By Tom LaMarre
After starting the year in Hawaii and on the West Coast, the PGA Tour kicks off the Florida Swing on Thursday with the Honda Classic on the Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
It’s not like in years gone by, when Greg Norman claimed: “The PGA Tour season doesn’t start until Doral,” when an event at the Miami resort was the first event of the season in Florida.
That’s because the first part of the schedule now has two World Golf Championships, the Sentry Tournament of Champions and several other top-flight tournaments before the swing through the Sunshine State begins.
The Honda starts a four-week run through Florida, the third of which is the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in three weeks, which kicks off the lead-up to the Masters at Augusta National in April and a summer of major and top-flight tournaments.
The PGA Championship will be played at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco in May, followed by the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in June, the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in July, the Olympic Games in Tokyo in late July and early August, and the FedEx Cup Playoffs capped by the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta in August.
For some players like top-ranked Rory McIlroy, second-ranked Jon Rahm, fourth-ranked Justin Thomas, fifth-ranked Dustin Johnson and 10th-ranked Tiger Woods, preparation for the Masters is a little time off and they will not be playing at PGA National.
However, defending champion Keith Mitchell will tee it up along with the likes of second-ranked Brooks Koepka, Englishmen Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood, reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, Open champion Shane Lowry of Ireland and former Honda champions Rickie Fowler (2017), Russell Henley (2014) and Rory Sabbatini of Slovakia (2011).
There are six of the top-20 players in the World Golf Rankings in the Honda field.
“We’ve doubled the top 20s in the field,” said Honda executive director Ken Kennerly, who knows the tournament falls in a tough spot a week after the WGC-Mexico Championship and with all those other big events on the horizon. “The field is stronger this year. The schedule is the schedule, that’s always going to be the issue for us.
“Schedules dictate where these guys play. The good news from our perspective is every player I’ve talked to loves the Honda Classic, loves PGA National and the only reason why they chose to skip it is they’re lining themselves up for the Masters, they’re lining themselves up for The Players Championship and they’re coming off the (Genesis) Invitational and Mexico.”
However, the Honda winner can use it as a stepping-stone toward Sawgrass and Augusta.
- Rickie Fowler, United States – Fresh after two weeks off, Fowler is coming to one of his favorite events on the PGA Tour, having played it each of the last 10 years. He won the Honda Classic by four strokes three years ago, tied for second last year and has two other top-10 finishes. Tied for fifth in Sentry TOC and tied for 10th in AmEx this year.
- Brooks Koepka, United States – Down to No. 3 in the world after being on top for 38 weeks, Koepka can make his move back toward the top without Nos. 1-2 Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm taking this week off. Posted his best finish in the Honda with a tie for second last year. Coming back from knee surgery, he tied for 43rd in the Genesis.
- Gary Woodland, United States – The reigning U.S. Open champion was in the hunt last week in the WGC-Mexico Championship before fading to a tie for 12th with a closing 71, missing his fourth top-10 finish of the season. Woodland is making his eighth start in the Honda Classic and tied for second in 2017 in addition to tying for sixth 2011.
- Tommy Fleetwood, England – Tied for 18th in the WGC-Mexico Championship last week, worst finish in his last five starts, including a victory on the 2019 Nedbank Challenge and runner-up finishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the Euro Tour. Was fourth in the Honda Classic debut in 2018, eight pro victories still seeks first on the PGA Tour.
- Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa – Winner of the 2010 Open Championship posted five straight results in the top 25 in recent months, including second in the South African Open, third in WGC-HSBC, fifth in Abu Dhabi and a tie for sixth in the Nedbank Challenge. Oosthuzien tied for 21st in 2017 Honda before tying for 24th the next year.
- Justin Rose, England – Playing in the Honda Classic for the 10th time, but the first since 2015, Rose was third in 2010, tied for fifth in 2012 and tied for fourth the next year. Rose took two months off after a tie for 20th in the World Tour Championship-Dubai, then missed the cut in Farmers, tied for 56th in Genesis Invitational and must get rolling.
- Billy Horschel, United States – The Florida Gator comes home for the Honda Classic after ties for ninth in Phoenix and WGC-Mexico Championship, giving him four top-10 finishes in the 2019-20 season. Horschel is making his ninth start in the Honda, having tied for fourth in 2017, tied for eighth the year before that and tied for 16th last year.
- Erik van Rooyen, South Africa – Having bought a home in the United States hoping to make it on the PGA Tour, Van Rooyen showed he has what it takes by tying for third last week in the WGC-Mexico, shooting 62 in the second round. Shot 64 in final round and birdied the last hole for his first Euro Tour win in the 2019 Scandinavian Invitation.
- Russell Henley, United States – Claimed one of three PGA Tour victories in a playoff against Rory McIlroy, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer in the 2014 Honda, and has three other top-25s in the event, including a tie for 20th last year. Finished in a tie for 17th in the Genesis Invitational in his last start, falling out of the top 10 by closing with a 75.
- Rory Sabbatini, Slovakia – The last of Sabbatini’s six PGA Tour victories came in the 2011 Honda Classic and he has four other top-20 finishes in the tournament. Had a strong bounce-back season in 2018-19 with six finishes in the top 10, including two thirds, but is looking to improve on his best this season, a tie for 21st in the Sony Open.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Shane Lowry, Ireland; Keith Mitchell, United States; Matthew Wolff, United States; Russell Knox, Scotland; Brendan Steele, United States; Corey Conners, Canada; Keegan Bradley, United States; Dylan Frittelli, South Africa; Jason Dufner, United States; Daniel Berger, United States.
- Viktor Hovland, Norway – Maybe not such a sleeper after the 2018 U.S. Amateur champ won the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open last week. Also was T-10 at Greenbrier.
- Maverick McNealy, United States – Former Stanford star tied for fifth at Pebble Beach, was T-15 in the Farmers and T-27 in the Puerto Rico Open in last three starts.
- Xinjun Zhang, China – Two-time winner on 2019 Korn Ferry Tour finished T-4 in Houston, was T-7 in Safeway Open and T-14 14th in Puerto Rico Open this season.
- Matthew NeSmith, United States – After winning 2019 Boise Open on Korn Ferry Tour, NeSmith this year was T-6 in Puerto Rico, T-11 at Pebble and T-17 in the AmEx.
- Sam Ryder, United States – After three victories on lower tours, Ryder posted a T-3 last week in Puerto Rico, after a T-18 in the Shriners and a T-28 in Sony Open in Hawaii.
For first-round tee times, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html