Honda Classic identifies future stars

The 18th at the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa.
David Walberg/SI

The Honda Classic officially commences the Florida swing of the schedule and the run-up to the Masters (just five weeks away), so let's talk majors.

Todd Hamilton won the 2004 Honda Classic and went on to win the British Open that summer. Padraig Harrington won the '05 Honda and broke through with his first major championship victory at the '07 British Open. And Y.E. Yang won the 2009 Honda before his amazing victory at last summer's PGA Championship.

At the Honda Classic the future stars outnumber even the Toyota jokes.

It's tough to say why exactly that is since the courses have changed year to year, but one constant since '04 is that they've been difficult, especially in the wind.

The extraordinarily watery Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa is no exception. Larry Nelson's one-under total at the '87 PGA Championship there is still the highest winning score in the 91-year history of the fourth major.

Designed by Tom and George Fazio and redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 1990, the Champion course features the hardest par 3 on Tour, the 172-yard 17th hole. The field averaged 3.395 strokes on the hole during the 2009 Honda. The 179-yard, par-3 15th played to an average of 3.322 strokes, making it the Tour's fourth-toughest par-3.

Since the Honda moved to the Champion course in 2007, the winning scores have been five-under, six-under and nine-under. The Bob Hope Classic it ain't.

All of which explains why the Honda has been drawing so many good players, who may believe that if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere — maybe even at Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews or Whistling Straits.

This year's Honda will feature four players in the top 10 in the World Ranking, including Lee Westwood (4), Paul Casey (6), Rory McIlroy (9) and Harrington (10). Others of note include 2008 Honda champ Ernie Els; Camilo Villegas, who lost in a playoff at the '07 Honda; Sergio Garcia; Yang; David Duval; and Mark Wilson, who seems to peak at this time every year. He won the '07 Honda and the '09 Mayakoba Classic, and is coming off a T14 finish at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Luke Donald withdrew from this week's tournament to be with his family after wife, Diane, gave birth to the couple's first child.

Phil/Tiger skunked on West Coast Swing
Seven Americans, one Englishman and an Aussie have claimed victories so far this year. That's three 20-somethings, five 30-somethings and one 42-year-old. There's no real trend here; the first nine winners on the PGA Tour in 2010 are connected only by the fact that they play right-handed and are not named Woods or Mickelson.

As golf statistics guru Sal Johnson points out, that breaks an 18-year streak in which the dynamic Tiger/Phil duo was responsible for at least one West Coast Swing W.

Rickie, Rory; Rory, Rickie
As the Florida Swing tees off, the year's biggest story may be last week's runner-up Rickie Fowler, who at 21 said he aims to make this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team. He will be in the field at PGA National, no doubt drawing comparisons to what may turn out to be his European counterpart, the 20-year-old McIlroy.

Alas, they won't be playing together. McIlroy's threesome includes 22-year-old Jason Day, one of the best young players out of Australia, and Matthew Goggin.

Fowler will join one of the oldest players in the field, 44-year-old Fran Quinn, who is coming off a victory on the Nationwide tour last weekend, and Andy Matthews.

From Phoenix to Bogota to Palm Beach Gardens
After finishing T8 in the PGA Tour's Waste Management Phoenix Open on Sunday, Camilo Villegas hopped on an airplane for his native Colombia, where he helped launch this week's inaugural Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open. Villegas led a youth event on Tuesday morning, played in the afternoon pro-am and then officially welcomed the players at that evening's pro-am social function. On Wednesday, he's traveling back to the States and the PGA Tour to compete in the Honda Classic near his home in Jupiter, Fla. Villegas led the charge in getting the Nationwide Tour to come to Colombia. "It's great for my country, great for golf in South America," he told the media in Scottsdale. "I am very honored to be playing in the pro-am and to support the event."

In action on other tours …

• Thongchai Jaidee, the best player in golf no one is talking about after his fifth-place showing at the Accenture, is among the favorites at the European Tour's Maybank Malasian Open at Kuala Lumpur Golf & Country Club. Jaidee, who won the tournament back-to-back in 2004-'05, will be joined by K.J. Choi, Daniel Chopra and defending champion Anthony Kang.

• Eduardo Romero defends his title at the Champions Tour Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif. The loaded field also includes Tommy Armour III, Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, Mark O'Meara and Tom Pernice, Jr.