By TOM LaMARRE
After Jon Rahm of Spain capped an exciting West Coast Swing by winning the Genesis Invitational to regain the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings, the PGA Tour has headed to Florida for a four-week run.
That begins with the 51st Honda Classic starting Thursday on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where Sepp Straka of Austria is the defending champion.
Straka and other winners of the Honda at the Champion Course had to first survive the “The Bear Trap,” the famed and difficult three-hole stretch that includes the 179-yard par-3 15th hole; the 434-yard par-4 16th and the 175-yard par-3 17th, which were designed of course by the great Jack Nicklaus, “The Golden Bear.”
After the Honda, the Florida Swing continues with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, The Players Championship that is the so-called “Fifth Major” on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, and the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor.
Following the WGC-Dell Technologies at Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas, and the Valero Texas Open on the Oaks Course at San Antonio, Texas, will come the first major of the season—the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.
Sungjae Im (pictured) of South Korea, the 2018-19 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, is the favorite this week at PGA National after he won the Honda Classic two years ago by closing with 66 to beat Mackenzie Hughes of Canada by one stroke.
Then he tied for eighth last season in his title defense.
“Even after winning Rookie of the Year and having a few chances to win, I really wanted to get that win,” Im recalled of breaking through with his first PGA Tour victory at the age of 21. “I had a few good chances that slipped away, but I’m also still very grateful that I could win at such a young age, and to have it happen as fast as it did, I’m very happy and satisfied.
“I personally like the challenges on the PGA Tour, especially for the Florida Swing. The greens are firm. There’s a lot of water. I know all the players will be struggling, including myself, but I try to have fun playing through the challenges. I tend to play well overall when the courses are more challenging.
“I absolutely agree with all the people saying this is one of the toughest courses. It tends to get really windy here, and even without winds the greens are always firm, and off the tee box there’s so much water everywhere that it just gives a lot of pressure before you hit every shot. Yeah, talking about this course, it’s very difficult, yes.”
Other than Im and Straka, the only other former winner of The Honda Classic in the field is 44-year-old Matt Kuchar, who made this event the first of his nine PGA Tour victories way back in 2002.
The only players in the field in the top 20 of the World Golf Rankings are Im (No. 18), Billy Horschel (No. 19) and Shane Lowry of Ireland (No. 20).
1. Sungjae Im, South Korea – Not only has Im played well early this season, he claimed the first of two PGA Tour victories in the 2020 Honda, adding the Shriners Children’s Open in 2021. He finished solo seventh in his Shriners defense, tied for eighth in the Hero World Challenge, tied for fourth in the Farmers and tied for sixth at Phoenix. Tied for eighth in his Honda title defense.
2. Matt Kuchar, United States – The nine-time PGA Tour winner seems to be playing back to his old form this season, with a tie for 12th in the Fortinet, a tie for third in the QBE Shootout, a tie for seventh in the Sony Open and solo eighth last week in the Genesis. One of those nine wins came in the 2002 Honda, but he hasn’t played in the tournament since he tied for 17th in 2011.
3. Shane Lowry, Ireland – The 2019 Open champion at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland has played only four times on the U.S. this season, tying for 23rd in the CJ Cup, finishing 18th in the Hero World Challenge and tying for 14th in the Genesis last week. Lowry is making his sixth start in the Honda and last year he closed with 67-67-67, and was solo second to Sepp Straka.
4. Sepp Straka, Austria – Claimed his second pro victory, the other coming in the 2018 KC Golf Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour, last season in the Honda when he shot 64 in round two and held off Shane Lowry with a closing 66. Straka almost won again this season but lost in a playoff to Mackenzie Hughes at Sanderson Farms. Also tied for eighth in QBE, tied for 10th in the Hero.
5. Denny McCarthy, United States – A four-time winner as a pro, including the 2018 Web.com (now Korn Ferry) Tour Championship, McCarthy shot 64 in round three last week to tie for 14th in the Genesis after a tie for fourth at Pebble Beach, a tie for fifth in the QBE and a tie for sixth in Bermuda. His best result in five starts in the Honda Classic was a tie for third two years ago.
6. Adam Svensson, Canada – Claimed his first victory on the PGA Tour earlier this season in the RSM Classic after also winning three times on the Korn Ferry Tour in the last few seasons. Svensson also tied for 12th in the Fortinet early this season and is coming off a tie for ninth in the Genesis last week. Has played the Honda Classic only twice and tied for ninth last season.
7. Billy Horschel, United States – The 2014 FedEx Cup champion, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, tied for seventh in the CJ Cup in South Carolina, tied for 10th in the QBE Shootout and tied for 13th in the Hero World Challenge this season. Horschel has played in the Honda 10 times and his best finishes were a tie for fourth in 2017 and a tie for eighth the year before.
8. Chris Kirk, United States – The four-time winner on the PGA Tour who has seven titles as a pro came close twice again this season when he finished solo third at the Sony Open in Hawaii and tied for third in The American Express with eight straight rounds in the 60s in back-to-back events. Kirk’s best finish in 11 starts in the Honda was a tie for seventh last year, starting 65-68.
9. Cam Davis, Australia – The Aussie turned 28 earlier this week and would like to celebrate with a good showing in the Honda Classic, which he is playing for the very first time. Davis claimed his first PGA Tour victory and fourth as a pro by winning the 2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic on the fifth playoff hole. His best result this season was a tie for 13th in the CJ Cup.
10. Danny Willett, England – The 2016 Masters champion, who has eight victories as a pro, nearly added another one early this season when he finished second in the Fortinet Championship after Max Homa chipped in to beat him. Willett is coming off a tie for 18th in the Genesis Invitational and playing in the Honda for the third time, having tied for 47th last year.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Aaron Wise, United States; Luke Donald, England; Harris English, United States; Taylor Pendrith, Canada; Byeong Hun An, South Korea; Alex Noren, Sweden; J.T. Poston, United States; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela; Ryan Palmer, United States; Min Woo Lee, South Korea; Webb Simpson, United States.
1. Lee Hodges, United States – Claimed only pro victory in the 2020 Portland Open on the PGA Tour and this season was T-7 in CJ Cup, T-18 last week in Genesis. T-9 in Honda debut last year.
2. Aaron Rai, England – Six-time winner as a pro finished T-7 in Houston, T-20 in Shriners, T-29 in Genesis last week by closing with 69-68. T-66 in Honda debut last year after opening 67.
3. Adrian Meronk, Germany – Three-time winner in Europe captured the Australian Open in December, T-4 in Khaimah Championship and T-10 in Abu Dhabi this season. Honda debut.
4. Peter Malnati, United States – Winner of 2015 Sanderson Farms and five other pro titles is coming off T-4 at Pebble Beach and T-20 last week in Genesis. T-36 in 2019 was best in Honda.
5. Carl Yuan, China – Two-time winner as a professional on lower tours was T-21 at Sony Open in Hawaii, T-35 in Houston Open this season. Yuan is making his debut in the Honda Classic.
For first-round tee times, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard