It will be difficult to top the thrilling ending of last week’s THE PLAYERS Championship, with world No. 3 Justin Thomas using a mid-round tear to slip past the duo of Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau, who were playing together in the last group for the second consecutive week.
PGA National, the grueling Florida-based site of the annual Honda Classic, should be up to the task, however. The field will be considerably weaker than what we saw at TPC Sawgrass, but those there will have their capacities challenged as much as they will at any non-major this year.
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Only four players have reached double-digits under par in the last ten years, with three of those coming in Rory McIlroy’s 2012 victory. Last year’s champion, Sungjae Im was just 6 under for the week.
It is a relatively wide-open event, and we do not list several players we would not be surprised to see contend, but here is who we like most to land in the winner’s circle this week.
The Honda Classic Power Rankings
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15. James Hahn
After posting just one top 10 from 2018-2020, the 39-year-old GIR monster has four in 12 starts this season, in addition to a T15. He was better at THE PLAYERS last week than his T41 results shows; he was 8-under for the week outside of Thursday’s disastrous front-nine (+6).
Hahn has not played this event since 2014, but this is a good year for him to come back, as he is healthier than he has been in years and is playing well in the iron game at the moment. He’s third on Tour in par-4 scoring, and PGA National has just two par 5s.
World Rank: 144 Betting Odds: 100-1 Recent Starts: 41, 15, MC, 10, MC, 32
14. Keegan Bradley
Well, he still can’t putt… at all, but that has not stopped him from winning four times in his Tour career, including a major, a WGC event, and a FedExCup playoff event.
What has us looking at the 34-year-old right now is that he is hitting his irons about as well as he ever has, currently ranking 7th on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and he has played well in three of his last four outings.
His results in this event have gone the wrong way since a T12-T4-T12 stretch early in his career, but he is looking close to putting it together again. The field definitely will not intimidate him.
World Rank: 129 Betting Odds: 50-1 Recent Starts: 29, 10, 60, 22, MC, MC
13. Mackenzie Hughes
The 30-year-old Canadian came into this event last year having missed 9 of 11 cuts on the season, with nothing better than a T55, but a sizzling weekend of back-to-back 66s nearly won him the title.
Still, a runner-up to Sungjae Im should give Hughes good feelings, and it seemed to awaken something in him, as he has posted five top-10s in the 12 months since. We would have him much higher if he was not struggling so much with his irons in 2021. He can putt the lights out though.
World Rank: 53 Betting Odds: 66-1 Recent Starts: MC, 44, 32, MC, 19, 41
12. Doug Ghim
If you just started watching golf two weeks ago, and only one Thursday-Saturday, you probably think the 24-year-old University of Texas product was one of the best players on Tour.
Ghim is certainly promising, but the world No. 238 could have some scar tissue as he has played himself into 54-hole contention in his last two starts, but then shot a Sunday 81 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to finish T36, and then a Sunday 78 to finish T29 at THE PLAYERS, although the latter was almost entirely the result of two really, really bad holes.
It is likely all part of the process of learning to win on Tour, however, and if Ghim plays well in the first three rounds again, he will likely have less daunting Sunday competition.
World Rank: 238 Betting Odds: 50-1 Recent Starts: 29, 36, MC, 21, 37, 5
11. Rickie Fowler
The 32-year-old has been in terrible form this season, with just two top-25s in 13 starts, but one of his five career victories came at PGA National, when he won the 2017 Honda by four strokes, posting the lowest final score (-12) in the last eight editions.
Fowler was also runner-up to Keith Mitchell in 2019, and has two other top-10s. His course history makes him impossible to ignore, but it should be noted that Fowler has eight double-bogeys and one triple-bogey over his last eight rounds. He needs to do much better if he wants to qualify for The Masters next month, which he shockingly, does not at the moment.
World Rank: 81 Betting Odds: 50-1 Recent Starts: MC, 72, 20, MC, MC, 53
10. Martin Kaymer
A World No. 1 and two-time major Champion from Germany, Kaymer has made just 18 starts worldwide since the start of 2020, but has finished inside the top 20 in ten of them, and was also tremendous in the first round of last year’s PGA Championship.
For the sake of Kaymer’s pride, we won’t mention what happened in round 2. The best finish at PGA National for the 36-year-old was a T4 in 2017, strongly aided by a first-round 65.
A true wild card this week.
World Rank: 89 Betting Odds: 50-1 Recent Starts: 18, 44, MC, 14, 37, 5
9. Adam Scott
The 40-year-old former World No. 1 has not had his best stuff in 2021, with just a single top 10, which was a T10, in nine season starts.
Still, he cannot be counted out against this field, given that he is a sure-thing in regards to making cuts (just one missed cut since July of 2019), and that he seems to like PGA National. Or at least, you would assume he does since he won the 2016 Honda Classic and has four other top 20s.
It bodes well for his chances on a difficult course that Scott somehow played the weekend at TPC Sawgrass in even par, despite losing 4.6 strokes to the field off the tees and 3.5 tee-to-green on Saturday, and carding two Sunday double-bogeys.
World Rank: 25 Betting Odds: 25-1 Recent Starts: 48, 54, 38, 10, 41, 21
8. Talor Gooch
The 29-year-old Oklahoman has been hit-or-miss in the 2021 PGA Tour season; he has just four top-25s, but three of those were top-5s, including this past week at The PLAYERS, where he co-led the field in birdies on his way to a T5.
