Best bets for the PGA Honda Classic

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Jon Rahm has made just under $10 million in prize money in less than two months for the calendar year of 2023 as he won his third event of the year at the Genesis Invitational on Sunday. Rahm led the field for Strokes Gained: Approach, gaining near 11.5 shots on the field for four days, to win the Genesis at 17 under, two strokes ahead of Farmers winner Max Homa, who led the field for Strokes Gained: Putting (gaining 11.28 strokes on the field for the tournament).

Patrick Cantlay finished third while fourth-place Will Zalatoris looks like he has recovered from the back injury that kept him out of action last fall. Keith Mitchell posted yet another top-5 in 2023. Rounding out the top 10 were Collin Morikawa and Sahith Theegala at T-6, Matt Kuchar in eighth, and Adam Svensson, Jason Day and Gary Woodland at T-9.

 

Rahm, who has won three events in 2023 at prices of 13-2, 13-2 and now 15-2 last week, also regained the OWGR No. 1 ranking and very much looks like the best player in the world.

Like most of the top players, Rahm will not be in this week’s field to start the Florida Swing at the Honda Classic. The Honda finds itself in a tough scheduling spot coming after two designated events out west with the WM Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational and immediately before the designated Arnold Palmer Invitational and the PGA Tour’s flagship event at the Players Championship.

Nevertheless, there is still an $8.4 million purse, plenty of OWGR and FedEx Cup points and a two-year tour exemption to the winner on the line at the Honda Classic. Sungjae Im, who won his first PGA Tour event at the Honda in 2020, is the tournament favorite at 17-2. Shane Lowry (14-1) has to feel like he is due some payback as he led last year’s Honda heading to the tee box on the 72nd hole before the skies opened and began to pour. Lowry ended up making par on 18 and finishing one stroke behind eventual winner Sepp Straka, who returns to defend his title at 50-1.

 

Following in the market at 25-1 are Aaron Wise, Alex Noren, who has two top-5s (third in 2018; fifth in 2022) here, and Min Woo Lee, who makes his debut here and looks to earn valuable OWGR points to ensure his spot in the Masters next month (top 50 in OWGR at end of March earn an invitation).

Chris Kirk (28-1) finished seventh here last year and has two top-3s (Sony Open in Hawaii and American Express) this year. Also priced at 28-1 are Denny McCarthy, third here in 2021, and Matt Kuchar, who finished eighth last week against a top-end field at the Genesis and won his first PGA Tour event at the Honda in 2022 when it was played at the TPC Heron Bay.

Billy Horschel (30-1) has a couple of top-10 finishes in the Honda, and Adam Svensson (35-1) finished top-10 last year as well. Svensson is also a resident of Palm Beach Gardens and has a win at PGA National, having been the medalist at what was then the Web.com Tour Qualifying School in 2015.

Along with last year’s champion Straka, Im and Kuchar, other previous Honda Classic champions in this week’s field include 2015 winner Padraig Harrington (80-1), 2011 winner Rory Sabbatini (600-1), 2010 winner Camilo Villegas (500-1), plus 2006 winner and current European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald (150-1).

The Event

The Honda Classic was founded in 1972 as Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic and played at the Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla., where Gleason had his retirement home on the course. The star of “The Honeymooners” served as the tournament’s host through 1980. American Honda Motor Company (Honda) took over the tournament sponsorship in 1982 and has held it ever since. However, this will be the last year for Honda as the title sponsor. Honda’s 42 years is the longest uninterrupted title sponsor run ever on the PGA Tour and they helped raise over $60 million over that time for local children’s charities, including a record $6.45 million last year.

The tournament has been played at various venues around South Florida until moving to its current home at PGA National Resort & Spa in 2007. Since moving to PGA National, the Honda Classic has been able to more consistently attract top players. IMG has served as the event’s organizer since 2013 and the tournament’s main charitable beneficiary is the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, chaired by Jack Nicklaus’s wife, Barbara. Multiple winners of the event include 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 in this event, 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.

Despite the decline in overall field quality in the last couple of years, the Honda has been a well-attended event with more than 200,000 attendees last year.

