Welcome to Florida, folks, the home of sunshine (California and Aruba would argue) and the home of the PGA Tour! With the Florida Swing we welcome the Euro OWGR giants to the monstrous field this week (before the 5:00 free crack giveaway next week at Doral). This is the part of the season where we at least start to think about Augusta (less than 50 days away), yet it also feels like the fourth different time we’ve said “this is the real start of the season.”
The Florida swing offers a great warm-up to The Masters with the world’s best all playing at least a couple stops as the Tour makes it’s way North to Augusta. This week’s stop is at the PGA National Resort & Spa – Champion Course, so “for the love of Golf (can you hear The Black Knight’s accent),” let’s get to the preview!
Originally a Fazio design, the Champion Course was redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 1990, making it–I believe–the 647th Nicklaus-inspired course played so far this year. A par-70, 7,048 yard layout, it’s a bear (pun all the way turnt up) of a track rated last year by Golf Digest as the most difficult non-major venue, averaging “1.138 strokes over par” per round (note: it’s a par 72 from the tips for the other 51 weeks of the year, so take the over-par measuring system with a grain of salt).
The overall theme of the course is precision. Landing areas, especially around pins, are tight and strategically guarded by bunkers, water, and sloping. Guys need to be dialed-in with their distances because misses short or long usually result in awkward, uncomfortable plays to the flag with bogey (or worse) squarely in play. That’s not to say there aren’t bailout areas–there are–but you ain’t making birdies from ’em. The Champion Course at PGA National is a lot like Torrey South in that it must be approached with patience (par is a good number all week), only attacking flags when conditions (wind, pin, etc.) and club selection is right and utmost care is given. Rest assured our leaders will be ‘flighting’ the crap out of the ball this week, as it’s especially difficult to keep missing one’s way around without stepping on a land-mine or four.
The most renowned section of the Champion Course is #15 through #17. Glossed the ‘Bear Trap,’ it’s regarded as among (if not the) toughest three-hole stretch in golf. And if the wind is whipping? Forget about it. It becomes a challenge to just bail out and try to save par. Here are Jack and Nick Price discussing the Bear Trap:
As discussed in the clip, #15 is a 179 yard par-3 that appears somewhat benign. But the wind can really wreak havoc on club selection and there’s water front, right, and long right. Short left is a bailout area, with longer left leaving guys in the bunker. As is the case all over, it’s just tough to get the ball near most pin positions, and the wind can bring big numbers into play.
#16 is a 434 yard par-4, relatively short by Tour standards (length isn’t what makes the Bear Trap so formidable), with liquid looming right, and bunkers and rough looming elsewhere. The green is tiered with a bailout short. The challenge on this hole isn’t necessarily the green as much as driving the ball into a good spot so one can attack the flag with a second shot.
“Those about to die salute you.”
#17 is another par-3, measuring 172 yards. Water is again in play (surprise!), guarding short and right. Long leaves one in the bunker, and with the green sloping back to front, it’s a really scary bunker shot back to a front pin when you’re trying to make par. If the Champion were a horse track, this hole would officially be ‘Dead Man’s Corner,’ for the shear number of whips that get piled up here each week.
Located in Palm Beach Gardens, FL (2.5 hours southeast of Orlando on the Atlantic side, north of Miami/West Palm Beach), the Honda Classic on one hand feels like the ghost of the Players’ (locale, venue, copious water, prominent field) while also representing the closest thing we have to a true block-party among Tour players (both American and foreign-born guys have residences in and around the area. Must be something in the tax code air).
As touched on from the onset, now that the calender has turned to March, and with Augusta looming more prominent by the week, this event is a nice checkup to see who has their swing grooved and who’s still heavy in ‘The Process.’ Difficult scoring conditions are the exception rather than the rule on Tour, so I for one enjoy each chance we get to watch as pros grind to make par and post red numbers. I also freely admit to rubber-necking a nice car crash or two, which should be provided in spades. Finally, we know any low round posted, especially on the weekend, is a genuine accomplishment, a feat deserving of all the praise and hyperbole admiration we can muster.
Russell Henley won the battle of the R names in a playoff, but the biggest memory was this Rory moment on 18 in regulation (courtesy of Adam Sarson):
- Slug your beer every time you see a fanny pack. Along with the sun and the PGA Tour, Florida is also home to sketchy pain doctors fanny pack tourism!
- Rog (or anyone else on the broadcast team) manages to crowbar sneak in a reference to Johnny winning this event twice (’80 & ’83).
- Drink like crazy if you’re actually excited about the switch back to NBC this week after CBS’ debacle the last month. We’ll soon remember all of the things we don’t like about NBC as well, and wish we just had a ProTracer channel.
