The PGA Tour’s Florida swing begins this week at the Honda Classic, where a deep field will battle what is traditionally one of the tour’s more challenging layouts at PGA National’s Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course.
While the Champion Course, which played to an average of nearly a half stroke over par in 2014, is certainly tough, the “Bear Trap” is a bit of a misnomer. The Champion Course’s par-4 sixth hole (479 yards), par-4 10th hole (508 yards) and par-4 11th (450 yards) each played harder than the 15th, 16th or 17th holes in 2014. The par-3 17th played as the Bear Trap’s toughest hole last year, but was only the 164th hardest on tour, playing to an average of .171 strokes above par.
In recent years the par-5 18th has created the most drama, especially last year during the Rory McIlroy/Russell Henley/Russell Knox/Ryan Palmer playoff. Here’s a look at the 2014 finish; Henley’s impressive 5-wood second shot that set up the playoff victory is at the 1:30 mark.
Since the victory, Henley has changed almost all of the clubs in his bag. But he is yet to part ways with that Nike VR_S Covert 5-wood, and for good reason.
Looking ahead to this weekend, we’re going to use putting stats in our attempt to pick a winner. The Champion Course has produced a wide range of recent victors, some unexpected; Henley and Michael Thompson (2013), for example, each missed three of four cuts leading up to their respective victories, while Rory McIlroy in 2012 was coming off a runner-up finish at the WGC-Accenture Match Play. However, since Y.E. Yang’s victory in 2009, four of six winners have finished near the top of the field in strokes gained putting, total putting or putt per GIR.
Here’s who we like this week based on recent play, hunches and, above all else, putting prowess. Also included are odds from golfodds.com in parentheses, and a look at each players’ putter.
Rory McIlroy (7/2)
We’d be dumb not to pick him. McIlroy led the tour in both putting average (putts per GIR) and putting from outside 25 feet last season, making an astonishing 11.7% of attempts from that range. If his ball striking is anywhere close to top form (McIlroy led the tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and was 6th in GIR percentage at 69.44% last season), he’ll be near the top if not blowing out the field.
McIlroy has been putting with a custom Nike Method 006, the same putter he used during his British Open and PGA Championship victories in 2014.
Sergio Garcia (25/1)
Last week at Riviera, Garcia again proved to be exactly who we thought he was: not a closer. Bogeys on the 71st and 72nd holes cost him the victory, let alone a spot in the playoff. But despite his reputation, we’re optimistic about the Spaniard. He’s not exactly oozing confidence, saying after the Northern Trust that he “didn’t deserve to win,” but maybe this is the week he finally gets it together. He’s leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting right now, so he’s got that going for him, along with a good history in the Honda Classic (T8 last year). And if it’s true that Garcia did not have his best stuff last week, once he does, he should have a trophy in his hands.
Sergio is putting with a TaylorMade Ghost SI 72 right now. Here’s a look at the model.
Ryan Palmer (30/1)
Palmer has two top-10s in 2015, including a runner-up finish in Phoenix, and is coming off a playoff loss at last year’s Honda Classic. He’s putting well so far this season, currently ranked 21st in stroked gained: putting and third in total putting. He’s also third in putting from inside 10 feet and seventh from 10-15 feet. Palmer is sixth in birdie average (4.58) and seventh in scoring average (69.67) this season. He’s capable of winning at almost any course, and his length (307.8 yards) won’t hurt at PGA National.
Palmer is putting with an Odyssey Rossie Dual Force II.
Keegan Bradley (25/1)
Coming off a T4 at Riviera and a 68 in tough conditions during the final round, Bradley is primed for a win a Honda. He finished T12 there last year (with a final-round 73), T4 in 2013 and T12 in 2012 (also with a final-round 73.) Bradley hasn’t missed a putt inside three feet this season in 145 attempts, and finished 2013-14 25th in total putting and 47th in strokes gained putting. If he can overcome his final-round woes at the Champion Course, Bradley’s first victory of the season may be only days away.
After having messed around with a 40-inch, counterbalanced Scotty Cameron late last year, Bradley is back to using an Odyssey White hot XG Sabertooth Mid putter.
Check back Monday to see how our picks fared, and for a rundown on which stats and clubs played the biggest role in determining a Honda Classic champion.