The Honda Classic is a bear of a tournament to win for players facing questions about their games. But that’s where two of the best in golf history, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, find themselves when the 2018 version gets underway today on the Champion course at PGA National Resort.
Woods, 42, playing in his third PGA Tour event since returning from back surgery, has displayed only glimpses of the greatness that has earned him 14 major championships. McIlroy, 28, is coming off his first winless season since 2013 — a year that began with him withdrawing from the Honda with a toothache.
The first goal for both will be a modest one: making the cut. A back-nine collapse led to Woods coming up four shots short in that quest last week at Riviera, while McIlroy failed to do so two weeks ago at Pebble Beach before finishing 20th at Riviera.
McIlroy, who won the Honda in 2012 and lost in a playoff in 2014, has missed the cuts in his two most recent appearances here, in 2015 and 2016, and said there’s a fine line between success and failure on the Champion.
“Feast or famine, that’s my history here,” McIlroy said Wednesday.
“It magnifies if your game’s off just a touch. If you miss it by tiny margins, it can punish you quite heavily. But if you’re on, it gives you opportunities to score, and that’s what’s happened.”
It’s been quite some time since Woods, a Jupiter Island resident, could relate to the notion of his game being off, as McIlroy put it, “just a touch.” His last top-10 finish on Tour came in 2015, his last win in 2013 and the most recent of his 14 majors in 2008.
Four rounds of par or better at Torrey Pines three weeks ago sparked optimism about his game. But a second-round 76 last Friday raised all the same questions anew.
His fellow competitors have repeatedly brought up the impossibility of re-creating tournament conditions in practice rounds at his favorite course, The Medalist in Hobe Sound, and Woods himself seemed to acknowledge Wednesday that competing at a high level again will be a process after what essentially has been a two-year layoff due to health problems.
He sounded confident Wednesday that progress is being made.
“I’m starting to get that feeling again of playing tournament golf, where each and every shot counts,” he said. “I’m looking at where I need to put the golf ball.”
One measure of his progress this weekend will be his driving. He’s hit only 30-of-84 fairways in the two events he’s played and during Wednesday’s pro-am flared his drive on No. 6 more than 60 yards right of the fairway. While the Champion’s relatively modest length of 7,140 yards will allow him to hit fairway woods and even irons off the tee on occasion, the ever-present hazards will prove costly if he’s unable to find the fairway off the tee.
Woods is likely to have only one more start — perhaps at Bay Hill near Orlando in three weeks — before heading to the Masters, where he is a four-time champion. That makes this week a big one.
“I’m looking forward to April,” he said, “trying to get my game solid for April. I’ve got some work to do.”
McIlroy also has his sights set on the Masters, the only major he needs to become only the sixth player to win the career grand slam. Woods became the most recent member of that club back in 2000; the others are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
McIlroy said that while a victory before the Masters would be nice — the past two Masters winners, Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia, won before reaching Augusta — it isn’t a necessity.
“Obviously to get a win under your belt (would) make you feel a bit better going into it. But I don’t want to put myself under that pressure because there’s enough going into Augusta anyway.”
McIlroy’s 2012 Honda win was a special one, vaulting him to No. 1 in the world, a spot he has held intermittently for 95 weeks since. Two years later he double-bogeyed the 16th hole on Sunday and missed an eagle putt on 18 that would have won the tournament before ultimately losing in a four-man playoff won by Russell Henley.
So he knows what it takes to be hoisting the winner’s trophy early Sunday evening.
“It looks like it’s going to be breezy, so controlling your ball flight is a big thing,” he said. “Being conservative off the tee is something you have to do, especially with the way the rough is. Play out of the fairway. Hitting greens; it’s a ball-striker’s golf course. You can’t up-and-down it around here and expect to win.
“You have to hit fairways, you have to hit greens and you have to just take your chances when they come along.”