- Begin chugging a col’ beer each time the broadcast cuts to obviously canned footage and Dan says in somber, hushed tones something to the effect of, “this was the scene just moments ago at the [insert hole number] where [insert Pro] became yet another victim of the famed Bear Trap…” The challenge is to see if you can kill your beer before our poor, fallen Pro has finished killing his tournament.
- If you’re looking to binge a little bit, take a sip each time NBC points out so and so is “from the area,” or “lives nearby,” or “has a house here.” Like eighty guys do, so you should be good and sauced in time to sit down for family dinner!
This tournament has bounced around like a foster child over the years, with some rather illustrious stops at cookie-cutter TPC courses along the way. Pros used to bitch that TPC Heron Bay sucked and the Country Club at Mirasol wasn’t too much better. It seems they’ve finally found a suitable home – kinda makes you wonder what took so long, as PGA National has been sitting here just about as is since Nicklaus redid it in 1990. Too, PGA National is widely credited as one of the reasons Tiger decided to play the event, along with the close proximity to his house and it fitting in nicely with the rest of his schedule.
Lots of picks this week (taking some leaps on some huge value fliers), but staying in the 6-8 units per week range.
- Graeme McDowell (29/1) – Loves this course, and a member of the Brooks Brothers’ fantasy team. And this is the week we announce our arrival.
- Sang-Moon Bae (55/1) – Back to the well. So close at Riv.
- Billy Horschel (60/1) – Game was tidy for a while there at the AT&T until he crashed and burned on the weekend. I think he gets back in the winner’s circle again soon, and I want to be there when he does. (By the way, here’s what we wrote about him when we picked him here last year, which still applies: “Right in the mix last year before he hit the eject button in the 3rd round (shot 81) . Bounced back with a very respectable 70 in the final round, though, and we have to believe he’s had this tourney circled for some revenge. Steadfastly believe he’s plotting a massive, hostile takeover of the Florida Swing. When a stock you’re in love with loses even a little value, the prudent decision isn’t to sell, it’s to double down. That’s us and Mr. Horschel.”)
- Justin Thomas (80/1) – Team NLU. Was kicking myself for not having him last week as he crept into the top 5 on Friday. He burned out on the weekend, but he’s playing too well to be 80/1 at any event.
- Jamie Donaldson (90/1) – Hunch from Tron.
- Will McKenzie (130/1) (half unit) – Top 12 in his last 3 starts here, including T6 a year ago. Horsey for coursey! Half unit.
- Scott Langley (200/1) (half unit) – We’re big on team NLU this week. I was inspired by Golf Betting Brain’s betting preview for this play, as well as the next two.
- Carlos Ortiz (225/1)(2/5 unit) – Top 20’s in his last two starts. Obliterated the Web Tour last year.
- Patrick Rodgers (222/1) (2/5 unit) – Young gun that is familiar with the track.
- Jon Curran (750/1) (1/5 unit) – Why not! It’s a short(er) course this week, and these odds are insane. I’m doing a 1/5 unit play here.
Fantasy Corner: Rory is 3/1 this week! 3/1! In an absolutely stacked field! Kim Jung-Un doesn’t even demand that level of respect from his people. Put him in your lineups, but I’ll never bet a player at 3/1.
The entire field this week reads more like a WGC event than it does a regular event, so you’ll have plenty of BSD’s to choose from. Westwood and McDowell love it here, Kaymer is making his US debut, and Justin “don’t call me Rick” Rose-y is here is well.
(Tracker: +37.5 units in 2015. Last week: -7.5)
- Really have to love the way car companies embrace the golf tourney sponsorship. Hyundai kicked things off right this year in Hawaii, and Honda has been sponsoring this tourney since 1982, though some would argue that Honda and ‘classic’ is an oxymoron.
- Sergio’s ejection on Sunday was disappointing to say the least, but I found the post round comments to be refreshingly honest. His ball striking was a bit loose for the better part of the week, but he was somehow able to get away with it. It just didn’t last 72 holes.
- Win a date with Todd Hamilton won this event in 2004, then went on to win The Open Championship that year. There was a two year stretch where the major winners were where Mike Weir, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, and Todd Hamilton won majors. Historians will look back on ’03-’04 like it was the Dead Ball Era.
- Lastly, an editorial note on these previews: A lot of the stuff that applies to multiple years (course, vibe, etc.), you’re going to see some stuff that’s just rolled forward from last year’s preview (mostly Tron Carter’s work). Is this poor journalism? Absolutely. Do we pretend to be real journalists? Hell no. Rest assured that the picks section will always be completely current. But previews are hard to do, we all have real jobs, and there is no point in trying to recreate some of the better stuff from last year.