The PGA Tour moves on to the Honda Classic this week following the win at the Genesis from Jon Rahm on Sunday. The Spaniard has reclaimed the top spot in the World Rankings but isn’t in the field at the PGA National’s Champions Course. As always our man Jamie Worsley is here with his in-depth preview and betting selections ahead of the tournament…
Honda Classic 2023 Tips
- Sepp Straka – 1/5 8 places – 1.25 pts ew – 45/1
- Ben Griffin – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew – 50/1
- Robby Shelton – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew – 50/1
- Dylan Frittelli – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew – 100/1
- Andrew Novak – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew – 150/1
- Ryan Moore – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew – 200/1
Yesterday, The Riviera Country Club once again proved why it is the perfect way to sign off the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing, giving us a thrilling final round of the Genesis Invitational.
Jon Rahm – already two victories to his name in 2023 – entered the final round with a three shot advantage and finished with a final round 69, seeing him win by two shots. Though it was nowhere near as comfortable as it seems.
Max Homa – someone also off to a strong start in 2023 thanks to victory in the Farmers Insurance Open – was the man closest to him at the start of the day and showed why his reputation continues to grow; putting it to Rahm from the off and following a two-shot swing on the 10th, had drawn level with the Spaniard.
From one and two shots further back, Keith Mitchell and Patrick Cantlay also made their moves; Rahm looked to be seriously on the ropes. This carried over into a bogey on the 12th, that saw Rahm trail Homa by a stroke, though Homa duly allowed Rahm back in, bogeying his next hole to put them level once again. Though the next hole provided the pivotal moment.
All three of the final group missed the 14th green, however, Rahm holed a monster 46ft putt from just off the green to retake the outright lead; doubling his advantage just two holes later on the 16th, after hitting a superb approach to around 3ft. With his nearest challengers now running on empty, he was able to cruise home and pick up his third PGA Tour title of the year – one that took Rahm back to the top of the world rankings.
A brilliant week that also saw a hugely encouraging return to action from Tiger and really whets the appetite with majors drawing ever nearer.
The PGA Tour now heads east to Florida for the East Coast swing, which doesn’t just mean some of the toughest and most recognisable tests on tour but also much more appropriate viewing times for those on this side of the pond! Starting with the Honda Classic at PGA National’s Champions Course.
Tom Weiskopf won the first staging of the Honda Classic (then called the Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic) in 1972; beating Jack Nicklaus by one stroke.
The tournament has taken place every year since (excluding 1976); though has only been played here at PGA National since 2007.
Justin Leonard holds the tournament record, shooting -24 in 2003; however, that was at the Country Club at Mirasol, with the record score since this switch to PGA National standing at a much more demanding -13; shot by Camillo Villegas in 2013.
Nobody has won this event more than twice; Jack Nicklaus, Jonny Miller, Mark Calcavecchia and Padraig Harrington sharing the record for most wins with two. Other star names to pick up this trophy including Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Lee Trevino.
History was made in last year’s event, as Sepp Straka took home the title in a typically chaotic and drama-filled final round; becoming the first Austrian to win on the PGA Tour in the process.
He returns to defend this year and stands every chance of adding his name to the double winning players, with the ever-worsening field strength of this one time prestigious event once again on show. Done no help by being ignored when the PGA Tour announced their elevated events (a series of heightened tournaments which will see increased prize funds and field strengths) for the next few years.
However with that comes opportunity, and with few big names in attendance this week it leaves the door wide open for a less renowned player to achieve what Straka did last year.
PGA National’s Champions Course is a 7125 yard par 70 (12x par 4s, 4x par 3s & 2x par 5s), originally designed by Tom and George Fazio. However, it has been redesigned multiple times by Jack Nicklaus over the last twenty years and it is now very much his design, with the brutally difficult 15th-17th holes named the “Bear Trap” after one of the game’s most decorated players.
