10 Players to Watch: Honda Classic

  1. Sergio Garcia, Spain — After winning the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in his previous start for his 30th victory as a pro, Garcia made the long flight to the West Coast of the United States for the Genesis Open. He might have felt the effects of jet lag and the numerous weather delays and postponements at Riviera, because although he looked sharp in a second-round 4-under-par 67, he was right around par the rest of the week and finished in a tie for 49th. Garcia should be a little more ready this week at PGA National, where he has played six times previously. He tied for eighth in 2014, and last year he opened with a 65 and was tied for the lead with Adam Scott heading into the final round. However, the Spaniard fell back with two late bogeys before sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole to finish one shot behind Scott after a 71.
  1. Adam Scott, United States — The Aussie captured the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship to start the Florida swing last year and reached 29 victories in his career, including 13 on the PGA Tour, but he hasn’t won anywhere since. This will be his fifth start at PGA National, and last year he moved in a tie for the lead with Garcia by playing the middle rounds in 65-66 before closing with a 70 to hold off the Spaniard by one stroke. He took the lead for good with a birdie on the 12th hole, where he hit his approach shot from 149 yards to within two feet. Scott has finished in the top 10 only seven times in the last year, including four in a row during the FedExCup playoffs late last season, and a tie for ninth earlier this month in the Singapore Open. In his first event on the PGA Tour this season, he posted a tie for 11th last week in the Genesis Open.
  1. Rickie Fowler, United States — Even though he grew up in California, Fowler skipped the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Open after he tied for fourth in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, finishing two strokes behind winner Hideki Matsuyama of Japan after he closed with a 65. He has played three times in the 2016-17 season, also tying for sixth in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China during the early portion of the schedule before he missed the cut in the Farmers Insurance Open in his first event of the new year on the PGA Tour. Fowler will tee it up in the Honda Classic for the eighth time, and last year he posted his best result at PGA National when he took the lead by starting with 66-66, but played the weekend in 74-71 and slid to a tie for sixth. His only other top-10 result on the Champion Course was a tie for seventh in 2012, when he finished with 67-66.
  1. Justin Thomas, United States — Having cooled off a bit after sweeping through Hawaii with victories on consecutive weeks in the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Hawaii, Thomas will try to get back on track this week when he makes his third start in the Honda Classic. The 23-year old missed the cut in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and tied for 39th in the Genesis Open in his last two starts, but with three victories and five top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour this season, he is second in the FedExCup rankings and has risen to No. 8 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Thomas shot 71-76 — 147 to miss the cut by three strokes in his first appearance at PGA National two years ago, but took a liking to the Champion Course last year by posting four scores in the 60s on his way to a tie for third, four strokes behind winner Adam Scott.
  1. Russell Knox, Scotland — The Scot, who has claimed his first two victories on the PGA Tour in the last two years, has quietly gotten off to another good start this season and don’t be surprised to see him on the leaderboard again this week in the Honda Classic. Knox was in the hunt at PGA National in 2014 and 2015 before slipping last year to a tie for 26th. Three years ago, he jumped into contention by shooting 63-68 in the middle rounds and closed with a 71 before losing when Russell Henley took the title with a birdie on the first playoff hole. The following year, he was in the top 10 all the way to the finish, shooting 68 in the final round to tie for third, one shot out of the playoff in which Padraig Harrington of Ireland beat Daniel Berger. Knox has three top-10 results and five in the top 25 this season, and ranks 16th in the FedEx Cup standings.
  1. Thomas Pieters, Belgium — By tying for second in the Genesis Open last week, closing with an 8-under-par 63 at Riviera, Pieters earned the equivalent of nearly half the FedExCup points he needs to wrap up special temporary membership on the PGA Tour. That would virtually ensure his playing privileges on the circuit for 2018, although he said he will also continue playing the European Tour, on which he has claimed three victories in the last two years. The 25-year-old Pieters posted a 3-1 record including a singles victory over J.B. Holmes as a Captain’s Pick in the Ryder Cup last year at Hazeltine and also finished fourth in the Olympics. He will make his first start in the Honda Classic this week. Pieters started the year by missing the cut in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and tying for 23rd in the Dubai Desert Classic, and says he plays to play in the U.S. until May before returning to the Euro Tour.
  1. Brandan Steele, United States — With three finishes in the top 10 this season, including his second PGA Tour victory in the Safeway Open, Steele enters the Honda Classic at No. 5 in the FedExCup standings. He is playing at PGA National for the seventh consecutive year and after failing to crack the top 30 in his first four attempts, he finally started to get the hang of the Champion Course the last two years. Steele opened with 66-69 two years ago and was near the lead but cooled a bit to 71-72 and tied for 11th. Last year, he shot 68 in the second and last rounds to wind up in a tie for 14th. After starting this year with four consecutive finishes in the top 20, including ties for sixth in the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Hawaii, he will be looking to bounce back after tying for 39th last week in the Genesis Open.
  1. Luke Donald, England — It’s been a long road for the former No. 1 player in the world, and he’s not all the way back yet, but Donald posted solid finishes with a tie for 23rd in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and a tie for 17th in the Genesis Open in the last two stops on the West Coast Swing. He seemed very close last year when he tied for second in the RBC Heritage and finished solo second in the Wyndham Championship. This will be Donald’s 10th appearance in the Honda Classic, and he claimed one of his five PGA Tour titles in 2006 at Mirasol a year before the event moved to PGA National, finishing 67-68-69 to beat Geoff Ogilvy by two strokes. Two years later, he opened with 66 and held the lead after a third-round 66, but close with a 71 and finished one stroke behind winner Ernie Els, before tying for eighth in 2014 and tying for seventh a year later.
  1. Daniel Berger, United States — The 2015 Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour is coming off a tie for seventh in the Waste Management Phoenix Open in his last start and he also tied for second in the WGC-HSBC Champions early in the wrap-around season, so he arrives in Florida at No. 15 in the FedEx Cup point standings. Berger, who claimed his first PGA Tour victory last year in the FedEx St. Jude Classic, will tee it up this week for the third time in the Honda Classic and he came close to winning the tournament two years ago. He closed with a 6-under-par 64 to chase down Padraig Harrington, but lost out on the second hole of a playoff when he hit into the water to make a double bogey while the Irishman won with a par. Then Berger shot 73-72 — 145 to miss the cut by two strokes last year at PGA National.
  1. Padraig Harrington, Ireland — The 45-year-old Harrington, a three-time major champion, has been wildly inconsistent in recent years, but showed he has something left when he captured the Portugal Masters late last year for his 31st pro victory. He missed the cut in his first three events this season on the PGA Tour before tying 39th last week in the Genesis Open after opening with a 4-under-par 67. Paddy claimed two of his six PGA Tour victories in the Honda Classic, both in playoffs, and is playing in the tournament for the ninth time. In 2005, Harrington closed with a 9-under-par 63, then beat Vijay Singh and Joe Ogilvie with a par on the second extra hole. Two years ago, he came from four shots behind on the back nine, forcing a playoff with Daniel Berger by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the last hole of a 70 and winning with a par on the second extra hole when Berger hit into the water.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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