The Course

Just a few miles off Florida’s Atlantic coast, sitting halfway between Jupiter and West Palm Beach sits the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. The Champions Course at PGA National Resort & Spa was originally designed by Tom and George Fazio in 1981 but has undergone several toughening renovations, most recently in 2018 by Jack Nicklaus. The course has also hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup, the 1987 PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship from 1982-2000. It is a 7,125-yard, par-70 layout with water in play on 15 of 18 holes (most on the PGA Tour, quite a difference from last week at Riviera, which had no water). Eight of those 15 holes have carries over water for approach shots. PGA National is susceptible to wind gusts that will push balls into the water. PGA National has had the most water balls of any course on the PGA Tour over the last four years. More than 6,200 balls have plunged into the water since 2007. The water hazards also force players to lay up more often than not, so you will not see many drivers off the tee.

The overseeded rye rough is not all that penal (2.25 to 2.5 inches), but the Bermuda fairways are narrow at an average fairway width of 29.4 feet (11th narrowest on the PGA Tour). The TifEagle Bermuda greens are also contoured, elevated, large (7,000 average square feet, seventh largest on tour), but only slightly above average speed (12 stimpmeter). PGA National has the highest double-bogey-or-worse percentage on tour. This track is the toughest on tour outside of major championships with an average round score of 71.53 (+1.53) over the last five years.

Here is the difficulty rank for PGA National in recent years:

Year   Scoring Average      Difficulty Rank on PGA Tour

2022   71.34 (+1.34)           7th

2021   71.10 (+1.10)           6th

2020   71.90 (+1.90)           3rd

2019   71.02 (+1.02)           5th

2018   72.30 (+2.30)           2nd

2017   70.56 (+0.56)           16th

2016   71.77 (+1.77)           5th

2015   71.83 (+1.83)           4th

PGA National is most notable for what is known as the “Bear Trap.” The arduous stretch of holes 15, 16 and 17 played a bit easier last year than in previous years, but the field as a collective was still 230 over par on this three-hole stretch.

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

The four par-3s include the pair of sub-180-yard par-3s in "The Bear Trap" and two others at over 215 yards. All four played over par last season with a bogey-or-worse rate of over 19% for each of them.

The two par-5s were the two easiest holes on the course last season. Both had birdie rates north of 30%; whereas no other hole on the course had a birdie rate of greater than 20%.

Three of the 12 par-4s (1, 4, and 13) check in under 400 yards and two (6 and 10) exceed 475 yards, which are the toughest holes on the course. Holes 10 and 11 comprise another difficult stretch with both posting a bogey-or-worse rate of over 26%.

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

Recent History/Winners

2022: Sepp Straka (-10/270); 125-1

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, Ryan Palmer – ***

Tournament Trends

11 of the past 12 winners of the Honda Classic have previously made the cut at least once in this event.

Each of the last six winners of the Honda Classic had finished T-16 or better at least once on the recent West Coast swing.

Of the 16 winners since this event moved to PGA National, 10 of them have been international players.

Of the 16 winners since this event moved to PGA National, six of them have been major champions.

Four players have won both this event and the Sony Open since it moved to PGA National in 2007.

Statistical Analysis

PGA National was the toughest course on the PGA Tour to gain on approach shots last season.

Strokes Gained: Approach (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Russell Knox 29.7
  2. Mark Hubbard 21.5
  3. Shane Lowry 21.4
  4. Erik Van Rooyen 18.7
  5. Ben Griffin 18.5
  6. Michael Kim 18.4
  7. Nick Hardy 16.2
  8. Lee Hodges 14.8
  9. Cam Davis 14.6
  10. Robby Shelton 13.8
  11. Webb Simpson 13.4
  12. Sungjae Im 12.8
  13. Jhonattan Vegas 12.5
  14. Ben Martin 11.6
  15. Luke Donald 11.2

PGA National has had more “water balls” off the tee the past three years than any other course on tour. The average driving distance here is only 277.8 yards. Even with players clubbing down, driving accuracy is only average at 60.3%. Low distance plus average accuracy at PGA National makes it the fourth toughest course to gain strokes off the tee.