There have been further renovations since last year’s renewals, with changes particularly made to bunkering. They have been removed on holes 13 and 16; whilst have been made fewer on holes 17 and 18.
This course is one of the most challenging on the PGA Tour. Since the Honda Classic made the switch here to PGA National in 2007, it has seen an average winning score of -8.94, with the winning score reaching double digits under-par on just five occasions out of sixteen.
Importance is placed on every part of your game. Fairways are about average width, with rough aside them not too punishing. However, such is the difficulty of these large, elevated bermudagrass greens, you really need to be playing from the fairways.
Said greens are built to repel errant approach shots. They’re undulating and firm, with run-off areas surrounding most surfaces; possessing the 6th lowest GIR percentage of any course on tour.
This is less than ideal for those who aren’t hitting the ball well, as PGA National provides a severe test on and around the greens. The greens rank as the 3rd most difficult on tour, whilst scrambling percentages are the 4th lowest. With a course that ranks as the 3rd most difficult to putt on, 4th most difficult to scramble around and the 6th most challenging on which to hit greens, it’s of little surprise how high scoring is.
This is without considering two other major challenges: wind and water. Situated on the Atlantic coast, this largely exposed course is at the mercy of whatever weather arrives from across the Atlantic, whilst there is water in-play on no fewer than thirteen holes. Most intimidatingly down the dramatic closing stretch.
The famous “Bear Trap” consists of two par 3s (15th & 17th), where water is both short and right; a bunker at the back of 15 waiting to collect the shot of anyone who understandably goes long.
The par 4 16th requires a tee-shot into a fairway with water protecting both sides and an approach into a large, tricky green, where more water protects the front.
We finish with the exciting par 5 18th hole. A hole which is protected entirely up the right hand side by water. An eagle chance for some but terrifying card wrecker for others, especially when in the heat of battle on a Sunday, where pressure is at its highest. A fitting finish to what is typically an exciting event.
Without wanting to state the obvious, on a course as tough as this, you have to be on the ball in all areas, otherwise you’re likely to get found out.
With the challenge awaiting on and around these greens, a strong short-game is definitely a must; whilst iron play is another necessity into these tricky putting surfaces; though the driver was less important in the four years before last year – where the top two ranked 1st and 3rd off-the-tee – players have rarely been able to get away with a poor driving display at PGA National.
Sepp Straka showed that all-round quality last year, ranking no worse than 31st in any strokes-gained area. He was at his best with the driver, ranking 1st OTT, complimenting that by hitting more greens than anyone, scrambling better than anyone and ranking 4th on the greens. Shane Lowry chased him home thanks to a quality ball-striking display, ranking 2nd in approach and 3rd OTT, in addition to being top 20 in scrambling and putting. All of the top 4 ranked top 8 in GIR, top 20 in approach, top 27 on the greens and top 30 in scrambling.
Matt Jones won in 2021 and like Straka, fired in all areas. The standout area of his game was around the greens, where he ranked 2nd and was top 10 both in approach and OTT. Brandon Hagy was 2nd thanks to a strong driving display, ranking 3rd and a good putting display, ranking 13th. Four of the five players tied for 3rd ranked top 8 in putting.
2020 saw Sungjae Im win here on the PGA Tour for the first time thanks to excellence in approach and around-the-greens, where he ranked 5th in both; complimenting this with a quality driving display, ranking 11th. Mackenzie Hughes was 2nd and was all about the short-game, ranking 1st around-the-greens and 9th on them; whilst Tommy Fleetwood’s 3rd place finish was predominantly down to a top 5 driving display but he was solid across the board, ranking no worse than 21st in any strokes-gained area.
Keith Mitchell won his maiden PGA Tour title at PGA National in 2019, playing excellently tee-to-green; ranking 6th around-the-greens, 7th in approach and 14th OTT. Brooks Koepka was 2nd there thanks to quality in scrambling and approach, ranking 3rd and 5th respectively; Rickie Fowler also runner-up and solid in all areas, particularly with the short-game, ranking 7th around-the-greens, 10th in scrambling and 18th in putting. Everyone who finished top 5 ranked top 20 in GIR, top 25 in approach and just one player ranked worse than 11th in scrambling.
