, who spent many years with Justin Rose and most recently with Francesco Molinari. “Fooch” was on the bag for Rose's high finishes at the Honda, including a third in 2010, fifth in 2012 and fourth in 2013. 

Keith Mitchell (35-1)

Mitchell held off Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler to win here three years ago as a 300-1 shot. Mixed in with that victory are a 53rd-place finish and two missed cuts. However, he has shown some consistency of late, making seven of eight cuts dating back to his third at the CJ Cup. Mitchell has finished in the top 12 in four of his last five starts including a seventh at the Sony Open, which has proven to have crossover success at the Honda. Four players have won both events: Justin Thomas, Russell Henley, Mark Wilson and Ernie Els. Mitchell ranks near the top in this field for Strokes Gained: Ball Striking, Strokes Gained: Par-4s, Bogey Avoidance and Scrambling Gained. 

Jhonattan Vegas (50-1)

​Johnny Vegas came close to getting back in the winner's circle on three occasions last year but settled for runner-ups all three times. Vegas, who hasn’t won since 2017, finished a nondescript 55th last week at the Genesis Invitational but ranked 14th for Strokes Gained: Approach and 20th for Strokes Gained: Tee To Green. Vegas has a fourth-place finish here in 2017 and has made the cut each of the last five years. The Venezuelan has an affinity for Nicklaus designs, having won twice at Glen Abbey and once at PGA West. 

Denny McCarthy (55-1)

McCarthy has finished in the top 15 in five of his last seven PGA Tour starts dating back to Bermuda in November. He finished third here last year, which is his best-ever finish on the PGA Tour. McCarthy is an average ball-striker but has one of the best short games on tour (third in the field in Strokes Gained: Bermuda Putting, fifth in Bogey Avoidance, sixth in Scrambling Gained over the last 24 rounds). 

Christiaan Bezuidenhout (60-1)

Bezuidenhout is one of the game’s best putters and ranks first in this field for Strokes Gained: Bermuda Putting over the last 24 rounds. However, his irons have been strong lately, and he ranks sixth for Strokes Gained: Approach over the last 24 rounds. Having just gained full-time PGA Tour status in late 2021, the South African has limited experience in Florida. But he has posted solid finishes twice before at Bay Hill (seventh, 2021; 18th, 2020). He also shot four rounds in the 60s at the Sony Open in January to finish 17th.

Russell Knox (70-1)

It has been a minute since Knox contended in consecutive years at the Honda with finishes of second (2014) and third (2015). He has missed the cut here in four of his last five appearances. Perhaps the best bet to be made on Knox is for him to finish 33rd because that’s what he has done for three consecutive weeks. However, he ranks second in this field for Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Ball Striking over the last 24 rounds. 

Adam Svensson (125-1)

Svensson is back for his second season on the PGA Tour after dropping down to the Korn Ferry Tour, where he won twice last season. The Canadian played his collegiate golf at Barry University in Miami and now resides in Palm Beach Gardens, so he’s very familiar with this course despite playing this event only once. He finished seventh at the Sony Open earlier this season.

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