Strokes Gained: Off The Tee (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Hayden Buckley 25.7
  2. Will Gordon 18.2
  3. Taylor Pendrith 17.1
  4. Jhonattan Vegas 16.7
  5. Sungjae Im 16.2
  6. Brett Grant 14.9
  7. Cam Davis 14.3
  8. Tyler Duncan 12.8
  9. Kramer Hickok 12.6
  10. Brandon Wu 11.3
  11. Charley Hoffman 11.2
  12. Joseph Bramlett 10.8
  13. SH Kim 10.6
  14. Aaron Wise 10.2
  15. Lee Hodges 9.5

Both par-3 and par-4 scoring are tougher here than the average course on the PGA Tour, so potential bogeys lurk everywhere.

Bogey Avoidance (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Thomas Detry 22.7
  2. Matt Kuchar 20.8
  3. Sungjae Im 19.7
  4. Aaron Baddeley 19.5
  5. Aaron Wise 18.3
  6. Cameron Percy 17.1
  7. Alex Noren 14.4
  8. Jonathan Byrd 14.1
  9. Lee Hodges 13.3
  10. Denny McCarthy 12.6
  11. Ben Griffin 12.2
  12. Stephan Jaeger 11.8
  13. Charley Hoffman 11.5
  14. Danny Willett 10.7
  15. Satoshi Kodaira 10.2

Players will miss greens here more than 40% of the time, so scrambling performance is vital for success.

Scrambling Gained (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Aaron Baddeley 14.7
  2. Aaron Wise 14.6
  3. Matt Kuchar 13.5
  4. Danny Willett 12.3
  5. Bill Haas 10.9
  6. Denny McCarthy 9.9
  7. Alex Noren 9.6
  8. Billy Horschel 8.6
  9. William McGirt 8.4
  10. Joseph Bramlett 8.2
  11. Harris English 7.9
  12. Harry Hall 7.6
  13. Jonathan Byrd 7.5
  14. Adam Svensson 7.3
  15. Cameron Percy 7

As mentioned above, PGA National has been the hardest non-major championship course that the players take on all season.

Strokes Gained Total: Difficult Scoring Conditions (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Sungjae Im 63.6
  2. Aaron Wise 61.2
  3. Shane Lowry 56.4
  4. Webb Simpson 40
  5. Denny McCarthy 37.3
  6. Chris Kirk 36.9
  7. Billy Horschel 32.5
  8. Adam Schenk 32.2
  9. Adam Long 27.8
  10. Alex Noren 25.6
  11. Christiaan Bezuidenhout 22.7
  12. Seung-yul Noh 21.7
  13. Danny Willett 19.1
  14. Will Gordon 18
  15. Ben Martin 16.8
  16. Thomas Detry 15.3

With 12 par-4s and a few of them being the hardest holes on the layout, par-4 scoring takes on extra importance this week.

Strokes Gained: Par-4s (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Thomas Detry 37.4
  2. Ben Griffin 30
  3. Aaron Baddeley 26.1
  4. Brandon Wu 25.8
  5. Lee Hodges 22.6
  6. Will Gordon 21.6
  7. Denny McCarthy 21.5
  8. Hayden Buckley 20.8
  9. Aaron Rai 17.3
  10. Aaron Wise 17.3
  11. Danny Willett 17
  12. Sungjae Im 16.6
  13. SH Kim 16.6
  14. Matt Kuchar 15
  15. Akshay Bhatia 14.9

The GIR putting average is around 16.5% higher at PGA National than the tour average.

Strokes Gained: Bermuda Putting (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Martin Trainer 37.5
  2. Brian Gay 34.5
  3. Ben Taylor 30.8
  4. Matt Kuchar 24.5
  5. Aaron Wise 23.5
  6. Harry Hall 23.2
  7. Alex Noren 21.4
  8. Doc Redman 19
  9. Richy Werenski 18.9
  10. Kelly Kraft 18.3
  11. Adam Long 18.1
  12. Aaron Baddeley 17.9
  13. Zach Johnson 15.3
  14. Thomas Detry 15
  15. Denny McCarthy 14.3
  16. Billy Horschel 14.3
  17. Sung Kang 14.1

With some of the largest greens on tour, three-putts will come into play this week.