Key Stats: SG: Putting (Bermuda), SG: Around-the-Greens, Scrambling, SG: Approach, Greens-in-Regulation
Secondary Stats: SG: Off-the-Tee, Par 4 Scoring
Correlating Events (Course)
Memorial Tournament (Muirfield Village)
Muirfield Village is another challenging Jack Nicklaus design. It is the toughest scrambling course on tour, whilst also ranking very closely in GIR percentage and driving difficulty.
Ernie Els has won both events; Rory Sabbatini, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler have won the Honda and finished 2nd at Muirfield Village; Sergio Garcia and Ryan Palmer have finished 2nd at both.
Gary Woodland has multiple top 5s at both, Byeong An compliments two top 5s here with a 2nd in the Memorial and Chase Seiffert has hit the top 5 in the two events.
Wells Fargo Championship (Quail Hollow)
Quail Hollow is another of the toughest courses on tour. Despite asking more questions off-the-tee, it ranks closely to PGA National across every other area, from difficulty in scrambling to how tough greens are to find when missing fairways; whilst also using bermudagrass greens.
Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have won both events, Sergio has been 2nd at both and Gary Woodland again has multiple top 5s here.
Keith Mitchell has finished 3rd and 8th at Quail Hollow, Lucas Glover has a win there to match a good record here and Luke List has multiple top 10s to go with a runner-up finish in the Honda.
PLAYERS Championship (TPC Sawgrass)
THE PLAYERS Championship is another Floridian event played on bermudagrass and ranks comparably to the Honda Classic in terms of short-game difficulty in particular, whilst also possessing a similar driving accuracy percentage.
Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler have won at both venues; Padraig Harrington has won here before and finished 2nd twice at Sawgrass, Sergio Garcia is a winner there and Luke Donald has finished 2nd in both.
Additional form-ties found from Jhonny Vegas, Lucas Glover, Tommy Fleetwood and Daniel Berger; all with top 10s across both events.
Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill)
A challenging course in Florida on bermudagrass, the Arnold Palmer ticks plenty of boxes. Add in the fact it’s a similar driving course, where greens are hard to hit and ranks closely to PGA National in short-game challenges; it starts to make even more appeal.
Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els have won both events, Sungjae Im has twice finished 3rd there and Keith Mitchell has two top 6s. Tommy Fleetwood, Luke List and Gary Woodland amongst those with more correlating form.
Weather is set to be dry and warm throughout the week, with nothing more than a moderate breeze forecast in terms of wind.
Sungjae Im is the highest ranked player in the field at #18, joined by Shane Lowry and Billy Horschel from inside the world’s top 20. Sepp Straka returns to defend, one of a further four from inside the top 50, which includes Australia’s Min Woo Lee; whilst Adrian Meronk stays on for another week.
Two-time winner Padraig Harrington makes his first start on the PGA Tour this year, and at the opposite end of the experience spectrum we have Pierceson Coody – a former world #1 amateur who has already won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour since turning pro last year – making his PGA Tour debut as a professional.
Sungjae Im tops the betting at 9/1, followed by Shane Lowry at 14/1; then the trio of Alex Noren, Denny McCarthy and Min Woo Lee at 22/1. Players like Matt Kuchar, Aaron Wise and Chris Kirk coming next.
I think there are two ways to play it with this sort of field: you can go heavy on someone at the top, in the hope they have enough to take it to this weak field or alternatively, you can try your luck and see this as the perfect chance for those lower down the betting to make their mark.
On a course that can be so unpredictable, where big scores are easily racked up in bunches by anyone, my approach will be the latter and I’m going to kick off this week with last year’s champion Sepp Straka.
Sepp Straka – 1/5 8 places – 1.25 pts ew
Straka’s win here last year was not a bolt out of the blue, as he’d threatened plenty during his previous years on tour and had made a strong start to the season, finishing 15th in the Genesis Invitational just the week before.