Gooch was one of just four players in the field to shoot all four rounds under par. That finish has Gooch at a career-high of 64th in the OWGR. The concern with him in regards to this week, however, is that his best starts are not usually together, aside from a 4-T3 stretch in January of 2019.
TPC Sawgrass was encouraging for Gooch, who currently ranks in the positive in every strokes gained statistic, but that will not necessarily carry over. Has a high finish of T20 in this event (T20)
World Rank: 64 Betting Odds: 28-1 Recent Starts: 5, 43, 12, MC, 48, 21
7. Brendan Steele
A three-time winner on Tour, Steele has made his last seven cuts, although just one of them went for a top 10 (T4 at The Sony Open in Hawaii). That T4 matched what Steele did at last year’s Honda Classic, where he was just one stroke off the 54-hole lead and played in the final pairing with Tommy Fleetwood.
The 37-year-old also showed course comfort with finishes of T11, T14, and T14 respectively, at the 2015-17 editions of this event. Gaining 5.2 strokes to the field with his putting last week at THE PLAYERS is encouraging, given that he has been abysmal in that regard most of the season.
World Rank: 78 Betting Odds: 40-1 Recent Starts: 41, 18, 43, 34, 30, 21
6. Joaquin Niemann
It’s starting to look like the massively talented 22-year-old Chilean should not have taken that month off after his back-to-back runner-ups in January, as he has finishes of just T43, T28, and T29 respectively in his three starts since.
He did not fare well in his two previous starts here (T59, CUT), but it is difficult to use course history against Niemann too much given how young he is, plus that missed cut last year was during a difficult stretch of play for him.
We do like him this week though, as he has the third-best birdie average on Tour, the fifth-best scoring average, and is a phenomenal shotmaker.
World Rank: 29 Betting Odds: 16-1 Recent Starts: 20, 28, 43, 2, 2, 23
5. Chris Kirk
After taking time off in the 2019 season to deal with his alcohol abuse, the 35-year-old mostly struggled in 2020, but has really found his rhythm since the 2021 calendar year started.
Kirk had a runner-up finish in January’s Sony Open, and then finished T16 or better in three of his next four starts going into last week’s PLAYERS Championship, where a second-round 65 (7.7 strokes gained tee-to-green in that round!) had him in contention until a Sunday 79 plummeted him down the leaderboard.
Everything outside of his putting has been solid-to-great this season, and he only has one notable finish at The Honda (T12, 2014), he did shoot a second-round 68 before missing the cut in his last visit.
World Rank: 76 Betting Odds: 33-1 Recent Starts: 48, 8, 16, MC, 16, 2
4. Sungjae Im
The South Korea native was just 21 years of age when he won this event last year, the first victory of a career that figures to have many. He got off to a fast start at PGA National, four birdies in his first five holes, and showed resilience in bouncing back from back-to-back bogeys on 12 and 13 to finish one stroke out front.
Now Im arrives again at the Honda, with a bigger profile as the defending champion and the second-highest ranked player in the field (No. 18), and has a difficult task ahead of him, given that only one man has gone back-to-back in this event, some guy named Nicklaus in the late 70s.
It is difficult to bet against him given his precociousness and his runner-up finish at November’s The Masters. He also got off to a phenomenal 70-64 start as a 20 year old in the 2019 version, before weekend struggles.
World Rank: 18 Betting Odds: 12-1 Recent Starts: 17, 21, 28, 17, 32, 12
3. Shane Lowry
Turns out, the reigning Open Champion Golfer of the Year (2019) didn’t leave all his talent at Portrush. The affable 33-year-old went into last week with just one top-10 in 28 starts worldwide since the beginning of the 2020 calendar year, but he showed considerable shot-making prowess with a solo-8th at THE PLAYERS.
Lowry was one of just three players in that field to shoot at least three rounds in the 60s. He has played this event three times in the past, making the cut each time, with a high finish of T21 a year ago.
World Rank: 40 Betting Odds: 25-1 Recent Starts: 8, MC, 48, 29, 27, MC
2. Lee Westwood
It is fair to wonder if fatigue will be a factor for the rejuvenated 47-year-old, who played in the final Sunday pairing each of the past two weeks, only to finish second alone. This high ranking is more about just recent form though: he was T4 here last year, just two off the 54-hole lead, and he also has three other top 10 finishes, and a considerable number of sub-70 rounds at PGA National.
While this week has high letdown probability for him, there just is not enough reason to pick against him at the moment, especially against a weaker field.
Now at No. 19 in the world, Westwood is the third highest-ranked player in the field, and best of all for his chances? No Bryson DeChambeau this week to try to keep up with.
World Rank: 19 Betting Odds: 20-1 Recent Starts: 2, 2, 61, 50, 17, 62
1. Daniel Berger
The world No. 15 is the highest-ranked player in the field, and should be feeling good considering he is local and has been in tremendous form for more than a year.
A Sunday 67 at TPC Sawgrass allowed him to tally his fourth top-10 of the year (T9), and his 11th in his last 27 starts, dating back to the beginning of last season. He also has two victories since the Tour restart from COVID-19, including just two starts ago at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he eagled his final hole to eliminate the field.
Another one of the Tour’s much-lauded 27-year-olds, Berger ranked sixth on Tour last season in scoring average (15th this season), and finished T4 at PGA National last year, two positions short of his solo-second in his first attempt five years earlier.
World Rank: 15 Betting Odds: 10-1 Recent Starts: 9, 35, 1, MC, 7, 10
Next Five: Peter Malnati, Alex Noren, Dylan Frittelli, Luke List, Maverick McNealy
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