Three-Putt Avoidance (Last 36 rounds)

  1. Brian Gay 10.37
  2. Ben Crane 9.67
  3. Alex Noren 8.29
  4. Camilo Villegas 8.15
  5. Harry Higgs 8.02
  6. Callum Tarren 7.9
  7. Cameron Percy 7.72
  8. Chris Kirk 6.68
  9. Justin Suh 6.62
  10. Harry Hall 6.56
  11. Thomas Detry 6.5
  12. Aaron Wise 6.46
  13. Ben Taylor 6.31
  14. Matti Schmid 5.9
  15. Eric Cole 5.7
  16. Nicolas Echavarria 5.58

Selections

Jhonattan Vegas (35-1, DraftKings)

No event has more variance than the Honda Classic. It is difficult to find course form at PGA National, so perhaps this is a reach, but Vegas has made six consecutive cuts at the Honda and nine cuts out of 10 career Honda appearances.

After an injury-plagued 2022, Vegas has made three of three cuts this year.

Last week at the Genesis, he finished just T-56 but ranked fifth in Ball Striking, fifth for Driving Distance, 27th for Driving Accuracy and 19th for Greens in Regulation. This translated into 20th in SG Approach and 17th in SG Tee to Green. These numbers can be good enough to contend in a field that is a drop in class.

Adam Svensson (36-1, Circa Sports)

The opening numbers did not last long on Svensson and for good reason considering his top-10 last week in an elite field at Riviera where he was third for Strokes Gained: Around The Green, ninth for Strokes Gained: Putting and 10th for Scrambling.

The Canadian was able to put up those numbers on relatively unfamiliar Poa greens, so that indicates that his short game is in good shape going back to more familiar Bermudagrass surfaces.

Svensson, a Palm Beach Gardens resident, played his college golf at nearby Barry University and does have a win on this track at Web.com Tour Q-School in 2015.

Hayden Buckley (50-1, Superbook Sports)

The last seven winners here have ranked in the top 13 for SG: Off The Tee. Vegas currently ranks first in the category for the 2022-2023 PGA Tour season and Hayden Buckley is not far behind at fifth.

Buckley also fits the PGA National link with Waialae as he was the runner-up to Si Woo Kim at the Sony Open earlier in the season.

He ranks first in Ball Striking, first in SG: OTT, fifth in Good Drives Gained and fifth in GIRs gained in this field over the past 36 rounds.

Robby Shelton (60-1, Circa Sports)

Last time out, Shelton finished 20th at Pebble Beach, which was his sixth top-25 in 11 starts this season on tour, and two of those are top-10s (sixth, AMEX; 10th, RSM Classic).

Shelton finished 11th here on debut in 2020.

He regained his card last year from the Korn Ferry Tour with two victories, and the former No. 2 World Amateur looks better suited now in his second crack at the PGA tour.

Danny Willett (70-1, BetRivers)

Willett finished T-18 last week at the Genesis but was fourth in the field for Scrambling and 16th for SG: Tee To Green.

As a former Masters champion, he does not have the pressure of trying to get into Augusta, but he is right around 100th in the world and certainly wants to pick up points for entry into the PGA and U.S. Open.

Willett’s short game looks sharp right now and his tee-to-green performance last week at Riviera was the best since last fall at the Fortinet, where he finished runner-up to Max Homa.

Eric Cole (150-1, BetRivers)

Cole, the son of former PGA Tour player Bobby Cole and LPGA Tour player Laura Baugh, toiled on the mini-tours for years but finally earned his PGA Tour card last year off the Korn Ferry Tour and has made six of seven cuts dating to last fall.

He lives in nearby Delray Beach and played his college golf at Nova Southeastern University.

Cole also has a runner-up at PGA National during his time in the minors. His local knowledge could pay dividends this week.

Matchups (13-5; 1-2 last week)

Danny Willett -130 over Garrick Higgo

Lee Hodges -115 over Sepp Straka

Ryan Palmer -115 over Padraig Harrington