- By Dave George Palm Beach Post Sports Columnist
“Firm and fast,” those are the conditions that PGA National agronomist Brad Nelson is predicting this week at the Honda Classic.
Chutes and ladders, that’s my prediction for what the bearish, par-70 Champion course has in store for a top PGA Tour field that for the first time since 2014 includes Tiger Woods.
Very few players survive 72 holes at the site of the 1987 PGA Championship and the 1983 Ryder Cup without a serious slide every now and then.
Jupiter’s Morgan Hoffman, for instance, was the only one at Honda to shoot four rounds in the 60s last year, and even defending champion Rickie Fowler, who won the tournament by four shots, made it interesting for a time on Sunday by hitting a couple of tee shots into the water.
“It’s a course where there’s a lot of trouble in play,” Fowler said. “It wears you out mentally and physically.
“When you’re on a difficult golf course, when winning scores can be anywhere from single-digits (under par) to 12 or 14 under, you get a lot of satisfaction out of beating the golf course better than anyone else did that week.”
It’s not just the Bear Trap, that celebrated and sworn-over stretch of holes 15 through 17, that punches holes in Honda scorecards. If it were so, you wouldn’t have meltdowns like the following:
What made it work for Fowler last year was his putting. He didn’t miss one from inside 7 feet all week, going a perfect 57-for-57 from that vital range. Throw in a couple of bombs, like the birdie putts he made from 40 and 25 feet on Sunday’s back nine, and that’s how you wind up at a winning score of 12-under 268.
Compare that, however, to the birdie binges that were the norm before the Honda settled at PGA National in 2007.
Justin Leonard got it to 24 under to win the 2003 Honda at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens. A couple of dozen under, folks, and it took all of that to edge Davis Love III and Chad Campbell by a stroke.
Blaine McCallister won at 22 under in the 1989 Honda at TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs.
Matt Kuchar and Dudley Hart also won Honda titles with 19-under totals at TPC Heron Bay, also in Broward County.
The stakes are much higher, and so are the scores, on the Champion. Last year, nearly half of the 144-man field missed the cut even though it came at the deceptively neutral standard of even-par 140. It’s worth nothing that Tiger’s career scoring average in the Honda Classic is right at par - 69.92 - and he won’t get there this week if he doesn’t stop spraying tee shots like he did while missing the cut at the Genesis Open on Friday.
Can Fowler repeat as champion? Nobody in the tournament’s history has since Jack Nicklaus in 1977 and 1978 at the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic, the forerunner to the Honda.
Rickie has already been ripping it up on the tour’s 2017-18 wrap-around schedule, though, with a runner-up finish at Mayakoba in October, a tie for fourth at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and a victory at Tiger Woods’ 18-man Hero World Challenge invitational. In that last one, an unofficial event played on a less challenging course in the Bahamas, Fowler shot a final-round 61 to win by four strokes.
“I don’t see a 61 out here in these conditions right now,” Fowler said of the Champion. “It’s doable, but it’s going to be a lot harder to make seven birdies in a row here than it was in the Bahamas.”
A Champion’s test built for true champions, that what it will be, which is why it makes sense to look toward stars like 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia. He’s had four top-15 finishes in his last four Honda appearances, including a runner-up finish to Adam Scott in 2016.
That was the year that Fowler played the first two rounds without a bogey, good enough for the second-round lead, but followed it up with rounds of 74 and 71 to finish six shots back.
Like we said earlier about the Champion. Chutes and ladders.