His form tailed off following that win, though he burst back into life with a superb runner-up finish in the St Jude Championship and not content with that close call, he then finished 2nd in the Sanderson Farms Championship on his first start of the new season. However in typical Straka fashion, he found his form going missing again, though there were some positive signs last week.
After finishing 21st in the Tournament of Champions on his first start of this year, the Ryder Cup contender headed over to the Middle East to make his first starts on the DP World Tour since 2018.
He disappointed, missing the cut in both the Abu Dhabi Championship and Dubai Desert Classic, though I was willing to forgive as they were his first starts in the area.
He returned stateside last week and finished a solid 45th at Riviera; a performance that saw him rank top 20 on the greens, 22nd in GIR and 30th in scrambling.
He’s a strong ball-striking type, who’s capable of quality runs of putting; ranking top 40 in approach, GIR and putting so far this season. We also saw this well on show last year when winning here, as he ranked 1st off-the-tee, 4th in putting and 20th in approach, whilst hitting more greens than anyone and scrambling better than anyone too.
No doubt full of positivity coming back to the scene of last year’s victory, he looks a nice price to find that bit of improvement that will see him contend again this week.
Ben Griffin – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew
Such is the difficulty of this course, I wasn’t initially keen on someone with zero course history. However in Ben Griffin, we have a guy who looks full of confidence at the start of his first season on the PGA Tour and with the correct skillset – as well as some decent coastal form to his name this season – he can go well on his first trip to PGA National.
Griffin turned pro in 2018 following a high-class amateur career that took him to the top 40 in the amateur rankings. He made a quick start to his life as a pro, winning in Canada on just his sixth start but everything hasn’t been plain sailing since.
He turned his back on golf in early 2021, citing a combination of failing to secure his Korn Ferry Tour card, burnout, covid and just general finances as key to his decision; instead seeking regular employment.
However, he went on to gain his Korn Ferry Tour card for 2022 via the 2021 Q-School and took that opportunity with both hands; picking up six top 10 finishes, including three 2nd places, to gain automatic promotion to the PGA Tour.
Once again he’s taken this in his stride, looking well at home on the main tour. Griffin has missed just two cuts in eleven starts, recording a best of 3rd in the Bermuda Championship at the end of last year.
He’s maintained that form this year, finishing 12th in the Sony Open on his first start of 2023 and recording finishes of 32nd and 31st in The AmEx and Farmers Insurance Open; before missing the cut last time out at Pebble Beach.
Griffin has shown quality in all areas, looking particularly good in approach, where he ranks 31st and is also a hugely encouraging 12th in par 4 scoring.
He’s an east coast boy, hailing from North Carolina and has good form Florida, having finished 2nd in the LECOM Suncoast Classic in 2022 on the Korn Ferry Tour at Lakewood National Golf Club. 3rd in Bermuda and 12th in the Sony should also bode well as some excellent coastal form and I’m expecting Griffin to put up another impressive display this week.
Robby Shelton – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew
Robby Shelton booked his return to the PGA Tour with a two-win season on the Korn Ferry Tour Last year and has wasted little time getting to work on his second go at the main tour.
Last time we saw him, Shelton finished 20th at Pebble Beach, which was one of six top 25s in just eleven starts so far this season, two of which he’s turned into top 10s ( 6th in The AmEx and 10th in the RSM Classic) and sits just outside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup rankings.
His promotion to the tour was predominantly down to an excellent putting year on the KFT last year but this year on the PGA, he’s been all about his irons, ranking 25th in approach and quality around-the-greens, where he ranks 21st. Additionally, he’s played the par 4s well, ranking 38th and looks to have the right skillset we’re looking for this week.
Indeed, Shelton showed his suitability to PGA National on his debut here in 2020, finishing 11th; a result built on a strong short-game and handy approach performance, ranking 14th on the greens, 16th around them and 22nd in approach that week. Though he missed the cut in 2021, his game was in no kind of shape.
As a former #2 amateur, big things were expected of Shelton in the pro ranks. His progress has been steady if not explosive, with those two wins last year on the KFT taking him to four wins in total and he looks to have the right areas clicking to make a push at adding a first PGA Tour title to his collection this week.
Dylan Frittelli – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew
Despite a missed cut last week, South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli has been playing some decent stuff on the PGA Tour this year, where he’s shown quality right across his game and can make that count, coming to a place he’s performed well at before.
Prior to last week’s missed cut at the Genesis Invitational, Frittelli had recorded a 14th place finish in the Phoenix Open, gaining strokes in every area; something he also achieved when finishing 37th in the Farmers Insurance Open two starts earlier.
Though missing the cut last week and on his first start of the year in The AmEx, those performances weren’t without promise, as he looked good with the driver on both starts; combining it with a solid showing on the greens in The AmEx and a good performance around-the-greens last week; every area firing at least twice in his four starts this year.
This will serve him well here, a tournament at which he finished 11th on debut in 2018 and backed up with another strong performance last year, finishing 16th. Both of those times putting these tricky greens well.
With some decent efforts under his name at all of the correlating events mentioned above, Frittelli’s suitability for this test is strengthened further and he can take advantage of this weak field to record a second PGA Tour win.
Andrew Novak – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew
Andrew Novak has made a promising start to the season on the PGA Tour. Hailing from North Carolina and based at St Simons Island, Georgia, it comes as little surprise to see his best efforts coming on coastal setups and with each area of his game looking sharp, he looks set for another good performance on a similarly situated course.
In five starts this season, Novak has recorded three top 20s, all of which have come by the coast: 17th in the Bermuda Championship, 12th in the Sony Open and 20th last time out at Pebble Beach. We can even jump back to his best performance last year – which came when 11th in the Corales Puntacana in the Dominican – to find further proof of his affinity to golf by the coast.
Across those starts, he’s looked in good shape in all areas, particularly around-the-greens, where he ranks 38th for the season and in approach, ranking a solid 58th. Whilst he’s also started to look much better with the putter on recent starts.
Novak has played here twice before, finishing 57th on debut in 2018 and missing the cut last year, both coming at a time when his game was in much worse shape and I’m certain he can improve.
His solo win on the Korn Ferry Tour came in this part of the US, when winning the LECOM Suncoast Classic in 2020 and he can add a first PGA Tour title to that this week in the same state.
Ryan Moore – 1/5 8 places – 1 pt ew
Ryan Moore is a five-time PGA Tour winner but has had a tough couple of years due to nagging back problems. Though things are starting to look up, with his 7th place finish at Pebble Beach two starts ago his first top 10 since 2021 and with that ever-impressive approach game now looking back to full strength, he can go well at PGA National.
Moore did offer some promise at the end of last year, finishing 21st in the Wyndham Championship and 28th in the Shriners Open amongst his last five starts of 2022. He missed his first two cuts of this year at The AmEx and at the Sony, though bounced back with that excellent 7th at Pebble Beach, where he ranked both top 10 in approach and putting for his two rounds at Pebble.
He missed the cut last time out at the Phoenix Open two weeks ago, though only by one; once again looking good with the putter and in approach. Indeed his irons have fired in every start this season, even throughout every missed cut and sees him rank 21st; whilst being the 34th best scrambler so far this season is another big positive around this setup.
Moore’s record here is a little sketchy, with a best of 49th in 2018, though he hasn’t always teed it up. However, he can call on excellent records at Muirfield Village, Quail Hollow and at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he’s recorded countless top 20s; including at least one top 5 at each event (bests of 2nd in the Memorial, 4th in the Arnold Palmer and 5th at Quail Hollow).
If he can keep the putter and irons firing, Moore will be licking his lips at the strength of this field and can use his experience to put right his non-record at this highly challenging course.
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